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Franklin's Faves

Tracy Picks a Franklin’s Fave: A World at Sea

Today’s post comes from Penn Press’s Direct Mail and Advertising Manager, Tracy Kellmer, continuing a blog series in which Tracy will explore one of the books currently for 75% off in the Franklin’s Faves section of our website!

One of the perks of working at a university press, and especially Penn Press, is that I am exposed to excellent scholarly treatments of a wide variety of subjects. As a member of the Marketing department, I get to know a bit about every book we publish through my engagement with its metadata, such as keywords and subject codes, and its descriptive copy, which appears in everything from seasonal catalogs to online retail sites (we know the one you’re thinking of). But a marketer has short-lived romances with books on the front list: every six months I have a new season’s worth of books to get to know and a new seasonal catalog to publish. That’s why I love Franklin’s Faves! I get a chance to rediscover a book that intrigued me the first time around. I hope you enjoy my rediscoveries as much as I do!

A World at Sea

What I picked:

A World at Sea: Maritime Practices and Global History edited by Lauren Benton and Nathan Perl-Rosenthal

Why I picked it:

I harbor a deep desire to book passage on a commercial freighter to Europe, specifically France. I don’t like to fly, and the prospect of crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a ship, without internet, excites me. I’d love to experience the ocean with no land in sight and to find out if the weeks of quiet solitude, absent some of the distractions of living on land, are as welcome and wonderful as I imagine them to be. In addition to being enamored of everything having to do with oceans and boats, I wanted to read and write about A World at Sea because I have never written about an edited collection, and it gives me an opportunity to think about a topic from several different angles.

What I discovered:

As I expected, A World at Sea had nine chapters and each chapter took a different tack (pardon the pun) in exploring global maritime history in the early modern world. But I was struck by how often the concerns of land-based interests—from establishing national sovereignty to ensuring profitable trade—affected what people did on or in the water.

One chapter described how, on the Atlantic Ocean, when pirates and privateers were both attacking merchant vessels in the hopes of taking valuable cargo, there was not a surefire way of proving the identity of the ship that was raided or that was doing the raiding. Flags could be easily swapped on the mast and identifying documents could be easily counterfeited. But privateers needed to be able to prove to the officials in charge of awarding their prize that the cargo they looted belonged to an enemy. And a merchant vessel’s captain may need to prove to another nearby ship that they were indeed on the same side. In light of all of the competing interests at both the individual and national level, determining which nation a ship belonged to, if any, was critical. Documentation proved to be indispensable, not for its content, but for the language it was written in. Inventories of cargo, bills of lading, navigation logs, and any or all pieces of writing were examined for the languages that appeared and offered as proof of the ship’s register and the crew’s nationality. Ships traveling between the British, French, and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean often carried passengers and mail back to Europe. In one instance, a captain of a British ship threw the letters of a French passenger overboard out of fear that having those letters on board would incriminate him!

Each chapter’s author related stories of people from all over the world—elite and common, colonizers and indigenous, men and women, individual or in the aggregate—and the chapters added up to a picture of a world in tremendous flux. Many of the national borders and trade routes and fishing and harvesting practices that we take for granted today were being actively negotiated in this era. The book makes me want to read more maritime history.

Favorite bit:

There is a chapter devoted to the transmission of knowledge about sailing and navigation, and the terms of the debates are familiar to anyone interested in education today. There were debates over who made the best students—those who lived in seafaring towns or were born to seafaring families or those from the upper classes of society who not only benefited from the elite schooling they received throughout their lives but also were assumed to be natural born leaders. There were debates over the curriculum—whether it was better to master mathematical and theoretical principles followed by putting them into practice, or the reverse, better to master the practical and then have a context for refining one’s practice through mathematical and theoretical thinking. But I was most tickled to learn that Peter the Great, in preparation for starting his own Russian navy, actually disguised himself so that he could apprentice to a Dutch shipwright: an elite pretending not to be in order to get a practical education. Unfortunately, being over six feet tall, which was apparently unusual for that time and place, he was recognized. But that didn’t stop him from continuing his research. He eventually landed in Britain to learn all he could about British naval procedures and shipyards, before recruiting British mathematicians to teach at his own school for navigation in St. Petersburg.