The best books about historical sea voyages

The Books I Picked & Why

Middle Passage

By Charles Johnson

Book cover of Middle Passage

Why this book?

“Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” 

So starts this classic American novel, winner of the 1990 National Book Award, which tells the tale of Rutherford Calhoun, a loveable rogue and newly-emancipated slave in 1830s New Orleans. In an attempt to escape his matrimonially-minded girlfriend, he stows aboard the Republic and finds himself on a voyage to traffic captives from a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri.

What follows is part adventure novel, part slavery narrative, part fable – and a disastrous sea voyage of epic proportions. But what can you expect when you kidnap and enslave a real-life African god?

Middle Passage is brutal and gruesome, featuring cannibalism, rape, murder, and pedophilia alongside the misery of human trafficking. (As Captain Ebenezer Falcon says: ‘There’s not a civilized law that holds water once you’ve put to sea.’) 

It’s almost too memorable. Some of these characters and images will never leave you - however much you want them to. Above all, it’s a dazzling, wild ride; a novel of big ideas about morality and responsibility and an inventive commentary on the creaking American republic itself.

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The Sea Road

By Margaret Elphinstone

Book cover of The Sea Road

Why this book?

The ‘sea-fiction’ literary canon is very male-focused. But in the real world, women put to sea too, and were sometimes at the forefront of exploration. Maria, the heroine of my novel, was the first non-native woman to set foot on the northwest coast of America, when she arrived with Francis Drake during his circumnavigation voyage in the summer of 1579. Five hundred years earlier, on the other side of the continent, another female pioneer, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, explored and settled the Newfoundland coast. 

Gudrid, the ‘Far Travelled’ of Icelandic sagas, is brought to life in this beautifully written and vividly imagined novel. Rich in historical detail and steeped in the mythology and worldview of the Vikings, it’s a thoroughly convincing portrait of an extraordinary woman at the edge of the known world.

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Rites of Passage

By William Golding

Book cover of Rites of Passage

Why this book?

Lord of the Flies – at sea. Golding won the Booker Prize in 1980 for this novel about a tragedy that unfolds aboard a ship sailing to Australia in the early nineteenth century. Edmund Talbot narrates the tale in lively, entertaining letters to his godfather and benefactor, an English lord. 

Talbot is a thoroughly unpleasant character – an entitled, self-serving snob, whose pursuit of a woman, portrayed as a jolly jape, would earn him an assault charge today. 

The first part describes Talbot’s impressions of his fellow passengers, including the laughable Reverend Colley; his coming to terms with the stench and discomforts of ship life; his commitment to learning nautical terms – the ‘tarry language’ of the sailors. The second half veers off into such a surprising tangent that it is hard to describe without giving the game away. Through Colley’s diaries, we understand more clearly what has been going on below the surface - ‘tween decks’ so to speak – that which Talbot, in his self-interest, has not seen. 

The ship, isolated by the indifferent sea, becomes the stage for a study of English pretension and class; of the damage wrought by shame and cruelty.

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The Walrus Mutterer

By Mandy Haggith

Book cover of The Walrus Mutterer

Why this book?

In 325 BC, Pytheas of Massalia travelled to northern Britain and beyond, becoming the first writer to chronicle the midnight sun and describe the distant land of Thule (possibly Iceland). His account, On the Ocean, was lost to history and is now known only through references by other writers. But we do have The Walrus Mutterer, a brilliant fictionalization of those travels, to make up for it.

Rian is a young woman from the Scottish region of Assynt who is being trained as a healer when she is enslaved and forced to join Pytheas’s dangerous voyage of discovery. In poetic, lean prose, Haggith details Rian’s trials at sea, her endurance and strength, and the search for the eponymous walrus-hunter, which takes them into the far north.

The writing about the weather and landscape of this lost world is exquisite. The beliefs and practices of this distant way of life so convincingly rendered, it is a surprise to discover Haggith actually resides in the 21st century.

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The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters

By Adam Nicolson

Book cover of The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters

Why this book?

Not a novel, but it reads like one, as Nicolson tells the story of how the greatest sea voyage tale of all time – The Odyssey, and its sister epic The Iliad – came to be, with a cast of characters including the Greek heroes, gods and goddesses crossing the land and seascapes of Ancient Greece. 

Nicolson argues that these poems emerged not in the 8th century BC, when they were first written down, but a thousand years earlier in the oral tradition. In them, he sees the origin myths of the people who became the Greeks – the fusion of the native people of the Eastern Mediterranean and invaders from the northern steppes. 

But it is Nicolson’s personal investment in his subject that is so beguiling. A sailor himself, he brings his deep knowledge of the sea, of sailing, navigation, the capriciousness of wind, the knife-edge between peace and the furious waves, the danger of the reefs, the battle between man and the forces of nature, to his understanding of these epic poems.

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