Publication Date

February 1, 2012


Economic, Military

Although Maritime history is in many respects a new field, it has deep roots in older scholarship. The International Commission for Maritime History (ICMH) was established in 1960 to promote international cooperation and the exchange of ideas, and remains one of the most important organizations for future development of the field. It is affiliated with the International Committee of Historical Sciences, and made up of its constituent national organizations, which for the United States is an AHA-affiliate, the North American Society for Oceanic History.1

In the 1980s, maritime history in the United States was close to extinction. Answering a national call to revitalize the field, the Council of American Maritime Museums established a committee on higher education, whose 1989 report captured a subject suffering from a general invisibility within academia. Even museums that actively supported maritime history (Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, the Mariners' Museum in Virginia, Mystic Seaport, New Bedford Whaling Museum, Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, San Diego Maritime Museum, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park , and South Street Seaport) could find no place to send their staff for education in the discipline.

In 1993, Paul Kennedy's International Security Program at Yale University hosted a conference with the Naval War College to take renewal of the field a step further. The proceedings of that conference were published and followed by two others on naval history—one looking at ways to improve approaches and the other, a case-study of the Mediterranean ocean basin.2 In 1995, the Dutch-Australian scholar Frank Broeze produced a complementary volume.3 These cumulative efforts helped to move the field beyond its antiquarian roots. In 2008, the American Historical Association recognized maritime history among its taxonomy of specializations for the first time.

The traditional themes for maritime history developed around three separate and isolated subjects: the history of maritime exploration, naval warfare, and economic affairs (shipbuilding, overseas trade, and commercial fishing). In these areas, key American scholars included Robert G. Albion, William Bell Clark, Clarence H. Haring, John G. B. Hutchins, John H. Kemble, Benjamin Labaree, Samuel Eliot Morison, J.H. Parry, and Lawrence Wroth. Traditional maritime history had little to say about social and cultural matters, which appeared mainly in biographies of naval commanders. The narrow emphasis on national perspectives of naval warfare or isolated aspects of economic history contributed to the field's marginalization during the mid-twentieth century, as the broader discipline turned increasingly toward social and cultural history. Although the subject remained active at museums and in specialist education within the maritime professions, maritime history did not keep pace with developments elsewhere in academia.4

Maritime History Today

Recent initiatives recognize maritime history as a broad, interdisciplinary theme in global history, the multidimensional study of human interactions with the world's water-covered regions. A maritime historian may approach the field from a range of vantage points, including science and technology, industry, economics, trade and business, art, literature, military and naval affairs, international relations, comparative studies in imperial and colonial affairs, communications and transportation, intercultural relations and exchange, law, institutional and organizational development, the exploitation and conservation of natural maritime resources, social relations and labor, sports and recreation. In all of these areas, associations at sea as well as sea-land relationships may be subject to scrutiny. Uniting such disparate specialties is their shared engagement with complementary and comparative experiences, social relations, and related sciences and technologies.

Each subspecialty of maritime history links to a range of academic themes and approaches. The maritime economic historian has ties to the fields of economic and business history; the naval historian to diplomatic, military, and international history; the historian of navigation to the history of science and technology; the student of maritime art or literature to the wider fields of art history and literature; and the historian of exploration to the history of imperial expansion and global interaction. Each subspecialty's connection to an established discipline or distinct field helps to define it, while the traits it shares with other maritime matters interrelate and extend back to events on shore.

Much of the "new maritime history" probes social and cultural life: work in this area by Margaret Creighton, Paul Gilje, Jesse Lemisch, Lisa Norling, Marcus Rediker, N.A.M. Rodger, Billy G. Smith, and Daniel Vickers has energized the field. Daniel Vickers, Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling underscore the differences between old and new approaches; their emphasis on people, rather than ships or battles, connects life at sea to life ashore.5 Studies of the Atlantic world by Bernard Bailyn, David Armitage, and Jack P. Greene sharpen maritime historians’ focus on the transoceanic movement of peoples, goods, and ideas, while Daniel Finamore, Michael J. Jarvis, Peter Linebaugh, Christopher M. Magra, and Marcus Rediker nudge them still further along other lines. Leading scholars such as Lewis R. Fischer, Maria Fusario, Alan James, Roger Knight, Andrew Lambert, and Amélia Polónia have contributed valuable surveys on current developments to recent issues of theMariner's Mirror, Research in Maritime History, and theInternational Journal of Maritime History.6

Organizations and Journals

Many countries with a strong maritime element in their national experience have long-established scholarly societies that publish peer-reviewed journals in the field.7 The most widely known among them are the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Zeegeschiedenis in the Netherlands, which publishesTijdschrift voor Zeegeschiedenis, the Sjöhistoriska Samfundet in Sweden, which publishes Forum Navale, and the Société Française d’Histoire Maritime in France, which publishesLa Chronique d'Histoire Maritime. In addition, a number of national maritime museums publish peer-reviewed academic yearbooks, including the Deutsches Schiffahrtsarchiv, published by the Deutsches Schiffahrts, a German national museum and federal research center, and theÅrbok of the Norsk Maritimt Museum in Oslo. In the English-speaking world, the most prominent scholarly organizations are the century-old Society for Nautical Research in the United Kingdom, publisher ofThe Mariner's Mirror; the Australian Association for Maritime History, which publishes Great Circle; and the Canadian Nautical Research Society, which publishes theNorthern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord in association with the North American Society for Oceanic History, in the United States.

These as well as the more recently established journals have begun to widen their perspective beyond a traditional national outlook to a broader global perspective. The International Maritime Economic History Association took the lead more than 20 years ago with itsInternational Journal of Maritime History and its series of monographs, Research in Maritime History. More recent still are e-journals, such as the Journal for Maritime Research, published by the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; the year-old Coriolis: InterdisciplinaryJournal of Maritime Studies, produced online by Mystic Seaport Museum; and the International Journal of Naval History: A Global Forum for Naval Historical Scholarship. Among these, only the International Journal of Maritime History and theMariner's Mirror have been recognized as “Class One” journals by the European Science Foundation.

While a range of publishing opportunities exist for article-length research, finding publishers for book-length monographs in the United States remains a challenge. Until this year, the University Press of Florida led the field with its fine series, "New Perspectives on Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology," edited by James C. Bradford and Gene A. Smith.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Maritime History, published in 2007 with 400 contributors from 50 different countries, marked the field’s first attempt to organize a global academic reference work. David M. Williams’s “Humankind and the Sea: The Changing Relationship since the Mid-Eighteenth Century” and Lincoln Paine’s “Beyond the Dead White Whales: Literature of the Sea and Maritime History,” both published in the June 2010 issue of The International Journal for Maritime History, reflect the field’s changing perspectives and broadened scale. Williams shows the gradual shift from an emphasis on the economic, to the social, to the environmental and ecological concerns of the last half century, while Paine pushes the field to look beyond its usual list of Anglophone writers. After all, Paine points out, if the purpose of putting to sea is to establish wider connections, then the parochial canon of Anglo-American literature has failed its own test. The North American Society for Oceanic History’s (NASOH) annual conference, held at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, in March, 2011, included sessions on the development of seaports, maritime labor and environmental history, naval affairs, whaling, and women in maritime history.

Maritime History in the United States

During the most recent NASOH conference, Ingo Heidbrink, professor of maritime history at Old Dominion University and secretary-general of the International Commission for Maritime History, addressed the relatively low level of international perspective in the work of American scholars. The major conferences on maritime history in the last decade—those organized by the International Maritime Economic History Association, the North Atlantic Fisheries History Association, or the International Commission for Maritime History—have seen only a small number of American participants, few of them young. The large array of domestic topics available to American researchers may disincline them to take on the burden of international comparative historical analysis. Yet, there are more maritime historians in the United States than in any other country, and they can appear to historians around the globe more as obstacles than catalysts for international cooperation. Many leading U.S. maritime historians are relative strangers to their respective international counterparts.

Maritime historians have a tendency to identify with their subspecialty rather than with the broader field. Colleagues dealing with the history of fisheries use the terms fisheries history or maritime environmental history, for instance; naval historians sometimes do the same, as do maritime economic historians. While these terms lend precision, they also compartmentalize an already small subject, obscure the larger picture, and risk overlooking the broad interconnections and perceptions present in the field.

Since 1992, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has sponsored five summer institutes in maritime history for college and university teachers in order to promote undergraduate instruction in this area—two at the John Carter Brown Library, and three at the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime History at Mystic Seaport.8 A fourth NEH institute on “The American Maritime People” will take place at Mystic, June 25 through July 27, 2012. Another significant NEH initiative is Joshua Smith’s two-volume paperback set, Voyages: Documents in American Maritime History, designed for use in undergraduate courses.9 Complementing the NEH effort is the distinguished graduate-level summer program at the Munson Institute, founded by Harvard University’s Robert G. Albion in 1955, and a well-established program in maritime history and underwater and nautical archaeology at East Carolina University. Ingo Heidbrink’s recent move from Germany to Norfolk, Virginia, may attract deserved attention and support to the rich maritime resources available in archives, museums, and libraries throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. Heidbrink’s position as secretary-general, along with NASOH’s role within the ICMH, could help connect American scholars generally to international colleagues and their research.

Forthcoming conferences at NASOH and around the globe provide ideal opportunities for American maritime historians to broaden their research and perspectives. Currently, the largest and most diverse of these are the quadrennial International Maritime Economic History Association conference, the next of which will take place in Ghent, Belgium, July 3–6, 2012. NASOH's annual conference will take place at Texas A & M University at Galveston, Texas, April 22–26, 2012, in a joint meeting with the Council of American Maritime Museums and the next biennial Naval History Symposium at the U.S. Naval Academy is scheduled for September 19–20, 2013.

Web Sites of Publishers of Journals on Maritime History

Listed in the following order: Publisher, (title), web site

Nederlandse Vereniging voor Zeegeschiedenis (Tijdschrift voor Zeegeschiedenis).

Sjöhistoriska Samfundet (Forum Navale).

Société Française d'Histoire Maritime(La Chronique d'Histoire Maritime) .

Deutsches Schiffahrts (Deutsches Schiffahrtsarchiv).

Norsk Maritimt Museum (Årbok) .

Society for Nautical Research (The Mariner's Mirror).

Australian Association for Maritime History (Great Circle).

Canadian Nautical Research Society and the North American Society for Oceanic History(Northern Mariner/Le Marin du Nord).

International Maritime Economic History Association (Journal of Maritime History).

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom (Journal for Maritime Research). From May 2011, the journal has been published in electronic and print versions and have been distributed by Routledge as part of the Taylor & Francis Group. The journal web site is, with further information available at

Mystic Seaport Museum (Coriolis: Interdisciplinary Journal of Maritime Studies).

International Journal of Naval History(A Global Forum for Naval Historical Scholarship).

John Hattendorf, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He chairs the maritime history department there, and is also the director of the Naval War College Museum.


1. See International Commission for Maritime History.

2. , ed.,Ubi Sumus? The State of Naval and Maritime History (Newport: Naval War College Press, 1994); Hattendorf, ed., Doing Naval History: Essays Toward Improvement (Newport; Naval War College Press, 1995); Hattendorf, ed.,Naval Strategy and Policy in the Mediterranean: Past, Present, and Future (London: Frank Cass, 2000).

3. Frank Broeze, ed.Maritime History at the Crossroads: A Critical Review of Recent Historiography Research in Maritime History, no. 9. (St John’s Newfoundland: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1995).

4. A recent forum on the current state of naval history appears in Andrew Lambert, John Beeler, Barry Strauss, and Hattendorf, “The Neglected Field of Naval History? A Forum” Historically Speaking, Volume 11, Number 4, September 2010, pp. 9–19.

5. Daniel Vickers, “Beyond Jack Tar,”William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series. 50:2 (April 1993), 418–24; Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling, Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700–1920 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), vi-xi.

6. See in particular, Maria Fusario and Amélia Polónia, eds., Maritime History as Global History. Research in Maritime History, no. 43. (St. John’s, Newfoundland, 2010) and Lewis R. Fisher, “Are we in danger of being left with our Journals and not much else: The future of maritime history?Mariner's Mirror. 97, no. 1 (2011), 366–381. For naval history, See Alan James, “Raising the Profile of Naval History,” Andrew Lambert, “The Construction of Naval History, 1815–1914,” and Roger Knight, “Changing the Agenda: the new naval history of the British sailing navy,” Mariners Mirror, 97:1 (2011), 193–242.

7. The web sites of the publishers of the journals referred to in the following section are listed in theabove box.

8. See Hattendorf, ed.,Maritime History, two volumes, 1540–1815: (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing, 1996–97). The first of the Mystic Seaport institutes produced an illustrated textbook for teaching: Benjamin Labaree, et al, America and the Sea: A Maritime History (Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1998).

9. Joshua M. Smith and the National Maritime Historical Society, eds,Voyages: Documents in American Maritime History, vol. 1, The Age of Sail, 1492–1865; vol. 2, The Age of Engines, 1865–present. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009).

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