Stewart Gordon, South Asia Center, University of Michigan
It is with pleasure that I announce the publication of “A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks” by University Press of New England in their ForeEdge series (ISBN: 978-1-61168-540-4). The introduction, table of contents and two chapters are available at my website stewartgordonhistorian.com
Each chapter features a single historical shipwreck. Some chapters are based on underwater archaeological expeditions. Others rely on primary ship construction documents, official accounts of the loss, personal letters and memoirs. A few wrecks have been raised and reside in museums and some of those have been replicated and sailed to the ends of the earth. The featured wrecks date from thousands of years before the Common Era to the Costa Concordia disaster of a couple of years ago. The geographical spread is wide, including Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
The early chapters of the book feature ships that belong to different worlds. Scandinavian ships did not look like ships from England or the Mediterranean. Ships of the Indian Ocean did not look like ships of Polynesia. Trade, intellectual and religious exchange and warfare was mainly within each world, but –slowly, slowly – more and more trade and exchange developed at the margins.
Later chapters trace the increasing contact between and interpenetration of these worlds, a long-term globalization. For example, Northern European ships incorporated features of Mediterranean ships in the fifteenth century. Later, wars fought on one continent produced naval engagements on oceans thousands of miles away. Religions, customs and commodities moved along the sea-lanes. By the end of the twentieth century, ships and what they carried became truly global. It is now impossible to tell which country’s shipyard built a cruise liner or a container ship.
Throughout I have sought to place the shipwrecks in larger contexts, for example the network of newspapers reporting a steamboat disaster on the Ohio River in the 1830’s or the larger geopolitical and military issues of Kublai Khan’s invasion of Japan. For the more modern ships, I chose wrecks that were both well documented and highlighted specific problems of our globalized world, such as the necessity of moving oil in vast quantities, the medical problems of easily-spread viruses on internationalized cruise ships and the need for a law of the sea.
The overall arc of “A History of the World Sixteen Shipwrecks” explores the slow, sometimes halting process of the globalization of various maritime worlds. This very human process consisted of both courageous exploration with its costs and gradual shifts in cognitive geography. Terrible monster-filled oceans became familiar, if still dangerous. Unknown seas became sea-lanes. The focus of the book is on what moved, how it moved, and why it was worth moving and considers basic commodities, luxury trade goods, ideas, armies, political ambassadors, plants, pilgrims, pirates, and religious objects in the gradual integration of maritime worlds.