A Life on the Ocean Wave: This Week in Maritime History

by Dr Richard Blakemore

The Golden Hind 'when Drake set off for the Spanish Main', PW7916

The Golden Hinde, Francis Drake’s ship in his 1577 circumnavigation, depicted in a later watercolour. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Early modern maritime history has been in the news a lot this week.

On Monday, the BBC ran a story about the London, a seventeenth-century wreck in the Thames. On Tuesday, the Guardian revealed a new (and shocking) discovery from the manuscript autobiography of a sailor. On Wednesday, there was news of the possible discovery of the Endeavour, Captain Cook’s exploring ship, although this is not confirmed; and, of course, it was ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’. Last night, a new show started on Channel 5, Great British Ships, which will feature the sixteenth-century Mary Rose and Golden Hinde, and the HMS Victory, among others.

Several of these stories are related to the launch of a suite of new galleries at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, which opened on Thursday. I was lucky enough to consult for one of these, ‘Tudor and Stuart Seafarers’, because my research focuses on the lives of sailors during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I also wrote a chapter on ‘life at sea’ for the accompanying book.


One of the many illustrated pages in Barlow’s journal. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

One of the key objects on display in this new gallery, and which is also an important source for my work, is Edward Barlow’s journal, recording his life at sea between 1659 and 1703. It is a lively and (often literally) colourful account, and it gives a wonderfully rich description of what seafarers like him experienced during a period of political change and imperial expansion. As Miles Ogborn has written, Barlow (and others) lived a ‘global life’ – Barlow travelled to Europe and the Mediterranean, to the Caribbean, and several times to India and China. Yet the journal also throws light on his relationships at home, and how important they were to him.

While a great source, Barlow is also a troubling figure: he displays many of the common prejudices of his time against foreigners – whether European or Asian – and (as described in the Guardian article mentioned earlier) it is now clear that he raped his wife before they married. It is important that we do not romanticise people from the past, as sailors have been with the idea of ‘Jolly Jack Tar’, but seek a more realistic and balanced view, and confront the difficult dimensions of past societies that we encounter.

It was a real pleasure to be involved in developing this new gallery, and a privilege to attend the launch event on Wednesday night. I can remember visiting the museum as a child, so it is quite something to have contributed, even in a small way, to its exhibitions. The gallery certainly lives up to my high expectations, and it offers a great opportunity to see many of the unique objects in the museum’s collection, including Barlow’s journal, which illuminate this fascinating period. If you are interested in early modern Britain or maritime history, you really should go!

Dr Blakemore hosted an Ask Me About session on Reddit’s AskHistorians, discussing his research on sailors, piracy, and empire, on Tuesday night. You can find it here.

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