Maritime History & Culture Seminars at the IHR

Essential information

Date and time: 
26 October, 14 November, 12 December, 23 January, 20 February, 24 April, 19 June 22 May | 5.15/ 5.30pm
Talks & courses

Maritime History & Culture Seminars at The Institute of Historical Research, University of London, Senate House, London WE1E 7HU




Convenors: Aaron Jaffer and Lizelle de Jager

All seminars begin at 17:15 in Wolfson Room I at the Institute, except: 26 October – Chancellor’s Hall at 17:30

Autumn Term 2017

26 October

Professor Marcus Rediker, University of Pittsburgh

The Maritime Origins of Abolition: The Case of Benjamin Lay, Quaker and 'Common Sailor'

How did a Quaker dwarf who worked as a commoner, a sailor, and a glove maker become one of the first British men to oppose slavery? 

Join author and historian Marcus Rediker as he uncovers the extraordinary story of Benjamin Lay and the maritime origins of abolitionism, as part of RMG’s Maritime History & Culture Seminar Series.

Marcus Rediker takes us on a fascinating journey through the Early Modern Atlantic world alongside the radical Quaker sailor Benjamin Lay - who lived in a cave, made his own clothes, refused to consume any product of slavery, and conducted direct action against slave owners. Born in Copford, near Colchester, Essex, in 1682, Lay became one of the most intriguing figures of his era. His experiences as a sailor, and his time in Barbados and colonial Philadelphia fuelled his passionate hatred of slavery and injustice.

Marcus Rediker is Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Many-Headed Hydra (2000, with Peter Linebaugh), Villains of All Nations (2004), The Slave Ship (2007), and most recently The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (2017).

14 November

Ian Murphy, National Museums Liverpool

Curating the ‘Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors’ exhibition

Black Salt: Britain’s Black sailors reveals the contribution Black seafarers have made to some of the most significant maritime events of the past 500 years.

The exhibition, now on at National Museums Liverpool, is based on the book 'Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships' by historian Ray Costello. It combines personal stories, historic data, objects and memorabilia to chart a course through the often troubled waters of Britain’s maritime past and explore the work of Black sailors.

Historically overlooked, Black Salt shows how Black seafarers contended with the dangers and hazards of life at sea, and challenged inequality on board and ashore. 


Ian Murphy, Deputy Director & Curator, will speak about curating this ground-breaking exhibition.

12 December

The last object in the museum

What if the museum could only save one object?

Seven doctoral students will tackle this difficult question at an entertaining Christmas seminar. Each researcher has chosen one item from the 4 million objects in Royal Museum Greenwich’s collection and will be given five minutes to argue why it should be saved.

They will discuss their chosen object’s historical significance, what stories it can tell, how it might be displayed, its conservation needs and/or its provenance.

The audience will vote to decide a winner. Come along and choose between a selection of weird and wonderful objects, including a pair of trousers, a set of West African weights and a biscuit. All welcome. No need to book. Please join us for wine & mince pies afterwards. 

No objects will be harmed as a result of this seminar.

Jack Avery, University of Bristol & The National Archives

Julia Binter, University of Oxford

Callum Easton, University of Cambridge  

Katherine Gazzard, National Portrait Gallery & University of East Anglia

Anna McKay, University of Leicester

Hannah Stockton, Queen Mary, University of London

Maya Wassell Smith, University of Cardiff

Spring Term 2018

23 January 2018

Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, University of Oxford

On the Ocean: The Mediterranean and the Atlantic from Prehistory to AD 1500

For humans the sea has always been an alien and dangerous environment. So how and why did humans become seafarers? The distinguished archaeologist Barry Cunliffe explores the evidence, bringing together years of research and very recent findings.

His new book, On the Ocean, begins 40,000 years ago, with hunter-gatherers in the eastern Mediterranean building simple vessels to cross the sea to Crete. It ends in the early sixteenth century, with professional sailors from Spain, Portugal, and England establishing the limits of the vast Atlantic from Labrador to Patagonia.

In between, Cunliffe shows what we now know about ancient ship-building techniques; what we can learn from the myth of Odysseus and accounts of the first circumnavigation of Africa; Byzantine ships recovered in Istanbul’s harbour; computer modelling, which shows how Europeans could have traversed the Atlantic; DNA evidence from mice teeth which reveals how Cyprus was colonized by our Neolithic ancestors.

The human impulse to conquer the sea stems from an inbuilt urge to explore; this, Cunliffe argues, has been a driving force, perhaps the driving force, in human history.                                                                                 

20 February 2018

Dr Caroline Withall, National Maritime Museum

The forgotten boys of the sea: Marine Society merchant sea apprentices, 1772-1854

Painting of young sailor

Dr Caroline Withall will explore the lives of poor boys who went to sea during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Meet apprentices like Edward Kelly, who was beaten so badly he lost the use of his arm, William Cakebread, who was jailed for smuggling, and William Brook, a ‘boy of colour’ recommended by the Lord Mayor of London.

Where did these boys come from? Who employed them and how were they treated? Where were they sent? Did they find better lives at sea? Did they run away? How many of them survived?

The Marine Society is well known for sending boys to the Royal Navy but, as this seminar will show, supplying apprentices for merchant ships became the society’s main focus. Dr Withall will also address broader social and economic issues within British and maritime history, drawing upon data on over 22,000 of these ‘forgotten’ boys. 

Summer Term 2018

24 April 2018

Laika Nevalainen, European University Institute

From sailors’ chests to sailors’ homes: Finnish seamen and domesticity in the early 20th century

22 May 2018

Daniel Simpson, Royal Holloway & The British Museum

‘Cannibals’, ‘Savages’ and pronouns: the strange world of British naval encounter in Australia and the Torres Strait, 1842-1850’ 

19 June 2018  

Professor Andrew Lambert, King’s College London

Constructing the seapower state: culture, identity and exceptionalism