Multiracial Ships and Maritime History

Maritime historians have recognized that premodern ships represented diverse onboard communities, composed of multicultural—and often multiracial—crews. The social spaces of ships brought together officers, navigators, sailors, soldiers, artisans, and slaves recruited or coerced from very different population groups.

But, the written evidence of crew members’ social origins is often very sparse, since permanent navies did not develop until the seventeenth century and premodern records rarely focused on detailing the background of sailors and other crew. Some exceptional archival documents have offered glimpses of the diversity of ships’ crews and historians have been exploiting such records to analyze maritime shipboard communities. For example, Sara Caputo (Magdalene College, University of Cambridge) has discovered evidence of the British Navy’s transnational recruitment of sailors during the eighteenth century. See: Sara Caputo, “Towards a Transnational History of the Eighteenth-Century British Navy / Vers une histoire transnationale de la marine britannique au XVIIIème siècle,” Annales Historiques de la Révolution Française 397 – Perspectives Transnationales, 1780s-1820 (2019): 13-32.

Now, new archaeological and DNA evidence offers additional information on the crew of a famous premodern ship, the Mary Rose, one of the principal warships in the fleet of King Henry VIII of England during the Franco-English wars of the first half of the sixteenth century.

Mary Rose, depicted on the Anthony Roll, 1546. Image: Pepys Library, Magdelene College, Cambridge.

BBC News reports that “archaeologists have been revealing the ethnic diversity of the crew on the Mary Rose using remains from the warship. The ship sank in 1545, but the wreck, 19,000 artefacts and the remains of 179 crew members were recovered in 1982.”

The sinking of the Mary Rose at the battle of Solent in 1545. Cowdray Engraving (detail).

Scientists have been analyzing the bodies of the Mary Rose crew members and are now publishing their results, revealing that the crew indeed was diverse, including at least one crew member of African origin. The work on the crew members of the Mary Rose demonstrates how research collaborations between scientists, archaeologists, and historians are vital to maritime history, the history of science, and the history of medicine. The new findings should provide additional evidence of interest to historians of premodern race and racism, such as collaborators in the RaceB4Race network.

The physical remains of the Mary Rose’s hull and artifacts salvaged from the shipwreck are now in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. The Mary Rose Museum website provides a history of the Mary Rose and information on the maritime archaeological operations to raise the remains of the ship.

The battle of Solent, 1545, portrayed in the Cowdray engraving.

The Mary Rose Museum’s website has a feature about the Cowdray engraving, an eighteenth-century copy of a sixteenth-century painting of the battle of Solent and the sinking of the Mary Rose.

BBC News has published a video report on the archaeological and DNA research on the Mary Rose crew members.

This entry was posted in Atlantic World, Cultural History, Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, European History, History in the Media, History of Medicine, History of Race and Racism, History of Science, History of the Western World, History of Violence, Maritime History, Museums and Historical Memory, Renaissance Art and History, War, Culture, and Society, Warfare in the Early Modern World. Bookmark the permalink.

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