Sir Cloudesley’s Folly: Folklore, Science, and Local Knowledge

In her blog, Karin Murray-Bergquist (Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland) explores a tragic event at the intersection of British naval history (and mythmaking), developing maritime technology, the erasure of local knowledges, and folklore.

The death by shipwreck of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, on the Western Rocks of the Scilly Isles, gave rise to a remarkable set of tales. The worst maritime calamity of its day, the 1707 disaster claimed the ships Association, Eagle, Romney, and Firebrand. With an estimated two thousand lives lost, the wrecks arose from a miscalculation of longitude, an error reflected in one of the main legends surrounding the wreck. Another legend may have been inspired by its location — a place associated with the practice of wrecking, luring ships onto the rocks to plunder them, as well as the slightly less murderous one of salvage. Together, these stories illustrate contemporary and subsequent attitudes about the disaster, and help us to understand some of the tensions of the time. Contrasting local and nationally supported authority, and influencing the course of scientific history, these legends of the wreck are particularly worth exploring for their fluid combination of folklore and history.

Sir Cloudesley Shovell. Wikipedia: Michael Dahl, 1702? National Portrait Gallery, London

            The Isles of Scilly (yes, it is pronounced “silly”) are an archipelago off of Cornwall, low-lying, rain-washed islands with a smattering of towns, best known for their unique narcissi and fishing and maritime history, including shipwrecks. Scilly is the supposed home of Saint Warna, patroness of wrecks and wreckers. Whether the saint ever wrecked anything herself is debated, however, she is the figure to whom residents might pray to receive a bountiful supply of flotsam and jetsam, received either by accident or with a little nudging by human agents. It is into this context that the legends surrounding the shipwreck emerge.

            The Two Legends

            The legend telling the story of the hanged sailor and the Cursing Psalm, which is recounted in Dava Sobel’s Longitude among other sources historic and modern, begins with the flagship of the fleet sailing towards the English Channel, and passing the Scilly Isles. One sailor approaches the admiral, concerned that the ships are too close to the infamous, ship-breaking Western Rocks, and recommends that the ships change course. He is a Scillonian by birth, and knows the islands well. The admiral, incensed that any common sailor could presume to know more than himself about his own job, has the man hanged, but allows him to read a final prayer before the noose tightens. The man chooses the Cursing Psalm, psalm number 109, repeating “certain imprecatory passages” — for instance, “let his wife be left a widow, and his children fatherless” — to drive home the point. Sure enough, not long after, the ships meet their doom.

Section of Admiralty Chart of the Isles of Scilly showing the location of the wreck site of H.M.S. Association, lost in 1707 on the Gilstone Rocks.
Derived from file: Admiralty Chart 34 The Scilly Isles published 1911.jpg. The location of the wreck is from: Isles of Scilly: Designated Wrecks Interpretation. CISMAS. Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society. Retrieved on 20 January 2020. (Site marked by Kognos who then uploaded it to Wikipedia.)

            The ring legend recounts the horrific sight of the bodies from the wrecks of the Association, Eagle, Romney, and Firebrand being carried to the windswept beach on the waves. The Admiral was lucky, at first. Instead of drowning in the wreck, he was washed ashore, and found by a local woman. She had her eye on the admiral’s emerald ring, however, and, instead of helping him, she murdered him to obtain it. The story supposedly came to light through the woman’s deathbed confession. Although it is an unverified story, first recounted in a letter decades later, it is also persistent.

            Like much folklore, both of these stories have alternately been repeated as legend and as fact. The website for Westminster Abbey repeats the ring legend as historical, including the detail that the woman confessed on her deathbed. William Bottrell, in 1873, though repeating the hanged sailor story in Traditions and Hearth-Side Stories of West Cornwall, differs in his account of the ring legend, saying that the admiral’s body was recognised by a soldier and his wife, who sent the ring to his widow and were rewarded with a pension for life. Evidently, though both legends were part of the same body of stories, they did not always travel together.

            But legend and history run together at a number of points. The site where the admiral was buried was said to be a place where no grass would grow, as a mark of his cruelty and injustice. Even the admiral’s reinterment at Westminster Abbey seemed not to have dampened enthusiasm for this aspect of the legend, as Bottrell in 1873 notes that the pit marking the spot is bare. While this is a detail often given less prominence in subsequent versions, it is in keeping with the way the hanged sailor legend and the ring legend often work together to portray injustice.

Gravesite. image was taken by Maj C E White and given to Wikipedia

            The dynamics of the tale shift with the combination of the two legends. The shipwreck becomes an act of hubris: it is not a lack of knowledge, but an admiral’s unwillingness to learn from a social inferior that is the fleet’s downfall. The decision to push on regardless — ignoring local knowledge and favouring official knowledge and authority — is at the heart of the hanged sailor legend. When told alongside the ring legend, it becomes a story about the inevitability of poetic justice. It is also a story with a central place in technological history. This is not a story of unfamiliar waters, after all, but of waters not quite familiar enough because they lacked the technology to determine the fleet’s exact position in relation to dangerous shores. The Longitude Act of 1714, which offered a prize to anyone who could determine a way of measuring longitude at sea, followed so closely on this incident that it is sometimes perceived as a direct result, invoked by one pamphlet prior to the act’s initiation. Although the problem of longitude was a much broader one, and although other factors were in play in the Scilly disaster, the lack of longitudinal knowledge should have encouraged reliance on local knowledge. The fact that this was not sought out, or indeed ignored, provides a driving force for the story as a cautionary tale.

            The Warning Legend

            The identity of the common sailor whose warning went unheeded is not known, although he is said to have been a Scilly man (unlike the admiral, who was a silly man). Although the story only appeared in 1780, and although no one from Sir Cloudesley’s ship lived to tell the tale, its existence is compelling, as a representation of the preoccupations of those who feared something like this could indeed have happened. It demonstrates with some poignancy the risks that came from challenging an authority figure under eighteenth-century British naval discipline. Different sources on the legend vary on the details of how the sailor knew the rocks were near. In one version, the smell of burning kelp alerts him to the proximity of the shore. In another, it is the ships’ estimated distance from the St. Agnes lighthouse, the sailor’s reckoning proven to be correct when the fateful light came into view.

St. Agnes Lighthouse. Wikipedia: Harry Legg

            One of the story’s less plausible but more powerful points is that no one aboard the Association survived. The question arises (as so often): if there were no survivors, then where did the stories come from? Bottrell’s version of the narrative answers this question by claiming that a single sailor survived and he was the source for the whole grim story. The website “About Scilly,” on the other hand, presents the origin of this story as likely being a meeting of the ships’ commanders prior to the wreck, in which Captain Sir William Jumper, of the Lenox, suggested that the fleet was too close to the rocks. This story is recounted in James Herbert Cooke’s 1883 paper on the disaster, naming the master of Jumper’s vessel (not clarifying whether he meant the captain himself, or the sailing master) as the dissenting voice among the crowd. He was overruled, but if his suggestion was recorded in the log of one of the vessels, or if a survivor simply recalled the event, the story may have been transformed into the version that gained prominence through repetition, to become a more pointed critique of Admiral Shovell’s leadership. If this was the case, it must be noted, the transformation happened quickly. It also highlights the power imbalances at play and the ignorance of local conditions.

            The story recounted in 1780 brought both local knowledge and longitude to the forefront: if the admiral had listened to someone who knew the waters, it is evident, he might have lived to tell the tale. However, there is a complicating factor in the subsequent narrative of the Longitude Act. The development of a standardised means of determining longitude at sea would not only reduce the danger of running aground, but it would also allow official knowledge — based on technology — to succeed even without local knowledge — based on experience. Although the sailor’s warning follows a moving arc, heightening the tension of the fateful decision through the tragic plight of a well-meaning individual, the lesson taken from the wreck itself seems not to have been that local knowledge was of greater value than matters of rank. The ability to match that knowledge with onboard technology, though overall a fortunate development, also raises questions about whether respect for information based on experience has indeed increased since that time.

            The Ring Legend

            Two contrasting accounts of the role of a valuable ring belonging to the admiral provide an illuminating look at the relationship between the Scilly Islanders and the fleet. In the first case, as mentioned above, an islander or islanders find the body of Sir Cloudesley without recognising him, and remove the emerald ring from his dead finger. The value of the ring is remarked upon, and eventually this leads to the identification of the body, and the admiral’s reburial in Westminster Abbey. In the second case, a woman finds the nearly-dead admiral either on the beach or at her door, and kills him, taking the ring for herself. It is this version that was published “under the authority of the Earl of Romney,” the grandson of Sir Cloudesley. This originates from a letter that was, according to Westwood and Simpson, written around 1790, and recounts the deathbed confession of the murderer, who said she could not find peace until she had revealed her deed (99).

            The plausibility of the murder would have been increased for the audience by the fact that laws surrounding salvage prevented the removal of goods from shipwrecks with survivors. While it was intended as a means of protecting property from plunder, the law also caused a great deal of fear and mistrust of coast-dwellers. Survivors of shipwrecks were said to fend off would-be rescuers with whatever projectiles they could find, suspecting them of murderous intentions (Westwood and Kingshill 64). This knowledge would cast doubt upon the legend from the historical perspective, as it functions to highlight these fears, particularly in Cornwall and Scilly, which continued throughout the following century and often hinged on wrecking.

Item recovered from wreck. Wikipedia: 9 November 2013, 11:45:20 by Andrewrabbott

            It is clear that both versions cannot be true, but the repetition of the latter has made it difficult to trace a historical source for the fate of the ring itself. It also provides an interesting counterpoint for the legend of the hanged man, demonstrating the class and regional prejudices that lay below the surface of the story. While the Scillonian shipmate tried to save the fleet, the unknown woman showed no attempt to help the admiral, fulfilling the curse of the unjustly executed sailor. As legends often do, these ones reveal questions that have remained relevant since, namely, questions of expertise ignored and figures of authority being held accountable for errors with grave consequences. While the ring legend drew upon specific fears of its era, the danger at the centre of the cautionary tale is that of ignorance and excessive status outrunning actual qualifications.


            The story of Sir Cloudesley’s demise was bound to generate folklore, as one of the worst naval disasters of its time. The scale of the wreck was staggering, and published reactions ranged from factual to poetic. A pamphlet published in November of the same year lamented the admiral’s death, while the ball was arguably set in motion, or at least spurred on, for the Longitude Act, mentioned above. This act of parliament, which offered a substantial reward for the solution to the difficulty of determining longitude while at sea, addressed the pressing need to match the technology of navigation to the increasingly complex and bustling world of maritime transport. Interestingly, another act was used the previous year to strengthen prohibitions against wrecking, by reinforcing the medieval statute decreeing that any wreck with survivors could not be legally considered a wreck, though the Wrecking Act would not come into effect until the middle of the century. Possession of the ship and all items on board stayed with the owner, and while this was in some cases seen as further incentive towards murdering survivors, it is important to note that wrecks without survivors were considered property of the reigning monarch, though salvaged goods were still sold despite their legal status.

            The disaster and its subsequent representations are a study in the formation of legend in a single event, as well as several shifts of priorities, as one part of the story or another has been highlighted or changed in each retelling. The repentant attitude of the ring thief is not a feature of Sobel’s retelling of the legend, but the murder is instead presented as sheer poetic justice (13). The story of the hanged sailor sometimes includes macabre details, such as the man’s body resurfacing after being thrown into the sea, accompanying the storm (see page 42). This provides a more supernatural interpretation of the story while, in other versions, his death is less mystically charged and more a grim illustration of the ignorance that power can engender. Together, the stories portray the islands as dangerous on two levels, one based on geography and one on assumptions regarding their people. In their combined persistence and mutual flexibility, often told in conjunction, these legends provide an interesting insight into anxieties over knowledge and power and the ways in which such stories could be used to advance the storytellers’ priorities.


“Archives and Artefacts.” Via Crayford History. Accessed March 2022.

“A Famous Scilly Myth Debunked.” 20 August 2018.

—. “Sir Cloudesley Shovell and the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707.” 31 August 2018.

Bottrell, William. Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall. 1873. Penzance: Beare and Son.

Cooke, James Herbert. The Shipwreck of Sir Cloudesley Shovell on the Scilly Islands in 1707. Paper presented 1883 to the Society of Antiquaries.

Courtney, M.A. “Cornish Folk-Lore.” In Folk-Lore Journal. 1887. London: Elliot Stock.

Cox, Sue. “The Cornish Wreckers.” February 2015.

Jones, William. Finger-Ring Lore. 1877. London: Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly.

Pearce, Catherine. “Neglectful or Worse: A Lurid Tale of a Lighthouse Keeper and Wrecking in the Isles of Scilly.” September 2008. In Troze: The Online Journal of the National Maritime Museum of Cornwall, vol. 1, no. 1.

“Sir Clowdisley Shovell.” Via Westminster Abbey. 2002. Accessed February 2022.

Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. 1995. London: Bloomsbury.

Tony, Allen. “HMS Association, 1707.” Via Wreck Site. 26th October 2007. Accessed February 2022.

Westwood, Jennifer and Sophia Kingshill. The Fabled Coast: Legends & Traditions from Around the Shores of Britain & Ireland. 2012. London: Random House Books.

Westwood, Jennifer and Jacqueline Simpson. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s

Thinking with Oceans

In her blog, Sonja Boon (Gender Studies, Memorial University of Newfoundland) considers the myriad ways that we think through oceans. We think with our shared histories, our sense of scale, our sense of responsibility, and our collective scholarship to meet the challenge of the oceans’ complexity and interconnectedness with who we are, what we have done, and how we might think about ourselves in this oceaned globe.

Until almost exactly eleven years ago, I didn’t think much about oceans at all. Sure, I’d lived in Vancouver for over a decade, but the ocean that laps along the shores of Lotus Land doesn’t look, feel or smell like an ocean, not like a real ocean, anyway. Vancouver’s Pacific is a playground; it’s about nude bodies on Wreck Beach, cafes and dogs on Jericho Beach, fresh German sausages and sauerkraut on Granville Island, rollerblades along False Creek. Vancouver’s ocean is about whales frolicking between the Gulf Islands. It’s about draft dodgers, pot growers, and hipsters.  I’m simplifying, of course. There are many more stories to Vancouver’s oceanic edge. But these are the stories that I learned during my decade in that city. And they are the stories I lived. My ocean was an urban ocean: genteel, picturesque, and tamed by lattes, Goretex, and gentrification.

It’s a cliché, but it took moving to the edge of a windy rock in the North Atlantic (and from there into a new methodological research space) to really begin to think about oceans.


Cape Spear, Newfoundland and Labrador, November 2018.

What might the oceans – and the oceanic – have to offer in terms of new ways of knowing, and from there, new ways of seeing, thinking, feeling, and being? How might oceanic thinking change the way we think about subjectivity, identity, embodiment? How might water, waves, currents, and tides help us to better understand long histories of colonialism and imperialism, and further, how might they inform contemporary relationships with others, both human and more-than-human, in the present day?

These are the kinds of questions that informed my most recent book project. Ostensibly written as a memoir, What the Oceans Remember: Searching for Belonging and Home is an autoethnographic meditation on memory, history, archives, and the afterlives of slavery and indenture. Because it is based on family histories that traverse five continents, it is also, necessarily, about oceans. Thinking with and through oceans has been foundational to my attempts to make sense of a tangled – and tangly – family history, and further, my place in it.

For scholars like Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, the ocean is surf and waves; as a site of migration, it is also a space of transition and transformation. Ingersoll’s “seascape epistemology,” premised on Kanaka understandings of the ocean,  is “an approach to knowing through a visual, spiritual, intellectual and embodied literacy of the ‘aina (land) and kai (sea): birds, the colors of the clouds, the flows of the currents, fish and seaweed, the timing of ocean swells, depths, tides, and celestial bodies all circulating and flowing with rhythms and pulsations…” (5-6). Elspeth Probyn (2016), meanwhile, looks at the ocean as a horizon – a site of encounter between the human and the more-than-human, the ocean can be understood as an entangled borderland. For Renisa Mawani, the ocean – and its currents in particular – offers a way into understanding the complexities of colonial bodies, politics, and migrations. Scholars of the Black Caribbean, meanwhile, figure water – here understood primarily as the oceans that managed the Middle Passage – as a site of haunting that is both life giving and life destroying (see, for example, Alexander 2006; Mustakeem 2016; Stipriaan 2003, 2007). Oceans are infested with ugly histories. Polluted with the debris of the Atlantic slave trade and histories of indenture, as well as the muck of penal ships and refugee journeys and detainments, these seas are not the “timeless, unchanging, unmarked, deeply unhistoric” waters of our imaginations (Perera 2013, 62); rather, they are weighted with the histories of colonial violence (Chambers 2010, 679).

Oceans, then, are surf, tides, waves, currents, rhythms, memories, sounds, history, life, death, migration, bodies, longings….

And yet, as numerous thinkers and writers have observed, the ocean is, within dominant western strains of thought, fundamentally unknowable. Too vast, it is overwhelming. Too mobile, it challenges desires for fixity, solidity, the ground beneath our feet. I know this, too, from my own research. As I write in What the Oceans Remember, my research process unmoored me. I didn’t know what it meant to dive into the ocean, to allow my body and my thinking to bob, roll, flow, churn, sink, float, drift, toss with the currents, rhythms, and memories of the sea. I was overwhelmed, sinking, drowning. I didn’t know how to make sense of oceans, waves, currents, histories, memories, hauntings.

Thinking with and through oceans has taught me to work differently with time and space. Stefanie Hessler observes that the tide, for example, “never returns to the same spot twice, and its movement is affected by several forces that themselves continually change: currents rising from the deep sea, the moon, the wind, and ecological conditions that complicate any plain dialectic view” (2018, 33). Renisa Mawani’s engagement with oceanic currents, meanwhile, reveals a complexity that also undermines any claims to linear time: “[c]urrents do not have a readily identifiable beginning, a fixed or static center, or a clear end.” She writes,

Animated by multiple movements and countermovements, they join distant coordinates, in both space and time. Through their lively physical properties, currents speak compellingly to the limitations of other transnational and imperial frames, including webs. Currents exist in several registers at once. They follow multiple trajectories, exhibit changing dimensions, and thus offer alternative metaphors and additional ways to chart the discrepant mobilities of colonial and imperial worlds. (2018, 21)

Time, here, is not linear; rather, it is relational, experienced through the interaction of different forces – terrestrial, aqueous, and lunar.


Looking out over a haunted Caribbean Sea, February 2015.

So, too, does oceanic thinking necessarily ask me to think about time in relation to memory. In the words of Janine McLeod, the sea might be imagined as “an infinite water in which everything is retained, and where all times mingle together” (2013, 40). Oceanic time cannot be contained in an endless march forward; it must be differently understood. After all, as Hessler observes, “a being dedicated to water is a being in flux” (2018, 33).

Further, oceanic thinking reminds me to pay attention to rhythm and movement: the open ocean is endless and always in motion. Linearity must be reimagined: as “an unresolved cycle” to follow Hessler (2018, 33), and “in several registers at once” to follow Mawani (2018, 21). As seafarers around the globe can attest, the ocean is a volatile space of transition and transformation, where different current buffet against one another in sometimes unpredictable ways. Thinking through this volatility, Mawani’s work suggests, offers new ways of working through the dense complexity of colonial and imperial relations.



The remains of the former Marienburg Plantation, Suriname. In operation from the eighteenth through to the twentieth century, this sugar and coffee plantation relied on enslaved and later indentured labour.

Oceanic thinking asks me to think about bodies differently. Following Astrida Neimanis (2013), what might it mean to think of ourselves not as autonomous, self-contained, solid beings, but rather, as watered? As she writes, “In purely descriptive terms, we are bodies of water, but we also reside within and as part of a fragile global hydrocommons, where water – the lifeblood of humans and all other bodies on this planet – is increasingly contaminated, commodified and dangerously reorganized” (2013, 103). Indeed, Elizabeth Povinelli reminds us of our intimate bodily relations with the more-than-human. “The tides and coastal headlands are another epidermal layer of my skin,” she writes, continuing a bit later, “We are able to breathe because we are the external lungs of the sea” (175). This “watery subjectivity” (Neimanis 2013) offers a way into an understanding of self premised on radical interconnectedness. We are not “men who hold dominion over the world” as biblical imperatives might have it, but rather, bodies shaped by, through, and with the oceans. What might it mean, following Indigenous understandings of water relations (Maracle 2017; Million 2014; Young Leon 2017), to kin with the ocean, to include oceanic intentionality in our webs of relations?

Indeed, oceanic thinking has required me to interrogate notions of boundaries and borders. Povinelli’s epidermal waves and oceanic lungs, Neimanis’s watery subjectivity, and Ingersoll’s Kanaka surfing body all evoke selves shaped through and with oceans, encounters that depend on ever evolving, ever-shifting relationships between the human and the more-than-human. This more-than-human: the wind, the birds, the waves, the currents – and in Newfoundland and Labrador, the icebergs – is not passive; rather, oceanic thinking reminds me of the intentionality and agency of the more-than-human, and also, and in this way, of the ultimate inability of such terms to capture the complexity of our interactions and entanglements.


Frozen ocean, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, March 2015.

 Finally, oceanic thinking has asked me to attend to questions of feeling and emotion. Oceans are repositories of human memory – both metaphorical and material. The ocean floor is littered with the souls of those transported across oceans: the enslaved, the indentured, the incarcerated, the displaced. In this haunted space-time, past, present, and impossible futures collide with one another. How can I make sense of histories of ruination? How can I live well in the afterlives of slavery and indenture?

Along the shore of my adopted island home, I listen to the rhythms of the surf, the water rising and crashing, the beach stones dancing. I feel myself, watery, watered. Breathing. Remembering. Thinking. Searching. Listening. Learning.


Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.

Chambers, Iain. “Maritime criticism and theoretical shipwrecks.” PMLA 125.3 (2010): 678-684.

Hessler, Stefanie. “Tidalectices: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science.” In Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview Through Art and Science, ed. Stefanie Hessler, 31-81. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.

Ingersoll, Karin Amimoto. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Maracle, Lee. “Water.” In Downstream: Reimagining Water, eds. Dorothy Christian and Rita Wong. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017.

Mawani, Renisa. Across Oceans of Law: The Komagata Maru and Jurisdiction in the Time of Empire. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

McLeod, Janine. “Water and the Material Imagination: Reading the Sea of Memory against the Flows of Capital.” In  Thinking With Water, eds. Cecilia Chen, Janine McLeod, and Astrida Neimanis, 40-60. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Million, Dian. “There is a river in me: Theory from life.” In Theorizing native studies, eds. Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Mustakeem, Sowande’, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Neimanis, Astrida. “Feminist subjectivity, watered.” Feminist Review 103 (2013): 23-31.

Perera, Suvendrini. “Oceanic corpo-graphies, refugee bodies and the making and unmaking of waters.” Feminist Review 103 (2013): 58-79.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. “The Kinship of Tides.” In Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview Through Art and Science, ed. Stefanie Hessler, 165-176. Boston: MIT Press, 2018.

Probyn, Elspeth. Eating the Ocean. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Stipriaan, Alex van. “Watramama’s Transatlantic Voyage: Legacy of the Slave Trade with Suriname.” In The transatlantic slave trade: Landmarks, legacies, expectations, eds. James Kwesi Anquandah et al. Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2007.

Stipriaan, Alex van. “Watramama/MamiWata: Three centuries of creolization of a water spirit in West Africa, Suriname and Europe.” Matatu – Journal for African culture and society 27.1 (2003): 323-337.

Young Leon, Alannah and Denise Marie Nadeau. “Moving with Water: Relationship and Responsibilities.” In Downstream: Reimagining Water, eds. Dorothy Christian and Rita Wong. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017.


Whales, Workers, & the Uncanny Love of Oil Extraction

In his blog, Jason Haslam (Department of English, Dalhousie University) considers the pre-history of petroculture in the whaling industry and specifically the interrogation of the oil-extraction industry in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851). Melville’s novel, Haslam shows, asks important questions about the human relationships, and costs, of the industry on terms that resonate with transformations in the oil industry today.

It’s likely a poor starting place for a blog entry to say fossil fuels and whale oil are, well, different….  The differences between the two substances—one from the fossilized remains of long dead animals, one removed from a recently living animal hunted for this purpose—are obvious, as is the variation in the uses of the two products.  But, still, just as the world we live in is permeated by petroleum, the mid-nineteenth century was slick with whale. Petroleum, as both industry and environmentalists are quick to point out, infuses every aspect of daily life, the world over, albeit in ways that reflect the different purchasing and social power of various communities.  It’s used as a fuel, yes, but it’s also used both directly and indirectly in the manufacture of plastic, foodstuffs, roads, cosmetics, and so on.  Whale oil, likewise, was in the nineteenth century used primarily as fuel for lighting (in the form of candles and lamps, including lighthouses) and as lubricant for machinery (though not as fuel for said machines); other parts of various whale species, though, were used in fashion and other domestic necessities, luxuries, and food. D. Graham Burnett notes that “English schoolboys, quite unknowing, spread a thickness of pulped Bryde’s whale on their muffins” (“Whaling,” in Fueling Culture 375). (Not to spread this on too thick [cough], but whale-oil margarine was a major industry well into the twentieth century, as Sarah Laskow writes: “By 1935, 84 percent of the world’s whale oil was going directly into margarine. Unilever bought up all the whale oil that Norway produced, for instance, and sent it directly to its factories in Germany.”)

There are other, more direct connections between whale oil and petroleum production, as well: Laura Saunders writes in Forbes that as the American whaling industry started to collapse—from a combination of scarcity and the introduction of kerosene—capital moved to other industries, including petroleum itself; both Standard Oil and General Motors owe at least part of their origin to whaling corporations and their financial resources.

So while a direct comparison of whale oil and its production to petroleum would be foolhardy at best, still one can see the beginnings of an oil culture in whaling that could be—and was—adapted to a society built on fossil fuels.  While we may not be slathering petroleum on our muffins, it is used it to make food dye—after people stopped using coal tar for that, anyway.  (Hungry yet?)

But—English major that I am, and following such scholars as Heidi Scott—I think that where whaling and the fossil fuel industry can really be compared is at the level of rhetoric.  And that’s where Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick barges into the discussion.  The rhetoric of energy resources is shared between the petroleum and whaling industries, and Melville’s novel is one way to understand this connection, as Scott argues in her chapter “Whale Oil Culture, Consumerism, and Modern Conservation.”  Perhaps just as importantly, though, Moby-Dick shows some of the ways a culture can both be soaked in oil, but still start to move beyond an unquestionable reliance on that resource (one scholar even thinks the novel could provide a model for how we can go to Mars…). Just as whaling seemed “natural” and necessary to the nineteenth century, so too do fossil fuels to much of the contemporary world; but, the novel seems to say, society can—because it must—find ways past it, and if it doesn’t, then that society is sunk.  The novel seems to say that one way to think beyond oil is to look to the interpersonal and social relations built within an industry or energy culture, and see how they can exceed that existence.

Most of the novel superficially shows the abundance of whales and whale oil as a resource. Ishmael, the narrator, easily dismisses worries about the potential scarcity or even extinction of whale species by overhunting, stating “we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.”  As Scott memorably puts it in another piece, “The superabundance of pure whale oil is one of the majestic aspects of the whale ship, which glows like a Christmas tree on the open ocean” (71). Likewise, the abundance of whale oil, and the labour of its extraction, is the germ of economic prosperity:

New Bedford [. . .] is a land of oil, true enough: [. . .] nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford. Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country? Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.

The abundance of whale oil fuels social prosperity, both literally and economically.


New Bedford at the turn of the twentieth century (from the Library of Congress;

But the novel also recognizes the physical limitations built into this system, limitations that deny the possibilities of endless growth.  The novel often focuses on how the gathering of whale oil seems to require more energy than it will eventually produce. The most well-known of these moments takes the form of Ishmael’s discussion of one of the main consumer products of whale oil: candles. Discussing the dangers of whaling, Ishmael admonishes the reader: “For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.” The novel provides a moral motivation for energy conservation: the cost of extracting that energy ethically—and even physically—outstrips the energy it generates.


Spermacetti candles, Otago Museum, NZ (photograph, Jason Haslam)

But there is hope for something new. Several relationships in the novel are presented in terms of what I’m calling “gothic energies,” like prophecies of doom, evil doubles, and horror-driven insanity. Most interesting in this light are Ishmael, the narrator, and Queequeg, the harpooner. They are paired through both gothic and romantic images: early in the novel, Ishmael wakes to find Queequeg’s arm around him, “in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” This moment of connection—often read through the lens of queer studies and theory, of course—invokes in Ishmael an uncanny memory of death and childhood. As a child, Ishmael was once sent to bed for sixteen hours as punishment for climbing into a chimney—for entering into energy culture incorrectly, in other words, and disrupting it. He then fell into a fevered nightmare: “Instantly I felt a shock running through all my frame; nothing was to be seen, and nothing was to be heard; but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bed-side.” Ishmael then compares this gothic memory to his current situation: “Now, take away the awful fear, and my sensations at feeling the supernatural hand in mine were very similar, in their strangeness, to those which I experienced on waking up and seeing Queequeg’s pagan arm thrown round me.” Ishmael recognizes a new, uncanny social relationship that replaces the invisible hand of an energy-driven market with an intimate human connection that stands outside social norms.

What does this have to do with petroleum and energy extraction?  What I argue in the longer piece from which this blog post comes is that the personal relationships, the human networks, built within this oil-extraction industry cannot simply be ignored as society tries to move beyond oil. Ocean oil-extraction workers like Ishmael and Queequeg, and seaside oil towns like New Bedford, seem wholly defined by oil, and yet as communities, as people, they exceed that connection to oil. Closer to our own time, and moving from the shore inland, I always think of Kate Beaton’s Ducks in these terms; as she writes, “Ducks is about a lot of things, and among these, it is about environmental destruction in an environment that includes humans.”  Any change to that larger energy system will therefore necessarily need to happen within those human communities, and not be forced on them from outside.

Bringing this home, again, this Huffington Post article by Chris Arsenault cites Jennifer Turner, a former oil worker now finding jobs for people in renewables; she “believes the long-term outlook for renewables is more optimistic than for oil. ‘We just need to avoid excluding workers,’ she said.” The loves, lives, and literatures of people living with and in the oil industry must be seen as a necessary part of any, even small, transformation to it.  Moby-Dick transforms this resistance into a queer gothic resistance from within and against extraction culture. Ishmael and Queequeg’s embrace threatens the dominant energy order, even as that energy brought them together.

The Cultural Ecology of Elisabeth Mann Borgese

In her blog, Julia Poertner (Interdisciplinary PhD program, Dalhousie University) explores the place of Elisabeth Mann Borgese, Dalhousie professor and daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, in the development of international law on oceans, drawing on a philosophy that stresses dynamic interconnections between the artificial and the natural, the human and other forms of life, and between the present and its potential futures.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918-2002). The founder of the International Ocean Institute (IOI) and professor of Political Science at Dalhousie University was born in Munich in 1918, the second youngest child of the German novelist Thomas Mann and his wife Katia Pringsheim. The centenary provides us with the perfect opportunity to have a more interdisciplinary look at the various works of the German exile and expert on the International Law of the Sea who published widely on ocean governance and management. In particular, she was a key contributor to the discourse surrounding the concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind during the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III). In his Author’s Notes to his essay “Günter Grass: King of the Toy Merchants” (first published in 1982), the American writer John Irving describes meeting Thomas Mann’s daughter on a plane from Toronto to Paris:

[M]y seat companion was an elderly woman with a disturbingly deep cough. She had a refined German accent and a face of patrician detachment, of unending wisdom and constraint. […] I liked her very much, but not her cough. I drank a beer, she sipped a Scotch. […] And what business was she in? I asked her. Oceans she replied. […] Her field was “everything to do with oceans,” she said. (422-23)

This is certainly not an understatement. During the second half of her life, Mann Borgese helped lay the theoretical and practical foundations of what is now known as integrated ocean and coastal governance and management, setting the public stage with her monumental cultural history of the ocean, The Drama of the Oceans in 1975. But like most members of the Mann family she was also a writer of fiction, and very dark fiction at that.

In 1982, after lengthy and difficult negotiations that officially started in 1973, Part XI of the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea declared the non-living natural resources in the deep seabed beyond national jurisdiction to be the Common Heritage of Mankind (Article 136). In light of the seemingly imminent technological possibility of deep seabed mining, it was the first time that this concept was spelled out as a legal regime to govern and manage natural resources for the benefit of all humankind. What makes the long process of enshrining the concept into international law truly remarkable is its underlying utopianism. The international community developed jurisdiction in anticipation of technological processes affecting humankind that were not yet realized but were thought to be possible at some point in the future and so potential threats to political and economic stability, justice, and the environment.

Although the concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind was “not initially aimed at environmental protection” (Ellis and Wood 364), Mann Borgese strongly believed that it had to be included because of her ethical understanding of nature as inherently valuable and in need of  protection for the benefit of both current and future generations. She envisioned that the Common Heritage of Mankind could also be applied to other resources and eventually would lead to a new sustainable economic and political system–both on land and the sea–and thus to a more just and peaceful world order. That way, the Common Heritage of Mankind became a legal means to redefine the interrelationship between nature and culture. Her views are in line with (and probably based on) the traditionally German understanding of nature as cultural landscapes (Lekan and Zeller 6), where culture, ecology, and technology exist in harmony with each other. Much like the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), Mann Borgese understood that everything is interconnected:

This [ocean] system is one and indivisible. […] Everything in the oceans interacts with everything else, and the oceans themselves interact with the atmosphere and with the land. To impose our rigid, conceptually land-based divisions on this flowing environment will not work, for static concepts cannot be applied within a dynamic system. Division–even opposition–between man and nature, man and environment, is a static concept. Man and nature are a dynamic continuum, each part of the other. The social environment is clearly part of the total environment. Division–even opposition–between individual and community is a static concept. Individual and community are a dynamic continuum, each part of the other. (Mann Borgese, Drama 230)

           Mann Borgese’s literary works also experiment with questions regarding the interrelationships and continuities between the individual, society, nature, and technology. Drawing on pessimism about the future, they address the boundaries of the individual and reflect the dangers of cultural evolution gone wild.  Her stories depict modern scientific developments and technological progress that can potentially lead to the dissolution of the individual because the relationship of nature and culture, the old and the new, between myth and science, is thrown out of balance. There is no harmony. In 1959, her first collection of dystopian short stories, titled To Whom It May Concern, was published, followed by her utopian Ascent of Woman in 1963 and thoughts about animal communication in The White Snake in 1966. All of these works have been dismissed, ridiculed or remained unnoticed by critics and scholars alike. On a superficial level, one might think that the topics Mann Borgese dealt with during the 1950s and early 1960s are completely disconnected from each other. But it is just the opposite: they all deal in some way or another with the interdependencies of natural and cultural evolution. All of Mann Borgese’s elaborations on this then culminate in her philosophy of the Common Heritage of Mankind:

It is based on a philosophy of transcendence of the individual, the blurring of his or her boundaries, and the continuity between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ that the concept of the common heritage becomes ‘natural’, and therefore acceptable, because ownership and sovereignty become as open and permeable as the individual. (Mann Borgese, Future 130)

           If the disciplines of law and literature have anything to say to each other, it is, according to Jeffrey Miller, about culture (Miller 9). Seen as narratives, both can serve as vehicles for cultural expression. If we put environmental aspects into the mix, the International Law of the Sea, theoretical texts about the Law of the Sea (and Environmental Law in general), as well as fiction, when analyzed through an ecocritical lens, can shed much needed light on the relationship between nature and culture and all the ethical questions that come with it. Mann Borgese’s utopian ideas thus have the potential to influence our relationship with nature because they impact our legal, political, and economic orders. Going beyond just paradigmatic change, Mann Borgese developed a cultural ecology, that is, an “ecologically redefined model of humanity and human culture” (Zapf 4) that repudiates the strict anthropocentric separation between nature and culture. In her view, the International Law of the Sea, eventually, would make the evolutionary step back on land to revolutionize our ways of living within our environment and with each other. Mann Borgese’s bold visionary statement to treat the ocean as a laboratory for a new world order based on cultural ecology is not just a metaphor–it is a fundamental declaration.


Ellis, Jaye and Stepan Wood. “International Environmental Law.” Environmental Law for Sustainability: A Reader, edited by Benjamin J. Richardson and Stepan Wood, Hart Publishing, 2006.

Irving, John. “Günter Grass. King of Toy Merchants.” Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. ArcadePublishing, 1996, pp. 397-432.

Lekan, Thomas and Thomas Zeller. Germany’s Nature: Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History. Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Mann Borgese, Elisabeth. To Whom It May Concern. G. Braziller, 1960.

—. Ascent of Woman. G. Braziller, 1963.

—. The Language Barrier: Beasts and Men. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. [First published as The White Snake]

—. The Drama of the Oceans. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1975.

—. The Future of the Oceans: A Report to the Club of Rome. Harvest House, 1986.

Miller, Jeffrey. The Structures of Law and Literature. Duty, Justice, and Evil in the Cultural Imagination. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Zapf, Hubert. “Introduction.” Handbook of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology. De Gruyter, 2016.




Transatlantic Turns: Thomas Moore and Thomas D’Arcy McGee

In our continuing blog series, SSHORE co-founder Julia M. Wright (Department of English, Dalhousie University) untangles the complex relationships between nationalism, transatlantic trade, and the moral positions of poets. Through her close reading of two important transatlantic poets, Wright makes the argument that carefully considering cultural texts, such as 18th and 19th century poetry, offers keen insights into not only shifting political power relations but also into how ocean-based metaphors and images are used to articulate ethical calls for change (such as the abolition of slavery movement). 


In her sun, in her soil, in her station, thrice blest,
With back turn’d to Britain, her face to the West,
Erin stands proudly insular, on her steep shore,
And strikes her high harp to the ocean’s deep roar.
–William Drennan, “Erin” (1795)

It would be easy to be distracted by William Drennan’s vivid use of a common personification of Ireland as a woman, Erin. But he is doing much more than that in this nationalist song written in the revolutionary years leading up to the United Irishmen Uprising of 1798. Drennan is also making a geographic argument for Irish independence from Britain. The first line above stresses climate, land, and location, necessary for agricultural production and trade. The next two lines separate Ireland from Britain and tie it to the newly democratic United States instead. And the final line connects Ireland culturally to the sea: it is an Atlantic nation, not a British colony.

Being a large island with deep ports on the edge of the Atlantic during the period of European imperial expansion to other continents, an expansion fueled by trade, made Ireland an especially valuable piece of real estate. Drennan was not alone in pointing this out, as I’ve discussed in a recent book. In the eighteenth century, the advantages were obvious. Transatlantic ships were the only means by which intercontinental trade, communications, and travel could take place, and so the ocean made possible international relations of every stripe. The ocean was regionally significant as well: a horse could only travel about 30 kilometres a day, but an eighteenth-century ship could travel that distance in an hour. Drennan’s ballad puts Ireland right into the thick of rapid economic, cultural, political, and social activity on the Atlantic—Britain is irrelevant in a transatlantic modernity centered on the US.

In my paper for SSHORE’s first workshop, I wanted to think about two Irish nationalist writers who agreed with Drennan on much, but had more complicated views on the US and brought Canada into the transatlantic mix: Thomas Moore (1779-1852), who briefly visited Canada in 1804, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1825-1868), who moved to Canada in 1857 and became one of the “Fathers of Confederation.” While Drennan’s Erin stands in Ireland with “her back turn’d to Britain, her face to the West” these poets stand in Canada and face the other way—their backs to the US, and looking to Britain.

If we think of Moore and McGee as Irish, Catholic poets opposed to British, anti-Catholic rule in Ireland, then their praise for Britain is difficult to understand. But this is only part of the story. The Atlantic was also the conduit for the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, and the popular movement to abolish slavery gripped the Anglophone transatlantic for decades. Olaudah Equiano’s first-hand account of conditions in the hold of a slave-ship and a chillingly calculating diagram of how people were fit into the hold to minimize unused space were among the documents that supported public debate about the slave trade. That debate helped end the British slave trade in 1807. Debate over slavery continued until 1833 when slavery was abolished in most British colonies, including the provinces of Canada, where the enslaved were drawn both from the African diaspora and Indigenous peoples.

Literature that examined the ethics of slavery as well as the economic and social ties that made abolition seem difficult were part of this public debate, from Anna Letitia Barbauld’s “Epistle to William Wilberforce“ (1791) and Robert Southey’s “Sailor Who Had Served in the Slave-Trade” (1798) to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814; see Said) and Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834)—and Moore’s Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems(1806), based on his time travelling in the US and Canada after working briefly for the British admiralty in Bermuda.

In a number of poems in Epistles, Moore condemns the hypocrisy of a nation that declares “Liberty” an “unalienable Right” (see the Declaration of Independence) while supporting slavery. In “Epistle VI,” he put this starkly: “the plans of virtue, ’midst the deeds of crime” (p. 155). In “To the Boston Frigate,” on leaving Halifax for England, Moore’s speaker addresses the ship, swearing this “Is the last I shall tread of American land” (it was) and “I soon shall be wafted, in thee, / To the flourishing isle of the brave and the free” (p. 291). He then turns to the corruption of the US’s original vision:

                        may the people, at length,
Know that freedom is bliss, but that honour is strength;
That, though man have the wings of the fetterless wind,
Of the wantonest air that the north can unbind,
Yet, if health do not sweeten the blast with her bloom,
Nor virtue’s aroma its pathway perfume,
Unblest is the freedom . . . (p. 292)

The passage precisely inverts Equiano’s description of confinement on a slave-ship: “the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness amongst the slaves, of which many died. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains (78-79 [ch. 2]). While the kidnapped Africans are in chains, Moore’s Americans are moved by winds that are “fetterless” and “unbind”; while the captives suffer “loathsome smells,” the Americans miss “virtue’s aroma,” “perfume,” and “bloom.” A strong wind can move the ship quickly, but if the air is unhealthy that won’t matter much to the people on the ship—a pointed metaphor at a time when yellow fever was devastating ships and attributed to tainted air (Lee 682). The Atlantic will “waft” the speaker to a Britain “of the brave and the free,” while the ocean air along the American coast remains “loathsome.”

Moore later condemned British slavery through other ocean-travel metaphors, including one poem responding to a parliamentary debate on slavery in March 1826, reported at length in The Times’ “Parliamentary Intelligence.” Amajor speaker was the slave-owning British aristocrat, Lord Dudley and Ward. While acknowledging popular feeling in Britain against slavery and that slavery was “morally wrong,” Dudley and Ward defended slavery as a cultural and economic practice engrained in the colonies—for the British Parliament to abolish slavery would be significantly disruptive, he contended. Concluding, he proposed that the slave-owners be left to devise “some good and wholesome law” softening slavery themselves. Just a week later, The Timespublished an anonymous satire called “Moral Positions—A Dream.”

Moore was the author, and his epigraph mocks Dudley and Ward’s faint performance of regret over slavery and hesitation to interfere in the colonies: “His Lordship said that it took a long time for a moral position to find its way across the Atlantic. He was very sorry that its voyage had been so long.” Moore expands on the metaphor in the poem by imagining the careful shipping of a “moral position” on a ship called “the Truth”: “to guard the frail package from tousing and routing, / There stood my Lord Eld—n, endorsing it ‘Glass,’ / Though—as to whichside should be uppermost—doubting.” Moore’s speaker continues:

The freight was, however, stow’d safe in the hold;
The winds were polite, and the moon look’d romantic,
While off in the good ship “the Truth” we were roll’d,
With our ethical cargo, across the Atlantic.

Long, dolefully long, seem’d the voyage we made;—
For “the Truth,” at all times but a very slow sailer,
By friends, near as much as by foes, is delayed,
And few come aboard her, though so many hail her.

Moore mocks Dudley and Ward and other slavery apologists: abolition is a moral position, that slavery is immoral is truth, and there should be no hesitation “as towhich side should be uppermost.” As in “Epistle VI,” Moore focuses on hypocrisy: “few come aboard [the Truth], though so many hail her.” For decades. Moore consistently condemned slavery and associated it with Atlantic crossings.

Moore was one of the most popular poets of the first half of the nineteenth century, and his work was well-known in Canada, especially his Epistles (see Bentley). not least because it included his popular “Canadian Boat Song,” first published as sheet music in 1805. He was a major influence on McGee, who was in turn key to the development of Anglo-Canadian literature as well as Confederation itself. McGee helped develop a “new northern nationality” (see Wilson), and he refers to Moore in two poems in his popular Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verses (1858). A third poem from Canadian Ballads repeats Moore’s position on the US and slavery in Epistles: in the US, Freedom “heard the Negro’s helpless prayer, / And felt her home could not be there” (“Freedom’s Journey” lines 11-12)

McGee also favours Atlantic ties between Canadian provinces and Britain over the US. In a speech on 9 February 1865, in the final months of the US Civil War, McGee writes,

Without the whole power of the mother country by land and sea . . . we will be at the mercy of our neighbours; and victorious or otherwise, they will be eminently a military people, and with all their apparent indifference about annexing this country, and all the friendly feelings that may be talked, they will have the power to strike when they please. (Union 20)

Just as the Atlantic can “waft” Moore’s speaker back to the “isle of the free and the brave,” it can also tie Canada to the core of what McGee framed as civilization in an earlier speech on 22 December 1864: “The Union of the Provinces restores us to the ocean, takes us back to the Atlantic, and launches us once more on the modern Mediterranean, the true central sea of the Western world” (Union 10).

I’m a literary scholar, so what interests me here is the phrasing. McGee paints a nationalist image of Canada as a ship beginning a voyage on a larger, modern Mediterranean. This gives Canada the same kind of national power that Drennan gave to Ireland as an island on the edge of the Atlantic—access to all those routes for communication, trade, and social and political relationships. The alternative, according to McGee, is a loose cluster of small provinces vulnerable to invasion over land by the aggressive United States. McGee’s new Canada is not an invader—it returns to the Atlantic where it belongs (“restores us to the ocean”), to the “true central sea.” It is, in short, in a “moral position,” and hooked into the transatlantic networks that defined international relations in the West—a nation among nations, like Ireland “In the ring of this world” as Drennan put it in “Erin.” This vision of Canada’s ties to Europe reverberates down to the current Prime Minister’s remarks on CETA and “both sides of the Atlantic”: “The Canada-EU partnership is based on shared values, a long history of close cooperation, and strong people-to-people ties.”

For Moore and McGee, the Atlantic offered a powerful image through which to draw important ethical distinctions relevant to political debates at the time—abolition in Moore’s era, and Confederation in McGee’s. From Canada, they turn to Britain because they must turn away from the US, where slavery is evidence of devastating moral and political failure. Moore and McGee provide early examples of a nationalism in which Canada is more inclusive, enlightened, and so on than the US—of a Canada that supported the underground railroad for people escaping US slavery from about 1840-1860 (rather than that of the early 1830s when slavery was legal and residential schools were first established). Their poems remind us that cultural works can be produced to make particular arguments and then read out of context as general assertions of “the Truth”—and that ethical positions may require more fluid politics. Irish nationalists could steadily oppose and critique British rule in Ireland while also viewing Britain as preferable to the US on the question of slavery.

To understand how ideas of Canada emerged, we need not only the corrective lens of political history but also careful analysis of cultural history—particularly given the longer influence of such works over culture and over us. They’re over two centuries old, but Moore’s poems are easy to find on Youtube, including a number of performances of “Canadian Boat Song” and various songs from Irish Melodies, which also found their way onto television via Looney Tunes and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Laws and attitudes change, but cultural works registering other times are never erased—they continue in their original forms, and in their influence on later cultural works. To understand our cultural present, we need to understand the complexities of our cultural past.



Ballstadt, Carl. “Thomas D’Arcy McGee as a Father of Canadian Literature.” Studies in Canadian Literature1 (1976).

Bentley, D. M. R. “Thomas Moore in Canada and Canadian Poetry.” Canadian Poetry 24 (1989).

Drennan, William. “Erin.” Irish Literature, 1750-1900: An Anthology. Ed. Julia M. Wright. Blackwell, 2009. 136-37.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. London, 1789. Online edition

Lee, Debbie. “Yellow Fever and the Slave Trade: Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” ELH 65.3 (1998): 675-700.

McGee, Thomas D’Arcy. Canadian Ballads and Occasional Verses. Montreal, 1858. Online edition

—. Two Speeches on the Union of the Provinces. Quebec, 1865. Digitized copy

Moore, Thomas. Epistles, Odes, and Other Poems. London: James Carpenter, 1806. Digitized copy

—. “Moral Positions: A Dream.” The Times 14 March 1826: 3.

—. “Ode to the Ship, Which Bears Lord C——gh to the Continent.” Morning Chronicle 22 September 1818: 3.

“Parliamentary Intelligence.” The Times 8 March 1826: 1.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Wilson, David A. Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Vol II: The Extreme Moderate, 1857-1868.Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2011.

Wright, Julia M. Representing the National Landscape in Irish Romanticism. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2014.


Talking About the Ocean

In this blog, SSHORE co-founder Danine Farquharson (Department of English, Memorial University of Newfoundland) explores the importance of language to shaping our thinking about oceans: what they are, what they do, and what they need. All these issues can too easily be squeezed into familiar metaphors and paradigms that limit our understanding rather than advance it. It is a core principle of SSHORE that the Humanities and Social Sciences are key to charting those limits, and supporting efforts to move beyond them.

Deep. Mysterious. Dangerous. Unknowable. Frontier. Life-giving. Wondrous. Sublime.

Our languages will never find words or phrases to fully capture the world’s oceans and seas. That failure is neither surprising nor inappropriate. But the inability of language to grasp the ocean should also make all of us acutely aware and careful of the words we do use when talking about the oceans. Because, as the cliché goes, the language we use matters. We would do well to heed Christopher Connery’s warning from twenty years ago: “Ocean as source and ocean as destiny figure in the ocean’s mythological temporality; it is both life-giving mother and final frontier. Tropes of oceanic sublimity, need to be read against the ocean as created, mythological space, and it must also be borne in mind whose and what interests are served by that mythology.”

There is a challenge, no doubt, in talking about the ocean and that challenge resides in resisting the ideologically created and historically damaging myths about oceans. While any number of the words listed above could be the foundation of my blog, the one that is most interesting, troubling, and pertinent today is perhaps “frontier.”

Slate publishes a series of articles and blogs on emerging technologies, public policy, and society called Future Tense. One article, from 2013, was titled “Is the Ocean the Real Final Frontier” and a more recent one, which is more relevant to my thoughts here, is Lisa Messeri’s “We Need to Stop Talking about Space as a ‘Frontier’.” Messeri’s criticism of the space industry’s reliance on the same old frontier metaphor is clear: the language of the frontier not only glosses over the social and historical problems of imagining a frontier that is empty and beckoning but it also limits our imaginations. The historical problems that Messeri does not have time to outline in her article are potent and continuing when the frontier we’re talking about is not space, but oceans. In fact, unlike space, the language of ocean-as-frontier has specific problems that cannot be ignored.

In the 16th century Sir Walter Raleigh wrote that “Whosoever commands the sea, commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world and consequently the world itself.” It’s worth noting that places this quotation under the category of “world domination” and Oil, Gas, and Mining notes the same quotation in an editorial about offshore disputes between China and Vietnam. Philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel wrote in the 19th century that “The sea gives us the idea of the indefinite, the unlimited, and the infinite; and in feeling his own infinite in that Infinite, man is stimulated and emboldened to stretch beyond the limited: the sea invites man to conquest.” The seas and the oceans have for centuries been conceptualized as integral to Western capitalist activities and colonial goals. It’s not too much of a stretch to write that Western capitalism and colonialism would not have the histories they do without ocean travel and transport.

Thus, the reliance on diction that smacks of colonialism and exploration is not surprising. What is surprising is the historical and continuing use of such diction. Anyone with any smattering of knowledge or awareness of the damage done by colonial enterprises would at least hesitate before invoking the various endeavours embedded within the colonial effort. The ocean as “frontier” is not new, but the description of the ocean as frontier – to be explored, to be mastered, to be tamed, to be managed, to be exploited – surely has seen its day.

What kinds of words or phrases should we use when talking about the ocean? One way to begin is to consider Hester Blum’s argument that “the sea is not a metaphor.” What Blum means, in part, is that the seas and the oceans should not be thought of as abstract spaces and should be considered as real, social places of experience. Another avenue of thinking could be along the lines of Shari Gearheard’s work on the ways that environmental change affects local and traditional knowledges and is reinforced through language. Yet another alternative is through the avenues pursued by nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s work on “rewilding” our lexicon of landscapes and natural phenomenon.

Whatever we do when we talk about the ocean, it is urgent that we do not rely on dangerous and damaging words or phrases from the past. We need to challenge our imaginations and our language skills in new ways and for good reason: the way we talk about the ocean affects the way we think about the ocean and the ways in which we interact with the ocean. As World Oceans Day approaches (June 8), there is no better time than now to do this work and the artists and scholars of the imagination might be the best people to listen to.


What’s in a Word? Taking “Stock”

In our third blog post, Ian Stewart (History of Science and Technology Programme, University of King’s College) provides an overview of a panel, “Accounting for Loss in Fish Stocks,” featuring Jennifer Telesca (Pratt Institute). The panel, organized by SSHORE members Ian Stewart and Jerry Bannister, was made possible by SSHORE’s generous funding from SSHRC and other partners for the event. To watch the panel, click here.

During the 8th and 9th of March, SSHORE, along with the History of Science and Technology Programme (King’s), Ecology Action Centre (Halifax), EIUI (Dalhousie, Faculty of Management) and the Marine Affairs Program (MAP, Dalhousie), welcomed Dr. Jennifer Telesca (Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY)  to Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College. The range of sponsors was fitting, since Dr. Telesca  has turned her varied background in communications theory, law and society, women’s studies, and environmental anthropology to the study of fisheries science—its concepts, methods and institutions. Three years of field work at the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) has led Dr. Telesca to some challenging conclusions concerning ICCAT’s fundamental claim, announced on its website, that “Science underpins the management decisions made by ICCAT.” What “science”  is—and, indeed, what “underpinning” could mean in the context of “decisions” rendered in the complex space of ICCAT meetings—is the subject of her forthcoming book. Her work is of wider interest to the diverse disciplines represented by SSHORE scholars, not least those working in my own fields of science and technology studies and the history and philosophy of science. The previous day Dr. Telesca presented some reflections on her ICCAT fieldwork at the Department of Biology’s seminar series, co-hosted by MAP.

Her talk on March 9 at the University of King’s College focussed on the linguistic turn in the social sciences and humanities, considering the word “stock” and its rich history in science-based fisheries management (the event begins 4:35 minutes into the recording).

Dr. Telesca’s presentation, “Accounting for loss in fish stocks: a word on life as biological asset,” summarized the key findings of a published paper of the same title. Deeply influenced by the work of SSHORE member Dr. Dean Bavington (Geography, MUN) in his Managed Annihilation (2010), Dr. Telesca takes her cue from Raymond Williams’ approach to language in Keywords. She traces the role that the concept of “stock” has played in the commodification of fish, rendering possible the abstractions inherent in modern fisheries science, and their ultimate integration into the discourse of economically driven fisheries management. Her work amounts to a kind of archeology of language—in this case “stock” and its assemblages of conceptual, technological and managerial practices which condition the effect of the dangerous declines of fish and other ocean life the world over.

The word “stock” for Dr. Telesca is, in a complex sense, emblematic of the reasons that fish populations are in trouble, in that the word itself is a kind of icon for the capacity of fisheries science, with its sophisticated statistical models and risk management techniques, to be on the one hand internally “correct” in its attempts at conservation, while, on the other hand, manifestly getting it horribly “wrong” when one looks at the reality in today’s oceans.

Can a word have such power? To answer this requires not just a consideration of language and its uses. The exploration drew Dr. Telesca into the history of science, accounting, fisheries management, and ultimately into a kind of science-legitimated, imaginative reconfiguring of fish not as creatures in living systems, but as “biowealth, at the joint of both asset and population, which enables extractive capitalism to keep the productive power of nature off the balance sheet.”

In the following panel discussion Laurenne Schiller, PhD candidate in Dalhousie’s IDPhD programme, with a background in NGO fisheries management in the BC fishing context, questioned this form of linguistic turn. Ms. Schiller stressed other influences such as biological, social and cultural influences leading to fish declines, seeing in these a more direct causal link, and attributing to language a more correlative status. Dr. Susanna Fuller, from the Ecology Action Centre, similarly urged for a wider view: distinctions between fisheries science and fisheries management point to the latter as the domain of the use of “stock” as an operative term, where “sustainable use” and not “conservation” is the explicit goal, and where the precautionary principle is effectively offloaded and reserved for scientists rather than managers (contrary to its original intent).

As the third speaker, I underscored the point that language, understood through its careful archeology in the tradition employed by Dr. Telesca, is not merely instrumental. We need also to explore language as a complex “legacy that needs to be questioned” and one in which causal (vs. merely correlative) stories are to be found. Doing so requires a view of language that is more complex than the instrumentalist account of language typical of modern science.

Of course, in what sense language is “causal” is what is in dispute here, reflecting disciplinary boundaries that have their own history, going back at least to the same period in which Dr. Telesca’s paper begins. The early modern period attests to the departure of language, in this richer sense, from the discourse of science: the instrumentalist rhetoric of the turn from “words to things” (intoned by the early propagandists of the Royal Society of London, for example), is about just this. But words continually come back to haunt science, and the early theorists of the “new science” (such as Francis Bacon) were astute archeologists (and psychologists) of language. The language of science, and its influence on discourse more broadly, continues to be re-examined by scholars in my field, working alongside other subfields of the social sciences and humanities. Making the case for the relevance of such examination for understanding the nature of modern science continues to be a challenge.

The event was indeed right up SSHORE’s alley: an interdisciplinary meeting of natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. A rich Q&A that followed the panel (chaired by SSHORE member, Dr. Jerry Bannister, from Dalhousie’s History Department) had over 40 audience members, and included contributions from Dalhousie and King’s faculty and students from Biology, Marine Affairs, Philosophy, History, Sociology and Social Anthropology, and History of Science, to name a few. For her part, Dr. Telesca reported afterward that she had never before been part of such a rich and fruitful gathering of disciplines across the natural and social sciences/humanities boundaries in a discussion about the ocean. The event attests to the need for a broad-based, informed dialogue among thinkers from fields well beyond fisheries science. Such dialogue is all the more pressing given that, if Dr. Telesca is right, its absence, especially within the academy, has contributed to the looming ecological crisis facing the planet and the ocean in particular.



The Atlantic Fisheries and Rural Resilience: New Models of Economic Development

In our second blog from the 2017 joint Dalhousie-Memorial SSHORE workshop, Karen Foster shares her experiences with Atlantic Canadian rural communities, economic development and the complicated idea of Import Replacement.

Karen Foster (CRC in Sustainable Rural Futures for Atlantic Canada, Dalhousie University)

We may learn more—and create more or better questions to ask ourselves—if we allow subsistence to mean production rooted in common sense, production that has not yet broached the monstrous threshold where food, both in its consumption and in its creation, becomes a fetish for exchange-value to the exclusion of its apparent and immediate use-values (Chappell)

From 2016-18, I worked in partnership with the Centre for Local Prosperity (CLP) on a study of the potential for ‘Import Replacement’ as an economic development strategy in Atlantic Canada. In the course of this research, we have also gained some understanding of community responsibilities toward “our shining seas”—responsibilities that are tangled up in wider relations of interdependence, care and conflict between urban and rural places, foreign and domestic markets, primary and secondary industries, and older and younger generations of coastal dwellers.

The impetus for the Import Replacement study was a dissatisfaction with the dominant mode of thought over the last half-century of regional economic development, which has prioritized “export-led growth.” The basic premise is that any economy, of any size, should have “balanced” trade—that is, it should not import much more than it exports or it will be too dependent on markets that are beyond its control.

The orthodox way of pursuing balanced trade in Atlantic Canada has generally been to try to increase exports. The problem with this approach is that it makes our region and its coastal communities more dependent on global markets, increasingly vulnerable to economic fluctuations far beyond their control, and less self-reliant as a result.

A better way to improve a community’s self-reliance, and thereby its resiliency in the face of economic shocks, may be found in an idea of the late Jane Jacobs: bringing down imports through “Import Replacement.”

A community or region focused on Import Replacement would, in theory, identify areas of local demand that are currently met by imports, and try to cost-effectively produce those products or services locally instead, keeping money circulating among community members.

But behind this elegantly simple idea is a more complicated, empirical question: how can a community actually reorient itself toward Import Replacement? Do they have the power to do it? To begin answering this question, we conducted focus groups in four Atlantic communities, three of which (Shelburne, NS, Burin Peninsula, NL and Souris, PEI) are coastal, fishing communities.

In each place, we heard multiple versions of the same “absurd story”: small communities send their products away, for consumption or further processing, and then (if they can) buy the same or equivalent products back for their own consumption. The story often revolved around seafood. The stinging irony is that all three coastal communities feed distant markets from their oceans and then suffer from food insecurity themselves.

Community living facilities and hospitals next door to some of the most active fisheries anywhere served their clientele “Captain Highliner,” as one participant put it. Locals did not know what to tell tourists looking for a fresh lobster roll in Shelburne or cod and scrunchions in Burin; with the exception of a handful of times when a local tried and soon failed to start a roadside seafood stand or restaurant, there were few obvious, accessible, ocean-to-table options. One of the research partners at a focus group in Shelburne, moderating the discussion, asked, “tonight, if I wanted to get steamed lobster?” And the group told him: “you’re not getting it. It’s a damn shame.” “Lobster capital of Canada—lobster capital of the world! [And] you have to go to Sobeys to buy fresh, and do it yourself.”

In Burin, the same thing: “The locals and tourists are amazed. We’re known for being a fishing province, and there’s no fish markets.” There was some hope that this would soon change, due to a recent regulatory shift allowing fishermen to sell their catch directly off the dock to consumers for household consumption and restaurateurs for preparation and resale.

The ironic scarcity of seafood in fishing communities stems partly from broad structural changes in the way the Atlantic fisheries have been managed from about the 1970s onward. As fisheries scholars Apostle et. al. explain, although we now think of fish as a stock that is managed through quotas and licenses, this was not always the case. For that to happen, it took international agreements and the establishment of “exclusive economic zones” (EEZs), which turned the fish along coastlines into the property of the nearest states and prohibited other countries’ fisheries from harvesting in those zones to create “a global fish market.”

Coastal nations with relatively abundant fish stocks became major suppliers of fish on the world market. Countries that had traditionally fished around the world became importers of fish. There was thus an enormous increase in measured trade in fish products.” These changes “meant a weakening of the links between harvesting and processing […] as it became cheaper for companies to source product elsewhere in the world, rather than harvest it locally with their own vessels, or to buy from the inshore fleet. (Apostle)

Atlantic Canadian fisheries have subsequently shifted toward a “high-volume, low-cost” model where the objective is to get rid of product as quickly as possible, in contrast to a low-volume, high-cost model that adds value and traceability that, according to market research, consumers are actually willing to pay a premium for. Looking only at Haddock imports and exports from Nova Scotia, a 2013 report from the Ecology Action Centre showed that over 90% of haddock is exported unprocessed, a loss of “over $7 million in direct export revenue in 2011.” Nova Scotia’s GDP takes a further hit because the province then imports haddock fillets back in (usually from China) for domestic consumption. Indeed, “over the past four years the export of whole haddock and re-import of haddock fillets has directly cost Nova Scotia’s GDP between $5 and $20 million each year, not accounting for the economic impact of employment in processing” (Nikoloyuk & Adler). This does not even touch on the deferred environmental costs—costs today’s grandchildren will pay—of transporting high volumes of seafood around the world and back.

While they did not articulate these exact transformations and their effects, people in the focus groups had an acute sense that the convoluted path locally-caught seafood now takes on its way to market hurts their local industries and people. It was clear within minutes of beginning each focus group that the rationale for Import Replacement, and the theoretical benefits of putting it in practice, were foregone conclusions. Participants had a sense that their communities ought to be trying harder to benefit from the fisheries—to engage in more ‘value-added’ initiatives, to keep processing and distribution closer to home and thus maintain or regain some control over the supply chain.

But there was also some trepidation about ‘leaning in’ to fishing by investing more in processing, distribution, and other value-added activities, for one main reason: people in each community were uneasy about the local economy even in good times, because every export boom they had been through had been followed by a bust. The stories we heard in Burin were anchored to pivotal moments in the cod fishery—from ageing fishermen’s boyhood memories of boats packed to the gunnels with fish, to the lasting community and personal impacts of the 1992 cod moratorium. In Shelburne, participants rode the rise and fall of lobster stocks and prices like deep ocean waves. Accordingly, participants in both focus groups told us that while things were “booming right now,” “the critical thing is to not think it’s going to boom tomorrow.”

To cope with this “come and go” existence (cf. Beck & Ionescu), participants emphasized the importance of diversification in economic development, business, and livelihoods. At the community and industrial levels, locals felt the need for sensible, sustainable diversification that complemented and did not threaten extant industries (“oil and lobster don’t mix”, e.g.), without being entirely dependent on the success of those other industries. Just as they understood, from experience—or common sense—the importance of not putting all of a community’s eggs in a single export basket, they knew production for the local market had to be diversified too.

But they did not know how to bring such macro-level diversification about. There were innumerable barriers to new, small, locally-owned businesses, from regulatory nets that trapped “the little guy” to indomitable competition from larger firms. Although they simultaneously internalized the tired and unproven assumption that rural places lack the requisite “entrepreneurial spirit,” they described a situation in which the consolidation of enterprise and the concentration of wealth and capital really do make it almost impossible for small communities to turn things around.

And so, they focused their efforts to diversify on their own individual livelihoods, engaging in the timeworn rural strategy that anthropologists and historians call “occupational pluralism,” holding multiple paid jobs or doing “petty production”, odd jobs or under-the-table work in the so-called “informal economy” in addition to their primary occupation (Reimer, 2006; Du Plessis, 2004). This was a common attribute of research participants and a practice they observed—and valued—in their communities. Importantly, they valued it partly, but not only, for its economic benefits; their orientation toward the informal and the unpaid resembled what 1970s philosopher Ivan Illich called “vernacular” practices—those activities that people do to satisfy wants and needs that are not motivated by economic relations of commodity exchange. Such practices are a point of pride and a part of rural identities. In Burin, one woman recalled what a former student told her: “‘my father said, that if he three jobs he’d hire one Newfoundlander, because he could do the three of them.’”

Participants in all communities perceived a gradual loss of these eclectic skillsets among rural Atlantic Canadians, who seemed to have had more useful skills when unemployment was high and labour mobility low. In other words, high-paying jobs “out west” prompted rural Atlantic Canadians to specialize in such a way that they lost the ability to adapt to and take advantage of sporadic, diverse local opportunities. Memories of the past were tinged with pride in the traditional resourcefulness and resiliency of locals, but not everyone wanted a return to “jobbing around.” It had its benefits, but it was usually “forced,” not chosen.

Near the end of our stay in Burin, I was beginning to feel like the coastal communities we visited were running out of options. They had no real control over the development of their oceans or their economies, whether by influencing policies or generating new wealth themselves—no power to push against corporate giants for industrial diversification, and little hope of their own enterprises competing with the economies of scale enjoyed by large multinational firms. It seemed unfair to expect rural people to continue to “get by” in ways that are admirable and traditional but precarious and stressful. People in my generation, although increasingly familiar with “jobbing around,” wouldn’t likely submit to rural occupational pluralism in enough numbers to replace dwindling rural populations. I wondered how I was going to write any recommendations about how to pursue import replacement with all of this discouraging data.

But then we visited the Petty Harbour Fisherman’s Cooperative (PHFC). It had recently begun supplementing its fishing income by becoming landlord to two new enterprises housed in its facility—a building constructed mostly by the cooperative members’ hands—and renting its bright, airy hall overlooking the harbor as event space. The PHFC has its challenges: ageing membership, fluctuating fish stocks and prices, complex regulations and licensing requirements, and competition from ever-larger firms. But in the face of all this, it was doing OK. The future looked bright.

As cooperatives do, the PHFC collectivized the risk and reward of investment and, importantly, of diversification. It’s an old model, but it’s surviving in new times. (In fact, the two longest, continuously running fish processing plants in Newfoundland are cooperatives.) Nobody is getting particularly rich in the co-op. There are no ground-breaking “innovations”—nothing that would trigger a cascade of today’s governmental buzzwords: growth! Productivity! Competitiveness! But the PHFC’s resilience is remarkable. It is doing what people in our case study communities want, but have difficulty imagining: it is carving a space for shared, local prosperity in a global economy otherwise characterized by private greed.


Apostle, Richard, Gene Barrett, Petter Holm, Svein Jentoft, Leigh Mazany, Bonnie McCay, and Knut Mikalsen. (1998). Community, state, and market on the North Atlantic rim: challenges to modernity in the fisheries (Vol. 4). University of Toronto Press.

Beck, Lauren, & Christina Ionescu (2015). Challenges and Opportunities Faced by Small Communities in New Brunswick: An Introduction. Journal of New Brunswick Studies/Revue d’études sur le Nouveau-Brunswick 6(1).

Chappell, M. Jahi (2016). Alternative Agriculture, the Vernacular, and the MST: Re-creating Subsistence as the Sustainable Development of Human Rights. In Murton J., Bavington D., & Dokis C. (Eds.), Subsistence under Capitalism: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (pp. 254-292). Montreal; Kingston; London; Chicago: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Du Plessis, Valerie. (2004). Self-employment activity in rural Canada. Rural and Small Town Analysis Bulletin 5(5). Ottawa: Statistics Canada

Nikoloyuk, Jordan and David Adler. (2013). Valuing our Fisheries: Breaking Nova Scotia’s Commodity Curse. Halifax, NS: Ecology Action Centre. Accessed June 14, 2017 at

Reimer, Bill. (2006). The Informal Economy in Non-Metropolitan Canada. Canadian Review Of Sociology & Anthropology, 43(1), 23-49.

Why the Sea Needs Us

In the first of a series of blogs from the 2017 joint Dalhousie-Memorial SSHORE workshop, Sean McGrath questions the conventional division between nature and technology and urges us to think of the “technosphere” as being, like the oceans, fluid and dynamic rather than linear and hierarchical. Part of our environment, they both must be included in our thinking about ethics and conduct in the Anthropocene.

Sean J. McGrath (Philosophy, Memorial University)

The first to speak of the death of nature was Carolyn Merchant in her book of the same title, a seminal text in eco-feminism that describes patriarchy, technological domination, and mechanistic science as related features of an axial sixteenth-century shift in thinking about the human being’s place in the world. Merchant locates the latest appearance of the notion of kosmos in the Renaissance, when followers of Paracelsus, the peregrinating medical doctor and alchemist of Switzerland, inundated the bourgeoning book industry with lavishly illustrated texts elaborating the possibilities of a science that works within kosmos, and promising the empowerment of the human community. Merchant contrasts androcentric Enlightenment atomization, objectification, and dissection with this Renaissance version of holism, which, she argues, preserved the premodern idea of cosmos and—most importantly for eco-feminism—promoted a fundamentally gendered approach to reality. She contends that nature conceived as an organic whole, “the female earth,” simultaneously knitted individuals together in concentric circles of belonging: family, community, state, creation. The good of the individual was, in the order of things, subordinated to the common good. The “dominion” model of techno-science, in contrast, sundered humanity into atomistically self-interested individuals and reduced the earth to an exploitable resource.

I have an objection to make to Merchant’s thesis, an objection which is central to the argument I wish to formulate concerning the new form of modernity, which I believe is our best chance. It concerns the gendering of the technology/nature distinction. Without for a moment underplaying the crucial contribution of eco-feminism to the literature of environmentalism, we need to ask ourselves if the correlation of violence against women and the early modern utilitarian attitude to nature still adequately characterizes the ecological situation in the Anthropocene. Male technology raping a female earth is too simple a dichotomy to describe, for example, the technosphere, which no one seems to control, which is self-reproducing, and which could hardly be described as male and patriarchal. The technosphere is rhyzomatic rather than arborescent, uterine rather than phallic, and relational rather than hierarchical. The digitally sutured second-nature, in which most of us now live, move, and have our being (humans and the domestic plants and animals that depend upon them), is no longer simply the product of linear thinking, phallocentric domination of the wild, etc.; it has itself become a new form of wilderness, proliferating without plan, wherever there is a cellphone to connect to the web, i.e., everywhere. In fact, the struggle of traditional models of male-dominated economic power, to maintain control of the technosphere—from corporations suing individuals for file sharing, to fantastic geo-engineering projects to fight climate change—indicates that the dichotomy between phallocentric technology and feminine nature is simply no longer tenable.

Technology itself has now assumed features associated with the ‘female earth’: the technological is not a tool but a ‘space’ for the growth and development of organic life, a receptacle; it is deeply relational, creating a proliferation of communities, human and non-human, and engendering new forms of social and political life. It is for the most part parasitical on the biosphere, but it might evolve into a commensal mode of symbiosis. In a commensal relationship between two organisms, the relation of dependency is not at the expense of the host. In any case, the technosphere is self-organizing, if not alive in the strict sense, organic in its manner of developing. The technosphere has taken on the grounding and life-enabling function that was previously held to be a signature quality of “earth”: many life forms, not only human, now depend on the technosphere and cannot exist apart from it. Without the technosphere millions of domesticated animals, from the animals we raise to consume to the pets we choose to live with, would perish. We are indeed dealing with something new in our times, something unprecedented in previous eras: the creation of a new material support system for life, human and non-human. It cannot be dismantled without causing a global catastrophe. It is not in the command of any one central authority. For every population privileged by it, another segment of the population that would never otherwise have had a chance (certain species of canine, for example) is enabled. For every non-human species sacrificed by it (reptiles for example), other non-human species benefit. The technosphere is too all-inclusive, too de-centralized and too unpredictable to be simply vilified as a patriarchal-domination of nature. But neither is it to be regarded as simply benign (anymore than the earth could be regard as benign). It is the home of life in the Anthropocene, the new form that nature has taken in our age, and if we have no choice but to live in it, we must learn to live justly in it.

Which brings me to the title of this blog: why the sea needs us. Because it too is now part of the technosphere, because what we do to the climate will affect all life in it, because to persist in thinking that it exist for itself in the Anthropocene will only perpetuate neglect of our responsibilities towards it.

References and further reading:

Merchant, Carolyn, 1980. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: HarperCollins.

Morton, Timothy. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Trans. Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press.

—. 2013. Facing Gaia. Six lecture on the Political Theology of Nature. The Gifford Lectures, given in Edinburgh, 18-28 February 2013.

Williams, Mark, Jan Zalasiewicz, P.K. Haff, Christian Schwägerl, Anthony D. Barnosky, and Erle C. Eills. 2015. “The Anthropocene Biosphere.” The Anthropocene Review 2 (3): 196-219.

Žižek, Slavoj. 2008. Nature and Its Discontents.ˮ SubStance. Issue 117 (vol. 37, no. 3): 37-72.

Welcome to SSHORE

SSHORE is a network of scholars at Dalhousie University and Memorial University of Newfoundland interested in social sciences and humanities contributions to understanding our interactions with oceans. It runs a blog and held a SSHRC-funded workshop on “Canada’s Responsibility to Our Shining Seas” (Dalhousie, 10-12 May 2017). Other collaborative projects are in development.

Follow SSHORE on Twitter: @SSHORE2017