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Re-envisioning Maritime History as Environmental History

Thu, April 11, 1:30 to 3:00pm, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Marion

Session Submission Type: Panel

Abstract

The ocean has a history that is surprisingly hard to trace. But it is not an ahistorical abyss completely beyond recovery either. Over the past decade or more, marine environmental scholars have wrestled with the challenges and opportunities of telling the history of the sea, with most studies focusing on fisheries in a more or less declensionist fashion. With this first wave of fisheries scholarship now dominating marine environmental history, the time is right to find new ways of historicizing the ocean. One path forward involves a reappraisal of one of the most overlooked subfields of the discipline: maritime history.
Maritime history is full of harrowing sea battles and famous explorers that often seem disconnected from the rest of environmental history—that is, terrestrial history. However, it is rife with forests, fauna, water, conservation policies, and other topics and themes that interest environmental historians. Traditional maritime archival and other sources await mining and reinterpretation, and maritime history can contribute a framework for understanding work, technologies, and cultures associated with the sea. This panel aims to make modest steps in these directions by emphasizing the environmental history of seafaring and shipbuilding in the early modern era. Our papers explore currents, sea life, coasts, and even forests. Starting with the deep blue waters of the western Atlantic, and then moving into the littoral Caribbean and its forests, we examine how sailors and shipwrights thought about, managed, and adapted to nature as they tried to attain mastery over the sea. History does not stop at the shoreline, and neither should the field of environmental history, which is well poised not only to tell ocean history but to link the ocean environment to the terrestrial.

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