Tempests and Tedium in the Transatlantic: Shipboard Life in the 18th Century

Stephen R. Berry, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life in Atlantic Crossings to the New World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

9780300204230When colonial Georgia was founded in 1732, it carved out a brand new space in the New World. The founders’ intentions were in part for it to serve as a charitable colony, where Britons from overcrowded debtor’s prisons could start anew. It also carved out an English space to serve as a geographic barrier between wealthy South Carolina and rival Spanish Florida. But, as Stephen R. Berry demonstrates in this highly original new study, colonies were not the only spaces that were created and negotiated as the Atlantic World expanded. The ocean, and indeed the ships that carried passengers to and from the New World should also be viewed as spaces in their own right.

A Path in the Mighty Waters centers on the 1735/6 trans-Atlantic voyage that carried a divergent group of passengers, including the Wesley brothers, to Georgia. Berry focuses not so much on the outcome of that voyage, but the experiences of the passengers as they crossed the ocean. The ocean was not just a backdrop, but shipboard life profoundly affected the passengers—Irish and German, Moravian and Methodist—setting the stage for a new life that was more complicated than ethnic, religious, or even class boundaries.

The 1735 voyage, Berry argues, was a conversion experience, in more ways than one. “Conversion” is, at times, used in the religious sense, as the voyage was rife with religious activity. It also referred to the fact that like a religious conversion, each voyage (and not just the first one) represented a new beginning for the voyager. (13) And finally, conversion also refers to the recognition that the cultural and social expectations that they left behind in the Old World did not automatically apply during ship life. For instance, life at sea meant the “crossing” of gender and sexual boundaries, including an “aggressive masculinity” as well as relationships between sailors that sometimes seemed to blur the lines between platonic friendship and sexual longing. (139-170)

The chaos of shipboard life meant that those aboard the ships engaged in behaviors that may have been less permissible on land. It also meant that passengers had to learn to navigate religious, cultural, and socio-economic differences, and to carve out an existence in a space that was not designed with their every need in mind. Community space, Berry notes, was often apportioned unequally aboard ships. That led to challenges for religious practice of the communities aboard the ship. The space they acquired was not always conducive to their worship, and clergy and worshipers often had to make do. Francis Asbury’s response, which was to hold worship out on the deck, open to the elements, served as an example of one response to negotiating this new space. (35)

The diversity of the characters from this voyage makes the historian’s task of compiling a cohesive, but not monolithic narrative difficult. A potential pitfall for a project like this, is succumbing to the temptation to lean too heavily on higher profile figures and places. For instance, anyone familiar either with the history of colonial Georgia or religious history in the 1730s will undoubtedly wonder about Berry’s treatment of the Wesleys. While they do make an appearance in the book, Berry strikes a nice balance between acknowledging their importance without allowing them to dominate the narrative. This talent for striking and maintaining a balance in the voices is evident throughout the book, and can probably be attributed in part to the diligence in his research.

Berry’s book ends with the voyage, the joy of a journey’s safe end evident in the ships logbooks and the journals of those who sailed. Whether the conversions stuck aboard land, and how much, is unclear. To be fair to Berry, that would be another complex study in its own right, and its lack of inclusion in A Path in the Mighty Waters does not in any way diminish what is a rich, thoughtful and thoroughly satisfying book.

Stay tuned tomorrow, for a Q&A with author, Stephen Berry.

3 comments on “Tempests and Tedium in the Transatlantic: Shipboard Life in the 18th Century

  1. snwoodwork says:

    This sounds interesting; it’s now on my list.

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