Tomorrow I am off to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University to start collecting primary source material for my PhD dissertation. With this on the immediate agenda, I will take this opportunity to discuss a bit of the research that I am doing aside from the archaeological investigation of the ballast distribution at St. Mary’s City. For persons not accustomed to the historical archaeological approach, or an historical or archaeological approach, this post might help give insight into exactly what sort of materials we use in the study of our past.
I often find myself in the company of persons whose focus is on prehistory. It amazes me the amount of data they are able to extract from very limited collections of artifacts, especially in the paleolithic. Commonly people engaged in this sort of research hear about my topic of study and remark on just how nice it must be to have everything already written down for me. I always reply that this is not entirely true, as historical documentation is not always complete, and narratives of events are more common for major events than the mundane. As an archaeologist, my chief duty is to study culture, and such events, while revealing in many ways, often leave much to be desired.
The study of trade, in which I am engaged, brings together many themes: Economic, technological, political, and environmental to name a few. Historical accounts of trade are quite few and far between, especially in seventeenth-century Britain. What we do know has been largely pieced together from numerous sources such as port records and receipt of duties. Occasionally we may find letters from, for example, a colonial governor to the British Monarch. But what can be learned from examining port records, which are essentially lists of ships entering a port with a brief description of cargo and where they have been, are the most telling for my own purposes. It is these records from which historians have been able to ascertain quantities of tobacco coming in to Britain throughout the seventeenth century. It also gives a fairly good estimate of the number of ships trading in the Chesapeake. But this is not without problems. Record keeping was not always as diligent as it could have been, and political issues often interfered with the keeping of records. Standardization of these practices was not present until the last decade of the seventeenth century, which makes the study of early seventeenth-century mercantilism difficult.
So what then will I be using for source material? Perhaps the most important sources for studying shipping actually come from the colonial records. Lois Green-Carr, Robert Menard and Lorena Walsh have spent major portions of their careers examining these records and establishing export quantities of tobacco from Maryland. These are incredibly useful. From this, we can look at the average tonnage of ships trading in the colonies, and figure out a rough estimate of the numbers of vessels involved in the trade. Pretty simple, right? Well then here comes the hard part. I don’t only wish to describe the number of ships trading, but rather to examine the development of practice and changes in productivity in the tobacco trade. For this, it sure would be nice to have some first hand accounts of the traders, discussing trade routes, difficulties in the journeys, what materials they are bringing with them, how long it takes them to arrive, what they do after arriving, how they offload their cargoes, how they load up new cargoes, if and how they assemble to travel as a fleet back to England, what they experience on the way back, and… well, you get the picture.
Fortunately though, these do exist! At Oxford tomorrow, my objective is to locate ship’s logbooks and passenger narratives giving a first hand account of the mariners on the London-Chesapeake trade route in the seventeenth century. From what I have seen in the literature, I may be the first person to examine these since 1907 when Henry F. Thompson used these logbooks to describe the activities of two of the vessels which were trading in Maryland waters. While I do not yet know much of their contents, I am very hopeful that these will provide valuable and unique insight into my research topic and answer many of the questions that I waffled on about above. Although a micro-scale approach such as this does not necessarily tell me of the broader trends in merchant shipping, I am hoping to collect enough of these to help fill in the gaps that we are missing thanks to poor recording practices in ports and all of those pesky courthouse fires that have wiped out so many of the records that were kept (many of these correspond to disagreements between colonists and their local governments). So in a way, perhaps I am in a unique and advantageous position compared to my prehistorically focused colleagues. Occasionally, we really do have things just written down for us.
So, enough of me going on about sources I do not yet have. Keep checking in for an update on what I find.