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Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 304-306

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Ships, Oceans and Empire: Studies in European Maritime and Colonial History, 1400-1750. By G.V.Scammell. Brookfield, Vt.: Variorum, 1995. Pp. vii + 278. $80.95.

Making book chapters and journal articles by recognized scholars more accessible is the basic objective of the Variorum Collected Studies Series. A selected collection of writings by each author is usually republished with minimal corrections and with the original pagination. Previous volumes in this series which have proven valuable to students of European colonial expansion in the early modern era include collections of writings by Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Ashin das Gupta, Om Prakash, Peter Marshall, Genevieve Bouchon, C.R.Boxer (four volumes), Anthony Pagden, J.S.Cummins, and [End Page 304] John F. Richards. Ships, Oceans and Empire, devoted to the work of G.V.Scammell, matches these collections both in scholarship and in readability.

The collection of Scammell's work gives us a glimpse of the evolution of his own research interests during the last three decades. The first four essays represent his early research on English merchant shipping at the end of the Middle Ages. In the first of these, originally published in 1961, Scammell uses evidence from the smaller ports of the east coast to argue convincingly that previously held assumptions about a continuous shipping boom under the early Tudors were based on shipping figures for London. Examining data from other ports on the east coast of England, he shows that "growth was by no means constant or universal" and that shipping in some ports actually declined. Nevertheless, his analysis indicates that merchant shipping in mid-fifteenth-century England "was in a healthy condition." The second article is a well-documented analysis of conditions in the English merchant service in the sixteenth century. Scammell describes the duties of the various ranks on board and the rewards they gained, and discusses the merchant service as a path of upward mobility. In the third essay, Scammell reminds us about the widespread nature of English shipowning in the sixteenth century. He argues that "the interest of a powerful shipowning faction became the policy of the country." In the analysis of the "handling and working" of sixteenth-century English ships that follows, the author makes the point that "the skill of a Columbus or a Drake could save crews where others could lose them."

Two of the later essays in the collection, including a short piece on Richard Hakluyt and the economic thought of his time and one on the manning and provisioning of English fighting ships, testify to Scammell's continuing interest in English economic history. The other eight articles illustrate his growing interest in European expansion, which makes this collection of great value to those interested in world history. Three of them concentrate on the New World. One deals with English trade with the Atlantic Islands: the Canaries, the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, Madeira, and São Tomé. In the other two, Scammell marshals a great deal of data to support his contention that colonialism led to an increase of intolerance, racism, and absolutism in early modern Europe. He shows, for instance, that as late as 1691 slaves entering metropolitan France were deemed to be free, but that "once the importance of slave-based West Indian colonies in the French economy was clear, the importation of slaves into the mother [End Page 305] country was legalized (1761)." Scammell rightly cautions us about exaggerating the impact of the colonial experience on Europe but asserts that "colonization, like a catalyst, reveals the essential dominant qualities of the parent society."

In four essays on the Europeans in Asia, Scammell deftly uses his command of Portuguese sources to investigate European shipowning in Asia, the role of indigenous collaborators in Portuguese Asia, and the activities of European exiles, renegades, and outlaws. In each case the narrative is well constructed, and the conclusions are sound. Scammell's article on ships owned by Europeans reminds us that these ships were mostly built in...


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