The Age of Discovery, and: The Eighteenth Century and the Classic Age of Sail
The essays in the two volumes of Maritime History, edited by John Hattendorf, were selected from lectures delivered at the John Brown Carter Library’s summer institutes held in 1992 and 1993. The first volume [End Page 457] comprises seventeen chapters, covering the end of the medieval period and the beginnings of the Renaissance through the seventeenth century. The volume includes chapters on navigation and ships in the late Middle Ages, Portuguese expansion, and Spanish, French, and English maritime exploration. Each chapter is written by a noted specialist, including Felipe Fernandez-Armesto and Carola Rahn Phillips (Spain), Richard W. Unger (medieval period), and George Winius and Charles Verlinden (Portugal), among others.
The second volume contains twenty-four chapters. It includes sections on the Pacific, the science and practice of navigation, and the maritime aspects of the wars of the eighteenth century, and a miscellany of essays covering the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. It includes chapters on technology in this period, which led to the introduction of steam, the naval side of the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, and a final chapter on literature of the sea. As with volume 1, the contributing authors are luminaries in their fields.
As is true of most published compendiums incorporating essays originally delivered orally as papers, there is unevenness in their quality and content. Some of the essays are very general, some quite specialized. For example, you have chapters entitled “Spanish Atlantic Voyages and Conquests before Columbus” (vol. 1), and “American Colonial Commerce” and “The Exercise of Sea Power and Its Challenges” (vol. 2). Then you have chapters entitled “Ships of the Late Middle Ages” (vol. 1) and “The Application of Navigational Hydrographical Knowledge, 1740–1815” (vol. 2).
Hattendorf’s objective in publishing these essays was to provide texts that would be useful for high-school and college-level work on the maritime history of this era. At the same time they were to provide a helpful introduction to maritime history of the period. He notes in his introduction, “As a theme in general history, maritime history is not separate from other aspects of historical study. Nevertheless, it involves a wide range of specialized learning and knowledge that justifies the identification of maritime history as one of the many legitimate fields of historical research and writing.” His point is well taken. Maritime history is an essential ingredient to understanding history, though it is often overlooked or given superficial attention in classrooms, in part because it is a specialized field. Recognizing the importance of maritime history is an educational objective.
These volumes are a worthy attempt to do exactly that. The question is how successful they will be. Unfortunately, they will probably not be very successful. It is more than likely that the overwhelming [End Page 458] number of historians who examine these volumes will be maritime historians and specialists in various periods that the different essays touch on. In other words, these volumes will primarily reach an audience that already generally agrees on the importance of maritime history and the need to integrate it with history in general. Also these volumes do not cover the whole spectrum of maritime history, but only the period from the Middle Ages to the origin of steam navigation early in the nineteenth century. There are enormous gaps on both ends, which also need to be addressed. As potential classroom texts, these volumes more than likely will have a most limited use (even in paperback editions). One volume covering the maritime history of the world, although a daunting proposition, would be a most significant contribution.
These volumes have no bibliography, but some of the chapters include notes and most sections have “Suggestions for Further Reading.”