A Sailor’s Life: Maritime History and the Human Dimension in the Classroom

Tyson Reeder

In 1807, the U.S. consul at Havana, James Anderson, reported “a very melancholy & cruel event” to Secretary of State James Madison. While in Havana, a sixteen-year-old U.S. sailor named George French attacked his fellow seaman James Roberts with a knife. In an intoxicated fury, French stabbed Roberts seven times. As Roberts lay near death in the hospital, Anderson asked Havana resident and U.S. vice-consul John L. Ramage if he thought they should send money or provisions to aid Roberts. Ramage opined that unscrupulous couriers or administrators would pilfer the goods and they would fall into less deserving hands. Meanwhile, French’s future looked uncertain. Some prominent United States gentlemen in Havana discouraged Anderson from trying to help the young sailor, suggesting that it might only exacerbate the situation and waste U.S. funds. Anderson hoped that local courts would acquit French and that his “youth & the too common practice of stabbing may plead in his favor.” Meanwhile, French and Roberts’s captain weighed anchor and left both sailors to their fates in the foreign country1

Anderson’s report provides a lens to a wide range of questions instructors press students to consider. Although the episode seems limited to the circumstances of sailors and their precarious lives at sea, the details reveal intriguing questions about the social, cultural, political, and diplomatic history of the early United States and the Atlantic. What social and cultural forces pushed a sixteen-year-old into the dangers of a sailor’s life and to his early intemperance? How did U.S. agents and diplomats abroad negotiate foreign legal systems? What influence did prominent traders in foreign ports wield over U.S. diplomacy at the expense of their less fortunate fellow citizens? How did masculinity and violence interrelate among lower classes? How successfully did the United States extend sovereignty over its citizens abroad? Through maritime history, therefore, historians can invite students to probe fundamental questions about U.S. society, culture, and state formation. 

Atlantic caricatures frequently featured drunken and unruly sailors, but those caricatures may tell as much about Atlantic social life as maritime life. William Elmes, Eccentricities, courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

As maritime history expands its scope, instruction must keep pace with research. In the last decade, historians such as Marcus Rediker, Stephanie E. Smallwood, W. Jeffrey Bolster, Paul Gilje, Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Mark G. Hanna, Michael J. Jarvis, Christopher P. Magra, Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, and others have beat paths toward broader and more sophisticated applications of maritime history. In 2008, the American Historical Association included maritime history in its index of specializations. As the field continues to break new ground, it will lend instructors a powerful tool to teach national, Atlantic, and global histories.2

Maritime history connects with students, as it does with readers, when human stories comprise the central analysis. We can learn the path forward by observing the field’s historiographical trend. Until the early 2000s, maritime history contributed little to social and cultural history. It focused instead on naval warfare, exploration, and maritime economics divorced from the human stories that animated those subjects. As historians have begun to focus on human stories within maritime history, the field has produced essential research to the histories of slavery, labor, gender, politics, and diplomacy. Education specialist L. Dee Fink has outlined a “taxonomy of significant learning,” in which emotional elements of learning complement intellectual elements. To learn effectively, learners must engage their feelings, interests, and values to connect information to a “human dimension.”3

With its recent concentrations on society and culture, maritime history allows instructors to inject the human dimension into their classrooms to reify abstract principles. Students may struggle to understand the U.S.‒British disagreement over perpetual allegiance in the decade before the War of 1812, but they likely would comprehend the distress of Benjamin Merry, a U.S. citizen whom the Royal Navy impressed. After his impressment by the British, Merry was captured by the French Navy in 1804 and held as a prisoner of war in France. Students can grasp the fear and frustration of a man stripped from his friends and relations, held in hazardous conditions as a prisoner in a war in which he had no direct concern, and waiting for corrupt and quarrelsome U.S. agents to determine how much aid they should provide him.4

Caption: Many American sailors pressed into British service ended up in French prison fortresses or ships, held as prisoners in a war in which they had no direct interest. “Impressment of American Sailors,” in Henry E. Chambers, School History of the United States (New Orleans, LA, 1887), courtesy of University of South Florida.

Of course, instructors cannot not abandon abstract principles in their teaching, but they must imbue those principles with human elements if they want their teaching to have a lasting impression. George French and Benjamin Merry possessed identities beyond their ships. Their lives formed part of a wider tapestry of social, cultural, political, and diplomatic events to which they contributed and by which they were affected. By capturing such lives in research and in teaching, historians can bring their students far beyond maritime history. As maritime historians continue to illuminate the lives of individuals at sea and in ports within broad historical trends and contexts, historians of all fields can incorporate maritime history into a variety of classes.


1 James Anderson to James Madison, Mar. 27, 1807, National Archives—College Park, MD, RG 59, consular despatches, Havana, vol. 1.

2 Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York, 2007); Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA, 2007); W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, MA, 2012); Paul Gilje, Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia, 2004); Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Urbana, IL, 2016); Mark G. Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570–1740 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2015); Michael J. Jarvis, In the Eye of All Trade:  Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680–1783 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010); Christopher P. Magra, The Fisherman’s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution (New York, 2009); Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, MA, 2015); John B. Hattendorf, “Maritime History Today,” Perspectives on History, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2012/maritime-history-today, accessed Feb. 22, 2019.

3 Hattendorf, “Maritime History Today;” L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco, 2003), 30.

4 Fulwar Skipwith to John Armstrong, Jan. 24, 1805, National Archives—College Park, MD, RG 59, consular despatches, Paris, vol. 2.

10 June 2019

About the Author

Tyson Reeder is Affiliated Assistant Professor of History and Assistant Editor for the Papers of James Madison at the University of Virginia.

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