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Book Review, NRJ 66.2

June 04, 2021 11:12 AM | David Eddy (Administrator)

Britain and the Ocean Road: Shipwrecks & People 1297-1825

Ian Friel

The word shipwreck brings to mind horrific events and harrowing rescues. For most, they are rarely sources of information about the social, political, economic, and cultural forces from whence they came. Dr. Ian Friel, in Britain and the Ocean Road, takes the stories of the wrecking events of shipwrecks to explore the social, political, economic and cultural forces at work in Britain between 1297 and 1825. The wrecks featured in this work are neither extraordinary nor filled with treasure, but representative of important trends in Britain’s rise to maritime supremacy. Friel, a renowned maritime historian, uses his collections and research experience to weave a tale to Britain’s maritime supremacy in his first volume, Britain and the Ocean Road.

Friel begins focusing on the beginnings of Britain’s rise to maritime supremacy in the Middle Ages with the twenty-three vessels burned in 1297 as a part of an internal conflict between Yarmouth and the Cinque Ports over maritime trade and fishing rights. Moving forward in time, the cog Anne and other pilgrimage vessels of the fifteenth century represent Britain’s first major foray outside of the immediate area of the British Isles. This expansionist effort continues through the next two chapters discussing the birth of the British Royal Navy, represented by Regent, and the birth of the East India Company with Trade’s Increase.

The second part of the work focuses on the solidification of Britain’s maritime supremacy and its global expansion. A portion of the second part of the work deals with the Royal Navy’s prowess. Using the stories of the three pirate vessels Resolution and of the wars with France through Berwick, Friel shows the solidification of Britain’s control and tactical prowess both against marauders and national navies. The last two chapters focuses on the economic capabilities of Britain’s oceanic prowess—slavery and exploration. Discussing Eliza and Fury, Friel indicates the economic necessity for controlling the seas and emphasizing the success Britain attained in having such dominance.

Dr. Friel weaves an intricate web of archaeological, historical documents, and material culture evidence to tell the tale of Britain’s rise to a maritime power. The multitude of sources allows Friel to place the various wrecks within the larger historical contexts of the time period discussed in each chapter. This approach reaches all audience through the excitement of a shipwreck and allows Friel to explore Britain, its people, and their relationship with the sea. Friel also discusses in depth through the available sources the technological advances that allowed Britain to attain sea dominance, which features into the lives of the British people during each time period.

Britain and the Ocean Road eloquently discusses the rise and solidification of Britain’s maritime supremacy from 1297 through 1825. Friel’s extensive research and accessible writing style makes this work relevant for the general public and researchers as a source for understanding Britain’s extensive maritime history with a unique approach of using shipwrecks as the starting point of the conversation.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2020
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xii + 204 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
  • ISBN: 9781526738363

Reviewed by Allyson Ropp, North Carolina Office of State Archaeology


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