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'Rocks and storms I'll fear no more': Anglo-American maritime memorialization, 1700-1940

David James Stewart 
Dissertation: May 2004
Chair: Crisman


Nautical archaeology has made remarkable advances since its inception half a century ago, but one area in need of more attention is the examination of cultural aspects of seafaring. This dissertation advances understanding of eighteenth- through early-twentieth century British and American maritime culture by exploring traditional memorialization practices. Interpretations are based primarily on analysis of 412 maritime memorials recorded during two archaeological surveys in Great Britain and the United States. In addition, primary accounts from the Age of Sail are utilized to place maritime memorialization into its proper cultural and historical context. Research reveals three major themes in Anglo-American maritime memorialization. First, memorials show a striking concern for the dangers and hardships of life at sea. Numerous memorials describe the perils of the natural world and the group values that mariners developed to cope with the ever-present possibility of sudden death. Such values include attention to duty, courage, group loyalty, self-sacrifice, and pride. Second, maritime communities faced the problem of commemorating those who never returned from the sea. Many sailors were lost at sea or died aboard ship or in distant lands. In the vast majority of such cases, the body was never returned home, and many did not receive proper burial. As a result, family members and fellow sailors created memorials to honor the lost and to symbolically lay the deceased to rest. Evidence indicates, however, that such attempts were not entirely satisfactory. Many epitaphs lament the fact that empty graves cannot provide an adequate substitute for missing bodies. Finally, investigation revealed a significant increase in religious sentiment on maritime memorials from the mid-nineteenth century until the end of the Age of Sail. It is suggested that the increase in maritime religious sentiment was linked to nineteenth-century religious reform movements. The prevalence of religious imagery and inscriptions on maritime memorials during this time, however, probably does not indicate that most sailors became religious. Rather, most religious maritime memorials were erected by sailors' families. This suggests that maritime families turned to religion as a source of comfort when faced with the deaths of loved ones at sea.

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