History 106SL, Explorations at Sea

If it is a dark and dreary Durham in your soul, it may be that your seafaring side has been starved, that you long for the ocean. And if so, a vessel awaits you-- History 106S: "Explorations at Sea." Professor Janet Ewald has offered the "intellectual voyage" twice to date.

We tend to associate communities with the land they occupy. Equally important is how they came to be there. Ships were not only a means for transporting people; they were also a microcosm of communities, a shared space with a system of government, people of various ranks and roles and identities, and one collective goal: getting there. Ships expanded empires and caused them to fall. And they are as useful as they are interesting: They are at once objects, conveyers of culture, and instruments of change, all conveniently in one package--perfect for learning about the past and the craft of recording it.

The course is divided into three main parts: Students will explore some of the genres of historical writing about ships, examine some of the primary sources for maritime history-- including narratives written by sailors, the wood and metal remains of vessels, and representations of ships in art--and immerse themselves in one particular voyage. "Here," Ewald says, "we will follow an uncharted course. Appreciating the appeal of ships on our creativity, we will reconstruct an imaginary ship and its career. The seminar 'crew' will build, christen, and launch our ship--following, of course, the historical dictates of time and place."


Janet Ewald's curiosity is the sort that latches onto something and follows it everywhere. She didn't intend to study the sea, but there it was, right next to Africa, her specialty. The Africans traveled across it, and so did she. First, she was swept down the Nile. She published a book called Soldiers, Traders, and Slaves about how people in a dangerous frontier zone responded to predatory empires, capitalism, slave raiding, and militant Islam. Then she followed the path of the slaves from the Nile valley across the Indian Ocean. The result is her current project, "Crossers of the Sea: Port and Maritime Labor in the Northwestern Indian Ocean, 1500-1914."


Participation in discussions is key. Each student chooses one of seven course topics, writes a short interpretive essay (five to seven pages) about the sources, and submits a bibliography of additional sources. The final paper (about twenty pages) should explore some aspect of the imaginary-but-plausible ship.


Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power on History

Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

James Bolster, Black Jacks

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