On 29 May the Things seminar heard from John McAleer and James Davey, both of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Their insights into ships showed how these massive eighteenth century things offer a window onto Britain in that century, but also how current perceptions of them as historical objects, and the way history is interpreted by investigating them, has changed with the times.
John McAleer presented ships as agents of economic and social change, of Imperial development, and as self-contained communities. From about the 1980s, it was clear – at least from a curator’s perspective – that the reality of Britain’s evolving relationship with the seas was affecting the way people used ships to consider the past, and especially the Imperial experience. Images of the vessel Brooks, a slaver, were used by abolitionists in their cause, and continue to be of great interest to museum visitors hoping to gain an understanding of the commercial aspects of Britain’s eighteenth century Imperialism. Everything that was British and was present in India was transported there by ships, which can be studied to tease out understandings of Britain’s Imperial interactions with the East, for example by exploring the relationships between local shipbuilders such as the Wadia, European merchants, and the East India Company. The Pacific Ocean and the famous vessel Bounty offer different insights: The shipboard mutiny is famous, but the fact that the best space on board was given over to breadfruit may have been an important agitating factor among members of the ship’s compact floating community.
James Davey focussed on naval ship launches, spectacles of ‘naval theatre’ which developed from being relatively exclusive events to become, by the 1790s, carefully stage-managed mass entertainments, infused with patriotism and Imperial power. The vessels launched were the largest, most expensive, and in some ways the most important objects of Britain’s eighteenth century experience. As propaganda occasions, launches highlighted several key messages: the place of the navy in national expenditure at a time of increasing accountability; the technological achievements made by the nation, the adventure and danger that characterised the Imperial project, as well as its commercial nature. Triumphalist by design, ship launches can reveal much to the historian about eighteenth century life and values.