Q&A with Stephen R. Berry, Author of A Path in the Mighty Waters

9780300204230The following is an interview with Stephen R. Berry, an Associate Professor of History at Simmons College. My review of Berry’s recently-released book, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015) appeared on the blog yesterday. Today, he agreed to answer some follow-up questions about his book and his future research plans.

JUNTO: This book began as your dissertation project at Duke University. Can you tell us a little about what changed in the process of transforming it into a book manuscript?

STEPHEN BERRY: The structure of the book changed the most and really differentiates it from the dissertation. I had a great doctoral committee with diverse disciplinary interests, but they universally agreed that I should adopt a narrative structure for the book. One committee member compared my dissertation to a well-organized closet, all the topical chapters neatly arranged like hangers in a row but with no sense of progression. A voyage has built-in story arc with a beginning, middle, and end, so they advised that I find a way to incorporate my argument into a journey. It was great advice, but it took me a long time to execute that plan.

I faced two major problems. First, the evidence that I had gathered came from numerous voyages, so how could I create a single storyline out of such diversity? At first I stubbornly resisted centering on the Georgia expedition, since every Methodist divinity school student who I encountered at Duke asked me if I was going to write about the Wesleys. Finally, I realized that I had more sources for that 1735-36 convoy than any other voyage, and the mix of backgrounds mirrored to some extent the spectrum of 18th century immigrants.

The second problem revolved around chapter divisions. While chapters on embarkation and arrival seemed self-evident, how do you divide the rest of the voyage without resorting to artificial constructs? Fortunately, while wrestling with this issue, I attended the Munson Institute at Mystic Seaport (http://www.mysticseaport.org/munson/). That summer I realized that my principal mistake was thinking monolithically about the ocean. Over the course of the seminar I noticed that mariners talked about distinct places within the Atlantic. I went back to my sources with this new lens and discovered shifts in their narratives that I had previously overlooked. I very quickly sketched out the new chapter outline for a book manuscript that robbed but did not replicate chapters from the dissertation.

JUNTO: You note that shipboard religious practice tended to be negotiated—the decks aboard these ships are diverse, and there are also tensions between desires for piety and behaviors that scandalized religious onlookers, from swearing to anxieties about sexual conduct. Certainly, John Wesley’s shipboard conduct with Sophie Hopkins has been scrutinized and attributed to his hasty departure from colonial Georgia under a cloud of scandal. Could you tell us more about how these differences are managed? Are these negotiated spaces sustained after the voyage?

BERRY: In many ways, the idea for the book came from this very realization that something about shipboard life altered people’s behaviors particularly in terms of interacting with people across various social divides. You still see this phenomenon on steamboats in the nineteenth century when ministers such as staunch Methodist Peter Cartwright would ally with a Presbyterian (whose theology he despised) to convince a boat captain to anchor on Sundays. Some ministers adapted to ships better than others. George Whitefield, for example, treated the ship as his personal parish furnishing him raison d’être to intrude into cabin and steerage alike. Other ministers experienced real ambiguity about their shipboard role and discomfort in regards to the closeness of social or cultural others. Lengthy ship voyages reveal what sociable creatures humans really are. I came across a couple of instances where an individual attempted to forego contact with the other passengers, but in the end their resolution always faltered, they overcame their moral or social scruples, and they participated again in the community life of the ship.

As for what effects lingered after the voyage, I don’t really do much longitudinally to follow people once they got off the ship. Doing that would have been a very different project, and I wanted to focus on the voyage itself, apart from life on land. That said, I think the ship offered another type of negotiated space for religious toleration akin to those described in Benjamin J. Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. Ships practiced people in the art of getting along with different sorts of people, and I think those experiences proved valuable in the creation of new societies, even if they never actually employed those specific coping mechanisms again.

JUNTO: The voyages in your book come primarily after the religious wars of the Protestant Reformation. Many of the people in your book were subject to religious intolerance, if not outright persecution. You mentioned specifically, the Moravians making accommodations toward religious maintenance. Do others make similar accommodations?

BERRY: Every religious tradition had to adjust to some degree because the temporal and spatial dimensions of the ship necessitated alterations to normal religious practices. While some ship captains made allowances for religious services to be conducted, the ships continued to sail, which might bring the interruptions of shifting seas or busy sailors. Other than above decks, few gathering spaces existed aboard eighteenth-century sailing ships once crowed with passengers and stores. So people gathered when they could, where they could: in the captain’s cabin, on the companionways, huddled among the berths between decks. Carla Pestana once observed that the usage and importance of the Book of Common Prayer increased for Anglicans in colonial spaces, and you can really see that phenomenon aboard ships as people turned to books in the absence of clergy. Foucault rightly termed ships “heterotopias,” because while shipboard life resembled that on land, everything about shipboard society and culture differed to some degree.

JUNTO: Sea journals played a key role in your research. Were these journals written with the expectation that they would be read by others at home or in the colonies?

BERRY: Logbooks and sea journals proved a revelation to me, as I had not expected to discover much from them. A pamphlet on maritime documents from the British Public Records Office cautioned researchers not to expect to find personal information in logbooks, so it surprised me to find such useful evidence from such prosaic records. While most did not seem to be written for a particular audience, there was always the possibility that a third party might read them. There were a couple of purposes for a mariner keeping a sea journal and which determined who might use the documents afterwards. On a personal level, sea journals demonstrated a mariner’s professional competency. Much like a pilot’s logbook or my daughter’s learner’s permit, sea journals recorded the extent of one’s experience. They showed potential ship owners that one possessed the mathematical acumen needed to calculate a ship’s position or knowledge of how to handle various seaborne difficulties. Logbooks could also serve as legal documentation of one’s conduct in case a voyage went awry, particularly if differences arose among the crew. Finally, some sea journals served similar purposes as personal diaries with the expectation that family members would receive a glimpse into the external trials and inner thoughts of the mariners who recorded them. I actually reflect further on the non-maritime usefulness of logbooks in my Coriolis article “Logbooks as Theological Texts: Divining the Sacred amidst the Mundane (and Maritime).

JUNTO: You mention that social standing was part of the experience during ocean voyages. For example, during the voyage of the Simmonds to colonial Georgia, a rather cantankerous and politically connected passenger even complains to James Oglethorpe that the public prayer of another group impedes on his “rightful place.” Can you tell us a little more about how ministers negotiated between social divides, and whether some were more successful than others?

BERRY: Even though ships collapsed social divisions, the barriers persisted. Where one was stationed aboard ship mattered. Like the Wesleys, most Anglican clergy tended to reside on the cabin side of the main shipboard social division between cabin and steerage. They lived and dined with those of higher social station while going below temporarily to visit, worship, and minister among those residing in steerage. It was as if an invisible semipermeable membrane existed between the decks that allowed cabin passengers to penetrate into steerage while preventing most steerage passengers from moving about the cabin without permission. Ministers offered a great opportunity to study life in both social spaces since they could traverse the divisions freely and described life in each.

Some ministers chose steerage accommodations, such as Moravian pastors travelling with their congregations or Quakers seeking simplicity. The traveling Friend John Woolman rejected the needless luxuries of the cabin, instead berthing between decks, which brought him into close proximity with ordinary seamen. Although he usually dined in the cabin with the ship’s officers, he spent the nights listening to the horror stories of maritime laborers. Such interactions influenced his opposition to the Atlantic slave trade for the harm wrought upon enslaved Africans as well as for its baneful effects on the sailors.

JUNTO: So, now that this book is out, what is your next project?

BERRY: I am still trying to decide what to do next. One idea is to follow up on the first book by again combining my interests in religion and the sea. I spent so much time learning about maritime history that it seems a waste not to pursue another research project with a strong nautical component. I currently have a joint fellowship from the Boston Athenaeum and the Congregational Library to explore U.S. mariners’ encounters with world religions in the early republican era. I once ran across a story that Hannah Adams expanded the coverage of non-Christian traditions in her Dictionary of Religions based on her conversations with New England sailors. Whether or not the story is true, it illustrates the fact that America’s expanded global trade enabled its maritime citizenry to encounter other cultures, particularly non-Christian religions, for the first time and to communicate their impressions, both positive and negative, to their fellow citizens. Mariners’ descriptions also inspired America’s first foreign missionaries, such as Adoniram Judson, who set out from Salem for Calcutta in 1812. Although the relationship between missionaries and sailors often involved tension and conflict, the exporters of Christianity depended upon maritime laborers to transport them abroad and connect them to home. The research remains embryonic at this moment, but my previous experience with logbooks uncovered some vivid port descriptions that I would like to explore further.

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