“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
― Herman Melville
I think that it’s easy for some people to forget that Britain, with all its history and wars and books and world impact…is a group of decently small islands. There isn’t a spot that is more that 70 miles from a coastline throughout the whole of the country, the sea is ever present. Plus through much of recorded history, Britain was covered with bogs and marshes in addition to being crisscrossed by rivers. In other words, boats and ships have been an intrinsic part of British history.
This is especially true in London with its prime spot along the Thames. It has been a major travel and shipping hub for centuries and if you take a look at almost any historical representation of the city, you will see ships depicted as lining the river with masts as thick as as forest. Though the Thames is a lot less crowded these days, it’s fun to get a glimpse of the city’s maritime history, which is why I trotted along to the Tall Ships Festival in Greenwich a few weeks ago.
A mix of historical presentation and street food, this sort of thing was straight up my alley and I ended up walking nearly six miles along the river to look at the variety of sailing ships moored so that visitors could have a chance to board and get a sense of what this vessels were like. There were also costumed interpreters and amateur naval enthusiasts parading around in clever and wacky get ups as only the British seem to be able to do.
What most people don’t realize is that most sailing ships were tiny, almost unbelievably small. Explorers and privateers circumnavigated the globe in crafts not much longer than a bus with about as much personal space. As a child I had some idea that ships were solid things but getting to see them up close and personal you realize that they are as much rope as they are beams and are quite literally tied together in a lot of cases. One wrong knot and you’ve lost a major function that could leave you and your entire crew lost at sea.
At one point, the British navy was virtually populated by kidnapped men and criminals, largely commanded by child officers who had purchased commissions, and funded by a prize system that turned almost everyone into privateers. It was kept in check by a system of legalized brutality and fueled with some of the worst food imaginable with a side of drunkenness. And it was a system that conquered the world, led to some of the most important scientific finds of human history, and kicked off globalization. A complicated history that deserves being better known.