Exploring the drama and tragedy of shipwrecks

Chichester historian Ian Friel charts a course through more than 500 years of British maritime history in his new book.
Ian FrielIan Friel
Ian Friel

Britain and the Ocean Road – Shipwrecks and People 1297-1825 has been published by Pen & Sword at £25.

The book uses the stories of a number of shipwrecks as both waypoints and as a means of exploring what was going on at the time they occurred, as Ian explains.

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“It is not a book about finding shipwrecks; nor is it about great British shipwrecks. Most of these vessels will be unknown to the general public. However, each one has a powerful human story attached to it that links the lives of individuals with bigger themes about Britain and its relationship with the sea and the wider world. The book is aimed at a general readership, but much of it is based my own on first-hand archival research so it should be of interest to historians and archaeologists. The sources I used range from medieval accounts and letters to 17th-century pirates’ confessions, the logs of ships that fought at Trafalgar and the last log of a Liverpool slave-ship.

“Its sequel, Breaking Seas, Broken Ships, due out at the end of March 2021, will carry the story up to the 21st century and will include a chapter on a Littlehampton vessel). The idea for the book came to me several years ago. There is great public interest in shipwrecks – their drama and tragedy can raise powerful emotions, but at the same time there is a fascination with finding out what happened. Books of famous shipwrecks have been published in the past, using wreck stories to build a chronological narrative across centuries, but they often don’t get much beyond either archaeology or the stories of the great seamen and their battles.

“I wanted to write a book that would combine the big picture of British maritime history with the lives of individuals and the stories of individual places and ships.

“Britain and the Ocean Road tackles some unfamiliar and intriguing subjects.

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“The Cinque Ports and Great Yarmouth in Norfolk fought a the brutal maritime civil war in the 1200s over control of the lucrative North Sea herring fishery which culminated in two battles in which 184 Yarmouth sailors died and 23 of their ships were burned. The names of 163 of the dead are recorded, the earliest-known roll-call of English naval dead – in this case, killed by fellow Englishmen.”

Ian added: “The closest that ordinary people got to sea travel in medieval England was to go on pilgrimage to the Continent. The shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela was a favourite destination, but in the 1440s the Bristol entrepreneur Robert Sturmy went further – a lot further – and sent a pilgrim ship to what is now Israel. It did not come back.”

Ian also explores guns and gunpowder which first became serious threats in sea warfare in the late 1400s/early 1500s.

“Over 30 years before the loss of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s giant warship Regent and most of its crew perished in fire and explosions, tangled together with its French adversaries. A new age in sea warfare had begun.”

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The book also looks at the fact that Britain would not have had an Indian empire but for the English East India Company (EIC).

“However, when it started out in the early 1600s, the EIC was more interested in trade than in planting the flag. In 1610 its sixth voyage to Asia was led by the mighty Trade’s Increase, then the biggest merchant ship England had ever built. The story of its voyage began with a cock-up (the ship was built too wide to get out of its building dock) and ended in mass tragedy, but it also shows men who first went to sea in the Elizabethan era encountering very a unfamiliar new world and new dangers as England pushed even further out into the ocean.”

Between the late 1600s and the early 1800s, Britain became the greatest sea power the world had ever seen, with the ship of the line as its chief weapon.

“HMS Berwick was one of the very few British line of battle ships captured by the French in the wars between 1793 and 1815. It served at Trafalgar – as le Berwick, on the French side. The saga of this ship is used to explore the nature of the British and French sailing navies, forces that were very alike in many ways, but that came into conflict in seven major wars between 1689 and 1815.”

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