Call for two volunteer graduate research associates to work on ERC-University of Exeter paper

The University of Exeter is holding a conference in September 2013 on Working lives between the deck and the dock.  This conference is part of a three year ERC funded project led by principal investigator Dr Maria Fusaro, and supported by associate research fellows Dr Bernard Allaire, Dr Richard Blakemore, and Dr Tijl Vanneste.

The MarineLives project team is delighted that its paper has been accepted by the conference organisers, and is now looking for two volunteer graduate research associates to assist it over the next few months in completing the paper.  All intellectual contributions to the paper will be recognised in the paper’s authorship.

The paper is titled: “Each according to his office”: Risk, rank, and labour in English whaling enterprise at Spitsbergen, 1656-7.  Its proposers and current principal authors are Philip Hnatkovich (Ph.D candidate, Pennsylvania State University) and Colin Greenstreet (Project Leader, Marine Lives).

Philip and Colin are forming a small research team to complete the research and writing of the paper. Two existing members of the MarineLives project team are joining the research team – Dr Janet Few, a community historian, and Karen Gunnell, a professional archivist with marine historical interests.

We would like to supplement the research team with two further volunteer graduate research associates.  Specifically we are looking for seventy hours of your research time, spread over the next four or five months.  We plan to complete research by the end of June and to submit the paper by the end of July 2013, in time for consideration for publication in a planned edition of conference papers.

At the core of the research is a social and economic reconstruction of the crew of the Owners Adventure and the Greyhound, the two whaling ships commanded by Thomas Damerell, and of their financiers.

If you join us in this work you will receive a rigorous training in collaborative research techniques, drawing on Colin Greenstreet’s training as a management consultant at McKinsey and Booz.Allen & Hamilton, and on Philip Hnatkovich’s and Colin’s training and practical experience of historical research.

You will be introduced to developing hypothesis based issue analysis, writing research and source evaluation plans, and meticulous demographic reconstruction.

You will also gain and contribute to an understanding of contract and incentive structures in English whaling in the 1650s, and to the economics and risk management of such ventures in the same period. Much of the detailed evidence will be drawn from High Court of Admiralty of England and Chancery Court litigation, and there will be a chance to explore how litigation was used by litigious financiers in an attempt to rewrite economic outcomes, and how ship owners and crew members responded and resisted such attempts.

If you would like to learn more about this opportunity, please contact us using this contact form.


ERC-Exeter Conference Paper Outline

“Each according to his office”: Risk, rank, and labour in English whaling enterprise at Spitsbergen, 1656-7

Authors: Philip Hnatkovich (Ph.D. Candidate, Pennsylvania State University) & Colin Greenstreet (Project Leader, MarineLives[i])

This paper examines the environmental, financial, and social pressures upon and within seventeenth-century English arctic whaling enterprise through a microhistory of a botched English venture in southern “Greeneland” (Spitzbergen) in the summer of 1656. The role of rank and the specific “offices” of the men involved in the venture are explored in the context of the high physical and commercial risk of whaling as an enterprise, and the highly differentiated nature of labour to successfully find, catch, and process whales.

In this particular case, the failure of the Owners Adventure and its companion pinke, the Greyhound – put to sea by London merchant and experienced whaling entrepreneur Richard Batson – to return with their expected haul, resulted in multiple law suits and protracted litigation between the financiers, the ships’ officers and crew, and accompanying land men.  The litigation was centred upon the High Court of Admiralty of England (HCA), physically located at Doctors Commons in London, but extending to a suit brought before the Poultry Counter by an ordinary seaman, and a related suit in Chancery.

The crux of these cases was a dispute at sea between the young captain and commander Thomas Damerell and the more seasoned harpooners Edward Gosling, Richard Maundrie, and William Humfrey, who openly challenged Damerell’s decision to attempt landfall through an unusually thick and hazardous ice shelf.  Their standoff galvanized the crews, leading Damerell to accuse Gosling, Maundrie, and Humfrey of mutinous behaviour; Batson and his fellow merchants ultimately aligned with Damerell in the resulting litigation and refused to pay wages to the crews.

This personal and situational conflict, replayed in detail through depositions given by the principals, crew, and accompanying land men, to the judges of the High Court of Admiralty, serves as a cogent starting point for a discussion of the deeper, structural faultlines of whaling enterprise – and the conditions of English sea labour more generally – in the mid-seventeenth century.  As asserted by John Appleby, though Greenland whaling was an industry of increasing economic value in this period, its unique set of financing and working conditions remain poorly understood in maritime historiography.[ii]  Environmental conditions in the Arctic made whaling a particularly challenging and hazardous segment of English fisheries expansion in the early and mid-seventeenth century.  Its use of a labour-intensive, shore-processing industrial system, in contrast to the offshore processing of whales by the Dutch, required large numbers of men.  Greenland voyages included a novel mix of seafarers, routinely placing a number of novice landsmen alongside workers with specialized skills like harpooners, butchers, brewers, and coopers.  Furthermore, whaling was a highly competitive field which pitted vessels representing different companies – and different nations – against one another in a struggle for shore space and shrinking yields.  At mid-century, declining temperatures associated with the Little Ice Age fostered the partial collapse of Greenland whale stocks and shortened its fishing season, placing further pressures on enterprise and exacerbating competition.

Based on the account given in the HCA depositions, our essay first uses the shipboard challenge to Captain Damerell in order to dissect the mechanics of Greenland whaling, and highlights the tensions between the different specialised “offices” held by crew members. The technical skills of the harpoonists and their importance to the success of a whaling adventure enabled them to challenge the authority of the young captain Damerell.  We cross-reference these depositions with further legal records from the Chancery and Probate courts, and with a range of national, municipal, and parish records, including State Papers and hearth tax returns, to reconstruct the social backgrounds of the principal figures in the Owners Adventure-Greyhound litigation.[iii]  In doing so, we place the case within the broader commercial networks and regulatory conflicts affecting whaling in the Commonwealth period.

Our microanalysis is informed by the transcriptions and insights contributed by the members of the MarineLives project, a digital humanities initiative working toward a collaborative transcription and online database of the court materials contained in HCA volume 13/71, from which many of the depositions derive.[iv]  In total, an examination of the conflicts at the heart of the failed Spitsbergen enterprise of 1656 suggests the potential contributions that the continued digitization and enrichment of HCA materials can make toward a greater social history of sea labor in the early modern age.


[i] For further information on the MarineLives project see http://www.marinelives.org and http://marinelives-theshippingnews.org/blog/

[ii] John C. Appleby, ‘Conflict, cooperation and competition: The rise and fall of the Hull whaling trade during the seventeenth century’, The Northern Mariner/le marin du nord XVIII, no. 2 (April 2008), 45-7.

[iii] For example,  C 6/134/15 Batson v Colvile. Plaintiffs: Richard Batson and Gowen Goldagne. Defendants: Robert Colvile, John Colvile and William Clarkson, 1657; SP 46/96/fo 5: Order of the Council for Trade that for this year Bell Sound and Horn Sound shall be reserved for the Company of Merchant Adventurers to Greenland and the rest of the harbours left free for all other Englishmen. Copy. 1650/1 Mar. 3; SP 46/96/fo 8-12: The proceedings at the Council for Trade, between the Muscovia Company, Monopolizers of the trade of Greenland, and others, Adventurers thither, for a Free Trade: Printed: [1651]; SP 46/96/fo 23-24: Description of the present state of the Greenland fishing and the methods employed, and conclusions drawn therefrom [by the Muscovia Company]. Copy. [1651/2 Jan.]

[iv] HCA 13/71 transcriptions of depositions relating to arctic whaling have been made by Dr. Janet Few, Karen Gunnell, Colin Greenstreet, Dr. Liam Haydon, Philip Hnatkovich, Alex Jackson, William Kellett, David Pashley, Daniel Richards, Laura Seymour, Alexis Harasemovitch Truax, William Tullett, and Jill Wilcox.