41st Exeter Maritime History Conference, 8-9 September 2007
The annual conference, part sponsored by the Society, was held in the fine surroundings of the new Institute of Arab and Islamic studies, whose sponsor himself gained a PhD at Exeter in the 70s on the topic of Red Sea pirates, so it was indeed an apt as well as a pleasant venue.
We started of course, with many aspects of the East India Company. Tony Farrington told of the development of the procedure whereby all the crew had an organised stake in private trading, often worth much more than the pay, which was already good by the standards of the time. The ship was thus almost a cooperative, and perhaps this goes some way to explain the long-term success of the company. There is nothing new in the performance bonus!
Ken Cozens took us through the complex web of trading relations in Macao, and the key role played by the agents. More exotic, perhaps, was the use of elaborately decorated clocks as significant trade items, used for their status and amusement value, not as timepieces, described by Roger Smith. They might perhaps be called bribe goods, and I felt their modern equivalent would be executive jets and similar toys.
The victualling of the navy in the East India station was a crucial task, and we heard from Martin Wilcox how the use of contractors evolved from the 1790s. Peter Ward expounded how relationships between Rainier and Wellesley were strained by different views as to the role of the Navy. Ambiguous command always causes problems, and it showed.
The Navy had many and varied tasks, and we heard from James Thomas that one was escorting Carnatic ships and pilgrims to Jeddah for the Sultan, a puppet of the Company. A strange tale, as the return traffic was harem slaves. The Sultan, though, compensated the wife of a captain who died on duty. A century later, however, the Navy in Australia was, as Mary Jones later told us, energetically pursuing forced labour ships, and trying to impose a rule of law in the vast Pacific island area. The captains, Marx and Clayton, also had ambiguous orders both win hearts and minds and punish offending villages, and found this unpleasant and unrewarding.
We heard from Dionisius Agius about the Samduz, traditional boats of the Red Sea and Gulf, which had evolved different sizes and forms for local conditions. A lack of written records hindered research, but oral history was revealing, and archaeology might add more in future.
Shipowners in the Pacific trade in the late 19c developed some efficient 3 way trips, e.g. outward from the UK to Australia; then Newcastle to the West Coast of America, either San Francisco or Chile, with Newcastle coal; then back to the UK with nitrates. Michael Clark showed many of the losses in the coal trade were almost certainly due to spontaneous ignition, a hazard long ignored by mineowners and shipowners alike. Delays in loading meant harbours were full of vessels, a situation being repeated today, albeit with millions rather than thousands of tons
David Clement showed some fresh pictures of these crowded harbours and fine ships, drawn from his vast collection. Interestingly, sailing ships supported the early development of the US oil industry, through case oil (kerosene in tins in wooden boxes) to Japan. As the era ended, the sailing fleet had been become bulkers, trading low value commodities, with poorly paid crews, in marked contrast to the John Company profit sharing arrangements. Slow loading and harbour delays helped them survive for a time against steam with its high overhead costs. Perhaps this history should be seen as part of the wider cycle of a technology reaching its apogee before being replaced.
Bob Wilson rounded off the event with the contemporary history of the Omani navy, to which he had personally contributed. From the early days of the last sailing gunboat, with major inputs from the RN and British yards, the Omani navy has become a small but formidable force and one playing a role of ongoing geopolitical significance.
I certainly felt I learned a great deal from interesting and well-researched presentations. Whilst not the bargain basement of our own events, it was still very reasonably priced by academic meeting standards. It is also good to see the evolving cooperation between the University and the Society.
Reported by Jonathan Seagrave
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