H-Net Review [H-Environment]: Klinger on Cressy, 'Shipwrecks and the Bounty of the Sea'

Richard Gorrie Discussion

David Cressy. Shipwrecks and the Bounty of the Sea. Oxford Oxford  University Press, 2022. Illustrations. 336 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN  978-0-19-286339-3.

Reviewed by Patrick Klinger (Virginia Military Institute)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey

Shipwrecks have long played a significant role in the lives and  imaginations of mariners and English and Welsh coastal communities.  This has inspired an extensive literature, both popular and  scholarly, exploring shipwrecks and a significantly smaller  subsection detailing the history of Wreccum Maris, or the law of the  wreck of the sea. David Cressy's _Shipwrecks and the Bounty of the  Sea_ adds to this growing literature by exploring shipwrecks and  Wreccum Maris during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods and  challenges the notion of the barbaric salvager. As Cressy notes, many  of the topics explored in the work, from Elizabethan explanations of  shipwreck causes to the recovery of sunken materials, are not novel  in themselves, but this work fits in the growing literature covering  Wreccum Maris in the medieval period as well as from the later  Georgian period onward. 

In addition to the introduction, the work comprises twelve chapters  and an appendix of 850 shipwrecks along the English and Welsh shores.  Cressy clearly organizes each chapter and moves between many larger  themes like interpretations of how and why vessels wrecked (chapters  1 and 2), the total number of vessels sunk (chapter 1), deep water  recoveries (chapter 11), and Wreccum Maris (chapter 3). As one might  expect, several chapters provide ample case studies of different  wrecks, including the 1641 wreck of Dutch merchant "fluyt" _Golden  Grape_ (chapter 8), drawn from the author's work with primary sources  in newspapers, customs records, High Court of Admiralty papers, and  estate papers, among many others. With these case studies, Cressy  effectively illustrates the rich history of the complex interactions  between landowners, "wreckers" or salvagers, the state (Crown), and  shipowners. 

In the fourth chapter, Cressy posits that there is little evidence to  suggest that salvagers and coastal communities behaved "barbarically"  during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods and argues that the  interpretations of Wreccum Maris and the relationship between  salvagers and shipwrecks often depended on local conditions. This  argument challenges much of the literature around salvaging, which he  states was inspired by scholars using E. P. Thompson's model of the  eighteenth-century moral economy and subsequently portrayed coastal  communities as "barbarous," "savage," and eager to destroy any  floundering vessel or harm its inhabitants for gain (p. 72).  Contemporaries, for example, knew the challenges and risks when  calling something a "wreck," which meant it was salvageable. Many  merchants claimed their vessel perished or that it fell on rocks and  broke into pieces to avoid calling it a "wreck" (p. 57). Claims of  the "barbaric" actions of salvagers were exaggerated by merchants  attempting to recoup losses or by manorial proprietors (landowners)  against the Crown and vice versa. For Cressy, who brings to this  project an extensive knowledge of early modern English social  history, the Crown and the customs officials behaved more barbaric  than any other group. 

In terms of the moral economy, salvagers were far from "savage" and  were an integral part of the community. Salvaging was highly  organized, and many community members knew their responsibilities  when a salvaging opportunity occurred. Local connections provided  markets for these goods, and people of various social classes  interacted with one another in the salvaging process and regularly  worked together for each other's benefit even if the lion's share of  profit went to the landowner. Although no one became rich from any  one wreck, even a smaller salvaging expedition provided a modest  windfall for many coastal communities and replenished the supplies of  landowners. In one case, the salvaging of _Golden Grape_ on the  Dorset coast provided ample raisins and oils to a strapped rural  community. This wreck furnished added nutrients to the local diet and  provided many households who sold salvaged goods with six to eight  times their weekly income just before the holidays (pp. 170-71).  Although Cressy posits that salvagers remained largely nonviolent  during the eighteenth century as well, he presents evidence that  suggests that more violent interactions between salvagers and customs  officials occurred then, though still not to the extent that previous  scholars have suggested. 

Cressy could have helped readers by developing more salvaging and  wreck narratives in chapter 4. Several later chapters, for instance,  explore various shipwrecks in more detail and provide abundant  examples of the lack of evidence for a "barbarous" coastal community  of salvagers. While Cressy often directs the reader to chapter 4 when  exploring other themes in those chapters, developing more of those  case studies, like that of Albemarle in chapter 4, would have further  supported the lack of evidence of "barbarous" salvagers despite the  claims by merchants and avoided some of the whiplash for the reader  in later chapters. 

In sum, _Shipwrecks and the Bounty of the Sea_ is a welcome addition  to a growing field within maritime studies. For those interested in  the subject, this is a very enjoyable read. While Cressy covers a  wide range of topics, the target audience is more for specialists in  maritime history or studies, especially those of the Elizabethan and  Stuart periods. Those with an interest in Wreccum Maris, or the  intersections between culture and the sea in the early modern period,  will find this work of great interest. 

Citation: Patrick Klinger. Review of Cressy, David, _Shipwrecks and  the Bounty of the Sea_. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58873

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