Behold the threaden sails

I used to own an old barn. Almost everyone who saw it assured me that its mismatched joists and rafters, its well-pegged and much-mortised props and ties, would certainly have come from ships. Everyone, that is, except for a visiting architectural historian, who pointed out that we were 20 miles from the sea, up an unnavigable river. The idea, he told me, is at least in part a popular myth – one that flatters Britain’s belief in itself as a seafaring nation.

What remains of old ships, and how Britain should remember and memorialize its seafaring past, are the questions posed by this rich, nuanced and accomplished book. The author is a building conservationist whose excellent first book, Seashaken Houses (2018), was a study and tour of offshore lighthouses. This one is a study and tour of eleven historical ships and their remaining relics, from the Bronze Age Dover Boat to the Great Eastern, Lusitania and Rosebudthe last being a Newlyn fishing boat that was sailed to Westminster in 1937 by Cornish fishermen protesting at plans to demolish their homes.

Nancollas’s answer to the first question – what remains? – is… not a lot. Ships are “definingly perishable”. Consider Brunel’s unparalleled, gargantuan SS Great Eastern, completed in 1859. Almost all that is left of her is one mast (the “Saturday” mast, to be precise: she had one for every day of the week except the Sabbath). It now stands near Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, where, bathetically, it “has ceased to be a yardstick for height, and instead communicates the stadium’s depth”. Or take Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, the pinnacle of Elizabethan seafaring, a ship that circumnavigated the globe and looted so much Spanish silver that the queen’s half share alone was supposedly enough to pay off the national debt. It represents a “fetishized” aspect of English history, yet what remains, aside from unsubstantiated claims, is a single chair made from salvaged wood, which is displayed in the Bodleian Library’s Divinity School. With all respect to the Divinity School, this does not amount to due prominence.

Something similar is true of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May 1915. Its once gleaming, “kingly” propeller now molds beside the Mersey, slowly eaten by the air it was never designed to taste. Then there’s HMS San Josef, a ship captured heroically by Nelson at Cape St Vincent – ​​he boarded her across another Spanish battleship in hand-to-hand combat. You can see some of her ribs in the vault of the little church of St Nicholas, West Looe – Nancollas’s home town. (Yes, in places, naval timber really was reused.)

Nancollas’s eleven ships and their survivals offer more than just stories or opportunities to regret failures of commemoration; they open up refreshing approaches to history. His account of HMS Lutine And her ship’s bell, rung every half-hour during the six watches in a naval day, is the standout example. She was lost in 1799, along with her cargo of bullion. The bell (but not the gold) was eventually salvaged by Lloyd’s of London, the maritime insurers, and hung at headquarters, to be rung twice every time an underwritten ship returned safely to port. One ring indicated a loss. The bell still hangs there, its sound a fragment of auditory history. In Nancollas’s hands it also becomes “a summons to consider what, over the years, we have decided to raise and display of our seafaring past” – and what we have left in the murky depths.

This is an underlying theme. The book unearths neglected stories, as histories of material culture so often do. The bell, in particular, introduces an elegantly intertwined essay on themes of salvage and slavery. Nancollas recounts the attempt in the 1540s to retrieve armaments and other valuable goods from the Mary Rose. A specialist freediver, Jacques Francis, was brought all the way from Guinea, and evidence he later gave in court represents “probably the first Black person to have their voice recorded in England as direct speech”. Those words, poignantly, are “not those of a slave, but of a salvor”.

In this same chapter, entitled “Bell”, Nancollas notes that guineas, the gold coins created in 1663, were named after the Guinea coast – the source of much of the new wealth as well as the home of Jacques Francis. Hes that until 1698 the Royal African Company (RAC) held a monopoly in slave trading – a fact that has an amplified resonance today. And he tells the story of the Guyniea ship that sank in 1691 on its way back from Africa to England, carrying beeswax, ivory and gold – a cargo that Edmond Halley of the Royal Society, which had links with the RAC, attempted to salvage using his prototype diving bell.

Engaging with such troubling matters, Nancollas says he has felt, in the past, “like a reluctant diver in a primitive bell”. To properly memorialize the history of slavery in the UK, he proposes that “on every vacated pedestal” of some worthy whose hands were plunged into the elbows in the trade should be placed instead “a brute article of slaving recovered from the deep”. We know where the slave wrecks are, he points out. It is time to recover them.

Time, too, to recover stories of how the imperial project oppressed people at home as well as abroad. An essay centerd on Chatham, and its surviving ropery, opens with the “symbolic mast” of Nelson’s Column. Nancollas focuses not on the naval hero, however, but on the overlooked yet gigantesque coil of rope in front of which his statue stands. Rope is “the least enduring of all a ship’s parts”, and a quintessentially humble material, yet it is central to a ship’s operations. At Chatham, Nancollas feels, “past events feel slackly coiled, rather than held in tension still.” Its ropery “keeps under tow an remote past”. Far better than Nelson’s flagship, Victory — whose timbers have in any case mostly been replaced, like a ship of Theseus — Chatham stands for the Georgian era, not least because “it is in the coils of this age more than any other that we are still entangled as a nation.”

It should be clear that this is sophisticated writing, although compressing the weave of Nancollas’s metaphors into the space of a review risks making them seem glib. Or knotty. He does at moments teater on the edge of the drumery. Elizabethans, talking of Drake’s Chair, are “part of the national furniture”. And the Chatham ropery is a “monument to the hands” – meaning both the rope-makers’ literal hands and the hands, or ordinary sailors, who served on the navy’s ships.

That mention of “hands” is telling. Strikingly, and likeably, the book doesn’t just talk about material culture; it seeks to capture its quiddity. The Thames tide retreats, “unveiling a foreshore”. England’s riverfront is “shaved of its rabble of jetties and wharves”. One extraordinary set-piece paragraphs imagine the seawater flooding the Lusitania after the torpedo strikes – imagine how it “swallowed the skirting and felt for the dado rails. It unpeeled the wallpaper and dissolved the gilt” – until the ship bowed forward, lifting her stern and exposing the brazen propellers, which, for a moment, “spun in air, not water”.

While this is not a travel book, Nancollas is a gifted travel writer. Kent is “pylon-trampled”. Chatham “seems to be recovering from rather than basking in its seafaring past.” Dover has “the feel of a stone threshold step trodden to a scoop”. Coastal places, in general, are “like empty sherry casks, drained of a potency yet still fragrant with the scent”. The book captures the essence of each site, and each vessel, while also conjuring a presiding mood. Here it is elegiac without a shred of romanticization. Towards the end of the book, Nancollas meets a retired Cornish builder, a maker of bottled ships, who possesses a sawn-off section of Rosebud‘s forefoot. Nancollas asks why he keeps the relic. It is just “a whim”, he is told, but also: “because of what she stood for”. And because it is a reminder of pre-industrial craftsmanship, “where things just happened right in your hand”.

This is a first-class book. It is superbly readable and entirely serious, questioning not just how Britain thinks of its maritime past, and indeed itself, but how history is written, understood and enacted, including by people at some remove from the academy. It is a work of experiential historiography, if you like – and a delight.

James McConnachieis an author and critic. He is writing a book about Kanchenjunga

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