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...

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.
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The books I picked & why

Two Years Before The Mast

By Richard Henry Dana,

Book cover of Two Years Before The Mast

Why did I love 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.

By Richard Henry Dana,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Two Years Before The Mast as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

‘Two Years Before the Mast’ is a memoir by the American author Richard Henry Dana, published in 1840, having been written after a two-year sea voyage from Boston to California on a merchant ship starting in 1834. A film adaptation under the same name was released in 1946. It is the true story of Richard Henry Dana’s voyage aboard the merchant vessel the ‘Pilgrim’ on a trip around Cape Horn during the years 1834 to 1836. Dana was a student at Harvard when a case of the measles affected his vision. He left school and enlisted as a sailor on…

Book cover of The Slave Ship: A Human History

Why did I love 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.”

By Marcus Rediker,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Slave Ship as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The slave ship was the instrument of history's greatest forced migration and a key to the origins and growth of global capitalism, yet much of its history remains unknown. Marcus Rediker uncovers the extraordinary human drama that played out on this world-changing vessel. Drawing on thirty years of maritime research, he demonstrates the truth of W.E.B DuBois's observation: the slave trade was 'the most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history'. The Slave Ship" focuses on the so-called 'golden age' of the slave trade, the period of 1700-1808, when more than six million people were transported out…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Edith M. Ziegler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Harlots, Hussies, & Poor Unfortunate Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women, Edith M. Ziegler recounts the history of British convict women involuntarily transported to Maryland in the eighteenth century.

Great Britain's forced transportation of convicts to colonial Australia is well known. Less widely known is Britain's earlier programme of sending convicts - including women - to North America. Many of these women were assigned as servants in Maryland. Titled using Basing much of her powerful narrative on the experiences of actual women, Ziegler restores individual faces to women stripped of their basic freedoms. She begins by vividly invoking the social conditions of eighteenth-century Britain,…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Stephen R. Berry,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Path in the Mighty Waters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A vivid and revealing portrait of shipboard life as experienced by eighteenth-century migrants from Europe to the New World

In October 1735, James Oglethorpe's Georgia Expedition set sail from London, bound for Georgia. Two hundred and twenty-seven passengers boarded two merchant ships accompanied by a British naval vessel and began a transformative voyage across the Atlantic that would last nearly five months. Chronicling their passage in journals, letters, and other accounts, the migrants described the challenges of physical confinement, the experiences of living closely with people from different regions, religions, and classes, and the multi-faceted character of the ocean itself.…

Star of the Sea

By Joseph O'Connor,

Book cover of Star of the Sea

Why did I love 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.”

By Joseph O'Connor,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Star of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* Over a million copies sold *

Rediscover Joseph O'Connor's monumental #1 international bestseller.

In the bitter winter of 1847, from an Ireland torn by injustice and natural disaster, the Star of the Sea sets sail for New York.

On board are hundreds of fleeing refugees. Among them are a maidservant with a devastating secret, bankrupt Lord Merridith and his family, an aspiring novelist and a maker of revolutionary ballads, all braving the Atlantic in search of a new home. Each is connected more deeply than they can possibly know.

But a camouflaged killer is stalking the decks, hungry for…

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