Wednesday, September 4, 2013
The Sea Their Graves by David J. Stewart
Why I read it: Chose it from a list to review for Sea History magazine, figuring that since I'm in the midst of walking graveyards to read 50,000 epitaphs in a year, and I'm a practicing mariitme historian, I might be sort of an expert on the topic, if (another) one exists.
Summary: "An archaeology of death and remembrance in maritime culture," the subtitle. How did Americans and Brits remember their dead lost at sea in the Age of Sail?
My Thoughts: So, I've "read," by now, dozens of graveyards in coastal communities. Along the way I've found numerous memorials and cenotaphs for sailors who died at sea, who were either recovered or lost forever, and each one tells such a different story: naval battles, shipboard accidents, shipwrecks. As far as our graveyards go, these stones provide oftentimes the only bit of color in an otherwise drab, macabre world.
David Stewart, as assistant professor at Eastern Carolina University, hotbed for maritime archaeology studies, makes the case that there is maritime archaeology to be conducted ashore. The last chapter of a shipwreck's story, for instance, can be told in the words and imagery symbolically placed on the tombstones or other items of remembrance for the sailors lost in those tragedies. In his book he focuses on British and American mariners lost in the Age of Sail, fully admitting that the whole story cannot be told until we make comparative studies in the other nations that plied the Atlantic during that time: France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, etc.
What I really enjoyed about this scholarly look at the subject was the way it stepped outside of the bounds of maritime history to contextualize trends within it. Why was there an increase in religious symbolism on stones in the early part of the nineteenth century? The answer, he suggests, lies in the great religious awakening of the period; sailors who once considered a holy man aboard a ship a taboo were now being buried under crosses and clasped hands pointing skyward.
He also dives into the emotional side of the story. How do Americans today deal with the inability to recover a body from the sea, and has the trend always remained the same? What does the wording on a stone truly say about the people who did the memorializing? Were sentiments the same on state-sponsored, family-erected and comrade-funded stones?
For stone gawkers like me, this book is an instant Bible, one to keep on the shelf as reference as my own thoughts take shape. 33,000 stones in, I'm thinking that I not only have a short-term research project, but a lifelong hobby brewing. With a little focus, I'm sure I can contribute to this study, if it's wanted.