Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the sea.

We swim in it, fly over it and pollute it; we harvest its resources and, in greater quantities that ever before, we consume goods that come to us in ships that have sailed over it. Yet for all our dependence on the ocean, we denizens of the twenty-first century are very much creatures of the land. We no longer see the sea that sustains us, and this brings with it a dark tragedy: with the world rapidly heating, it will soon be the waters that engulf us.

Our terra firma myopia sets us apart from our nineteenth (and even twentieth) century forebears, whose relationship to the sea was much more intimate and bodily than our own. For all the emphasis on land and conquest in colonial and imperial history, for much of this period the resources of the oceans and their shorelines were much better mapped than those of the colonial interior.*

In Britain and Australia, as elsewhere, maritime industries, subsistence fishing and naval economies pulled people onto the waters; while migration drew people over them. Between 1850 and 1880, more than 1.3 million men, women and children travelled in sailing ships to the Australian colonies, lured by the discovery of gold, assisted passage schemes and by the promise of a better life.

Lasting between seventy days and five months, these journeys took these passengers from the industrial urbanised ports of Britain, and carried them far from any sight of land, through both hot and freezing temperatures, to colonial cities that by the 1850s were well established.

What did this mean for the people who travelled these routes?

I have tried to get at this question by attending closely to the diaries written at sea by eight passengers who made the journey to Australia between 1850 and 1880.

These accounts reveal just how intimately migrants came to know each other’s bodies. In the cramped and frequently unsanitary conditions between decks, corporeal boundaries became porous. They leaked into each other, eroding individual sovereignty.

In the last couple of decades historians have done much to historicise bodies. They have stepped away from deterministic and naturalistic notions and instead examined how bodily ideas and practices changed over time and place. Ever since Foucault, scholars have been interested in the ways that bodies were disciplined and rendered docile, not just by coercion, but increasingly by ‘modern’ techniques such as enclosure, ranking, exercise, partitioning, timetabling, synchronisation, repetition, and spatial ordering.

The diaries I read, suggest that travel by sea to Australia in the era of sail disturbed the bodily practices that were increasingly being learnt on shore in Britain in the mid nineteenth century. At sea bodies were anything but stable, individualised, clean and orderly. By contrast they continually threatened to break their boundaries. Passengers of all classes experienced acute anxiety at this prospect. They were unsettled by shifting temporal and spatial practices, and immobilised by dramatic changes in temperature. The bodily fluids, bugs, noises and diseases of others were hard to avoid. If the better class of traveller sought escape in above deck cabins, they nonetheless also lived in fear of contagion from below.

In these conditions passengers, as much as those who organised migrant vessels, sought to assert forms of organisation that were familiar to them. In many ways their writings stand as cries of frustration and anxiety that at sea, land-based practices of order and control did not quite work the way they felt they should.

And what did this mean for passengers’ after they arrived?

These migrants’ first actions on landing were often deliberative attempts to recompose their bodily and social selves. They washed, put on clean clothes, ate a proper meal, read their mail and sought out family and friends.

Yet for many the sea journey never left them. They carried the death of a child, serious sickness, or friendships made on board with them for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps their ship-board apprehension of the loss of bodily order never left them either.

While historians of mobility are increasingly showing just how important spaces of transit were in fashioning experience and identity, historians of colonial cities and societies tend not to consider the impact of the sea journey in fashioning bodily subjectivities and cultures of rule. Might passengers’ experience of bodily anxiety at sea have influenced their eagerness to embrace and even produce the cultural classifications and hierarchies of rule that typified colonial and settler societies?

This question asks us to connect bodies at sea to bodies on shore. By doing so we may find a way, once again, to look both out to sea and across the land, and to stitch back together distributed geographic processes and chains of production and consumption that land-based histories have long elided.

*This is a point Alecia Simmons recently made at the Voyages and Visionaries conference in honour of John Gascgoine and Ian Tyrrell in Sydney, July 2016.


I’m talking about this at the Australian Historical Association conference in Ballarat this week. A free-to-download pre-print version of  the published article, ‘Bodies at Sea: Travelling to Australia in the age of sail’, Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016), 209-228 is available for download here.

Or if you have library access, visit Journal of Global History, 11:2 (2016) where you will also find a series of excellent papers by Roland Wenzlhuemer, Martin Dusinberre, G. Balachandran, Johanna de Schmidt and Frances Steel as well as an incisive theoretical article by Dusinberre and Wenzlhuemer, all on the theme of being in transit at sea and the incompatibilities of global history.