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Book Review, NRJ 66.4

November 12, 2021 10:29 AM | David Eddy

Breaking Seas, Broken Ships: People, Shipwrecks & Britain,1854-2007

Ian Friel

Britain’s dominion of the seas was long-lasting and global, yet not immune from change. With the rise of new technologies, new vessels, and new world powers, Britain’s seapower and influence began to wane. This is where Breaking Seas Broken Ships: People, Shipwrecks, & Britain 1854-2007 begins. This compendium of unknown yet influential shipwrecks begins where its predecessor, Britain and the Ocean Road ended, at the mid-point of the nineteenth century. Dr. Ian Friel, a prominent maritime historian, continues to tell the story of an evolving Britain and its relationship with the seas that he began in the first volume, Britain and the Ocean Road. Breaking Seas Broken Seas is the second volume exploring its dominance of the seas to its fall from prominence.

The volume begins with Friel acknowledging this period accounts for a multitude of societal, technological, political, and economic transformations of Britain and its interactions with the world. He frames these transformations through the stories of seven shipwrecks. The wrecks and accompanying histories reflect the myriad of changes that occurred through the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries and contextualize them on a local, national, and global scale representative of the changing times addressed in this work. The idea of transformation in the volume is two-fold. First, it is the tangible change of the transformation of ocean-going vessels from wooden sailing to steam-powered iron and steel vessels. The 1850s marked the transition to new vessels, which continued quickly through the twentieth century to the cargo ships of the twenty-first century. Second, the change is evident in society and the place of Britain in the global theater. The volume starts with Britain exerting dominion over the seas, but as the wrecks progress through the World Wars, Britain is supplanted as the dominant sea power. This transition alters societal relationships and, as Friel states, maritime trades is slowly dying as it becomes increasingly global.

A second theme Friel mentions specifically in his introduction, and is seen throughout the volume, is environmentalism. This theme is presented in two forms, as an agent to change and loss and as a resulting impact because of loss. The beginning chapters discuss the role of the environment as a factor for influencing the need to advance technologies for war and exploration purposes. It also discusses it as an important factor in the wrecking of vessels, particularly in specific locations. As the work progresses, the environmental aspect evolves to include the potential threats to the environment from wrecked and sunken vessels. Twentieth-century wrecks have the potential for causing significant environmental damage, and as the large oil tankers wreck and World War-era vessels erode, the threat of a large-scale environmental disaster is ever-looming, as Friel acknowledges.

Breaking Seas Broken Ships presents a succinct overview of Britain’s maritime history through the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. It uses seven lesser-known shipwrecks to provide this overview and illuminates their interconnectedness to various aspects of Britain’s imperial power, society, and overall relationship with the sea. Friel’s accessible writing style and the broad swath of evidence for each wreck and British society prove successful in discussing the strength and eventual fall of British sea dominance. Breaking Seas Broken Ships is a great continuation volume of the story of Britain’s relationship with the sea from Britain and the Ocean Road, providing a full picture of the intricate relationship of Britain and the sea while leaving room for future growth.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 20210
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xi + 182 pages
  • Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95
  • ISBN: 9781526771506

Reviewed by Allyson Ropp, North Carolina Office of State Archaeology

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