The best books on maritime social history

Cian T. McMahon Author Of The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine
By Cian T. McMahon

Who am I?

As an emigrant myself (I left Ireland in the late 1980s), I’ve always been interested in understanding the process of moving from one place to another; of existing in that liminal space between “being here” and “being there.” I spent several years researching the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century Irish migrants for my book, The Coffin Ship, but found the answers led to new questions on how other peoples, in other places, have managed being somewhere between “here” and “there.” These are some of the books that have helped me along that long, emotional journey.


I wrote...

The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

By Cian T. McMahon,

Book cover of The Coffin Ship: Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine

What is my book about?

The standard story of the exodus during Ireland’s Great Famine is one of the tired clichés, half-truths, and dry statistics. In The Coffin Ship, I offer a vibrant, new perspective on an oft-ignored but vital component of the migration experience: the journey itself.

Between 1845 and 1855, over two million people fled Ireland to escape the Great Famine and begin new lives abroad. The so-called “coffin ships” they embarked on have since become infamous icons of nineteenth-century migration. The crews were brutal, the captains were heartless, and the weather was ferocious. Yet, as my book demonstrates, the personal experiences of the emigrants aboard these vessels offer us a much more complex understanding of this pivotal moment in modern history.

The books I picked & why

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Two Years Before The Mast

By Richard Henry Dana,

Book cover of Two Years Before The Mast

Why this book?

After studying for a couple of years as an undergraduate at Harvard, Richard Henry Dana dropped out to join the merchant marine in 1834. Over the course of two years, he sailed around the Cape Horn to California and back. In 1840, he published a personal account of his experiences entitled Two Years Before the Mast, which became an instant classic and offered a rare (and sympathetic) glimpse into the hardships sailors faced living and working on a sailing ship. You just cannot beat this book for an eyewitness account of the tiny (but profound) details of life at sea in the nineteenth century.


The Slave Ship: A Human History

By Marcus Rediker,

Book cover of The Slave Ship: A Human History

Why this book?

One of the main goals of the slave trade was to erase the identities of its human cargoes and reduce them to an undifferentiated mass of commodified “negroes.” I was really impressed by the way that Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship examines how this “strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory” attempted to achieve that wicked goal—and how the slaves themselves resisted with everything they had. Written by one of the pre-eminent historians of maritime social history, The Slave Ship is, in my opinion, a must-read for those seeking to understand history “from below the decks.”


Harlots, Hussies, & Poor Unfortunate Women: Crime, Transportation & the Servitude of Female Convicts, 1718-1783

By Edith M. Ziegler,

Book cover of Harlots, Hussies, & Poor Unfortunate Women: Crime, Transportation & the Servitude of Female Convicts, 1718-1783

Why this book?

Because the nineteenth-century sailing ship was such a male-dominated space, women were largely invisible in traditional histories of life at sea. Although Edith Ziegler’s book does not simply focus on the voyage itself (it includes analysis of female convicts’ lives before and after the journey as well), it does show how women combatted the “sexual opportunism and exploitation” that was endemic on convict transports. What’s great about this book is that even though many of its subjects were illiterate (and thus left precious few letters and diaries behind), Ziegler manages to unearth the women’s voices in authentic and moving ways.


A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World

By Stephen R. Berry,

Book cover of A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World

Why this book?

Washington Irving once famously described a long sea voyage as a “blank page in existence.” Stephen Berry’s analysis of James Oglethorpe’s Georgia Expedition, which sailed from England to colonial Georgia in 1735, shows that the opposite was true. Rather than merely serve as the stage on which the human drama of migration played out, the sea voyage was a dynamic actor in the experience itself. Far from land, migrants had time and space to reconsider their views on society, religion, and identity in ways that shaped their new lives in America.


Star of the Sea

By Joseph O'Connor,

Book cover of Star of the Sea

Why this book?

Even professional historians need to slow down and read fiction sometimes! And Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea his is one of my all-time favorites. Set on an emigrant sailing ship during Ireland’s Great Famine, this dark thriller skillfully interweaves the stories of a number of different passengers, one of whom happens to be a murderer. O’Connor, one of Ireland’s leading novelists, finds that perfect balance between “historical” and “fiction.”


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