The best books on maritime social history (2022)

The best books on maritime social history (1)

By Cian T. McMahon

Who am I?

As an emigrant myself (I left Ireland in the late 1980s), I’ve always been interested in understanding the process of moving from one place to another; of existing in that liminal space between “being here” and “being there.” I spent several years researching the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century Irish migrants for my book, The Coffin Ship, but found the answers led to new questions on how other peoples, in other places, have managed being somewhere between “here” and “there.” These are some of the books that have helped me along that long, emotional journey.

I wrote...

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

ByCian T. McMahon,

The best books on maritime social history (2)

What is my book about?

The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s Great Famine is one of the tired clichés, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, I offer a vibrant, new perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself.

Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet, as my book demonstrates, the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history.

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The books I picked & why

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Two Years Before The Mast

ByRichard Henry Dana,

The best books on maritime social history (3)

Why this book?

After studying for a couple of years as an undergraduate at Harvard, Richard Henry Dana dropped out to join the merchant marine in 1834. Over the course of two years, he sailed around the Cape Horn to California and back. In 1840, he published a personal account of his experiences entitled Two Years Before the Mast, which became an instant classic and offered a rare (and sympathetic) glimpse into the hardships sailors faced living and working on a sailing ship. You just cannot beat this book for an eyewitness account of the tiny (but profound) details of life at sea in the nineteenth century.

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The Slave Ship: A Human History

ByMarcus Rediker,

The best books on maritime social history (4)

Why this book?

One of the main goals of the slave trade wasto erase the identities of its human cargoes and reduce them to anundifferentiated mass of commodified “negroes.” I was really impressed by theway that Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship examines how this “strange and potentcombination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory” attempted to achievethat wicked goal—and how the slaves themselves resisted with everything theyhad. Written by one of the pre-eminent historians of maritime social history, TheSlave Ship is, in my opinion, a must-read for those seeking to understandhistory “from below the decks.”

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Harlots, Hussies, & Poor Unfortunate Women: Crime, Transportation & the Servitude of Female Convicts, 1718-1783

ByEdith M. Ziegler,

The best books on maritime social history (5)

Why this book?

Because the nineteenth-century sailing ship was such a male-dominated space, women were largely invisible in traditional histories of life at sea. Although Edith Ziegler’s book does not simply focus on the voyage itself (it includes analysis of female convicts’ lives before and after the journey as well), it does show how women combatted the “sexual opportunism and exploitation” that was endemic on convict transports. What’s great about this book is that even though many of its subjects were illiterate (and thus left precious few letters and diaries behind), Ziegler manages to unearth the women’s voices in authentic and moving ways.

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A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World

ByStephen R. Berry,

The best books on maritime social history (6)

Why this book?

Washington Irving once famously described a long sea voyage as a “blank page in existence.” Stephen Berry’s analysis of James Oglethorpe’s Georgia Expedition, which sailed from England to colonial Georgia in 1735, shows that the opposite was true. Rather than merely serve as the stage on which the human drama of migration played out, the sea voyage was a dynamic actor in the experience itself. Far from land, migrants had time and space to reconsider their views on society, religion, and identity in ways that shaped their new lives in America.

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Star of the Sea

ByJoseph O'Connor,

(Video) Sea Stories (FULL Audiobook)

The best books on maritime social history (7)

Why this book?

Even professional historians need to slow down and read fiction sometimes! And Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea his is one of my all-time favorites. Set on an emigrant sailing ship during Ireland’s Great Famine, this dark thriller skillfully interweaves the stories of a number of different passengers, one of whom happens to be a murderer. O’Connor, one of Ireland’s leading novelists, finds that perfect balance between “historical” and “fiction.”

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Interested inmaritime,sailors,andimmigrants?

6,084 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them.Browse their picks for the best books aboutmaritime,sailors,andimmigrants.

MaritimeExplore 17 books about maritime

SailorsExplore 15 books about sailors

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will likeBarracoon,Pimp My Airship,andA Book of Tonguesif you like this list.

The best books on maritime social history (8)The best books on maritime social history (9)The best books on maritime social history (10)

The best books on maritime social history (11)

The best books on maritime social history (12)

Recommended by Errick Nunnally

From Errick's list onhistory to thrill, disturb, and intrigue.

This book is a raw peek into America’s troubled past. It’s a series of interviews that Hurston conducts with a man who was on the last slave ship to make the transatlantic passage. It is a difficult read on two levels: subject matter and English. Hurston presents the words of a man named Cudjo Lewis as authentically as possible. What may seem to some today as parody, is translated to the page with accuracy. For me it communicated first-hand some of the past my main character has lived through. Books like this help to inform my protagonist’s current attitude toward the world (Alexander Smith in Blood For The Sun and All The Dead Men).

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Pimp My Airship

ByMaurice Broaddus,

The best books on maritime social history (13)

The best books on maritime social history (14)

Recommended by Errick Nunnally

From Errick's list onhistory to thrill, disturb, and intrigue.

I don’t often read “steampunk” because it usually reflects the Victorian era of England or a ‘what if’ scenario involving the Confederacy and I’m just sick to death of the subjects. Along came “steamfunk,” an addition to the genre where the focus wouldn’t be on exclusively white characters, but Black sourced from the African continent. Then once upon a time, Broaddus cracked a joke on Twitter: “I’m going to write a steampunk story with an all-Black cast and call it ‘Pimp My Airship.’ To his chagrin (and eventual delight) several editors asked to see the story. The worldbuilding in this story is phenomenal. It take place in Indiana, part of an alternate history where England has established a “United States of Albion” and Native Americans have managed to retain a sizeable chunk of territory. There’s so much more to the book in relation to history and cultural norms. I thoroughly enjoyed it and aspire to write fictional worlds this tightly. The situation itself is an anecdote in challenging oneself to write wherever the path may take you. I never thought I’d write in someone else’s universe until I was asked and I absolutely adore the results.

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A Book of Tongues

ByGemma Files,

The best books on maritime social history (15)

The best books on maritime social history (16)

Recommended by Errick Nunnally

From Errick's list onhistory to thrill, disturb, and intrigue.

This book falls under the category “urban fiction” or “magical realism” or “western” or…something. At least, that’s what drew me to it in the first place. It takes place in America’s old west, features magic-using criminals leading a gang and draws on some Native American lore. The magic is terrifying, it’s a mix of environmental and mind-altering hoodoo. The most powerful antagonist is rugged, homosexual, unashamed, and a conflicted terror of a person. His partner in crime is simply terrifying. Together, they drive a trilogy that’s so well threaded through the old west you can taste the grit as you turn the page. Though the emphasis is on the pursuit of magic and the machinations it drives, the settings are a delight to experience. Files weaves a world in these novels that is equally fascinating and terrifying. Her prose and daring are an inspiration.

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