Why study shipwrecks?

This is what my advisor asked me when I told her I wanted to write a dissertation about shipwrecks. Coming from a program in maritime history and underwater archaeology, I was surprised by the question–it seemed like an obvious research topic. Her question, however, was my introduction to a graduate program filled with historians (and historians-to-be) who were skeptical of the relevance of shipwrecks, the shore, and (sometimes I think) even the sea itself. I’ve been on the defensive ever since!

So why study shipwrecks? For three reasons: (1) they’re really, really interesting/not boring (2) they actually impacted the past (3) they give us a fresh perspective on history. [The necessary academic caveat: this is my opinion as someone who has dabbled in underwater archaeology and is writing a dissertation for a history department. There are many other reasons to study shipwrecks–ask archaeologists, literary scholars, &c., &c.–these three are why I study them.]

(1) Watch this recent video from the wrecked container ship MV Wisdom near Mumbai, India, and it is hard to say shipwrecks are not fascinating to most people. No matter how hard I or anyone else try to academicize shipwrecks, they will remain interesting, horrifying, or humbling events. And while popular interest may be relatively recent [see Alain Corbin’s thought-provoking The Lure of the Sea on the post-Enlightenment emergence of a shipwreck aesthetic], it remains undeniable. Google ‘shipwreck’ or poke around on WordPress and such for a bit. Shipwrecks are everywhere! That, in my eyes, is a good thing. I’m working in a profession that continually bemoans its declining public presence. This is unfortunate because historians provide insights into how our world came to be. And it suggests answers to that perennial question: “Why do people do what they do?” [Many thanks to Joel A. Cohen, Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island.] I figure if historians picked more interesting or relevant research subjects more people would listen to what they have to say. So it is that I study shipwrecks. (More selfishly: dissertations take a long time and I wanted a topic I that would keep my interest.]

(2) Shipwrecks are not just identities, narratives, cultural/social/political capital, &c., &c. (although they are relevant to every one of them). Shipwrecks literally did/do things—think about Exxon Valdez and environmental devastation or the Titanic and the establishment of groundbreaking safety regulations. [note: look for a “How do shipwrecks do things?” post in the near future.] Of course, many shipwrecks were terrible human tragedies with all that entails. Even today, shipwrecks are all-too-often reminders of just how uncontrollable, unpredictable, and deadly ships and the sea can be. Simply put, shipwrecks tangibly affected the past, and they did so in many different ways (including public policy, community–human and ‘natural’–make-up, and cultural identity, to name a few). And while people turned shipwrecks into stories that helped define/create/articulate identities, landscapes, and even cultures, shipwrecks were never relegated to the ether of ideas. I didn’t want to chase smoke with my dissertation and shipwrecks are anything but that.

(3) Finally, I study shipwrecks because they help us see history in a fresh light. On the most basic level, focusing on shipwrecks provides a unique lens with which to see the past because it highlights connections between people, places, ideas and events that might be otherwise obscured. Even more, while every shipwreck is interesting in its own right (I mean, it’s a shipwreck!), historians, archaeologists, and literary scholars (among others) study them to answer questions that are larger than any single shipwreck event. I study shipwrecks to answer broader historical questions. Questions like: How did a barren strip of inhospitable frontier on the eastern fringe of a westward-moving nation [e.g. the early nineteenth-century coast], become one of the preeminent places for Americans to play, talk about, read about and, increasingly, live near? And what role have everyday disasters like shipwrecks played in the development of  American culture and society? My one-sentence (still evolving) dissertation “pitch” runs something like this: “My research examines shipwrecks as both physical objects and cultural narratives in order to understand how everyday disasters shaped the American experience.”

I hope that makes a compelling enough case for justifying why I’m studying shipwrecks–they’re not boring, they actually existed and did actual stuff, and they tell a  history different from the one we usually hear. I realize that is a lot of ‘work’ for shipwrecks to shoulder. So what exactly am I studying; what do I mean by “shipwrecks?” Next post topic: “What is a shipwreck?”

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One response to “Why study shipwrecks?

  1. Pingback: What is a shipwreck? | Ships on the Shore

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