The Past as “Now”: Improvising the British Atlantic in America

When I’m turning pages of faded ink, written by people who died a long time ago, “time” starts to jump around. They died a long time ago—but they lived. They were alive when they wrote these words—as alive as I am. “Then” was “now.” It was a long time ago but it wasn’t; the asteroid extinction was a long time ago. I am alive now, and I could live another four decades, which is a long time, but it isn’t. Then I won’t be alive anymore, when someone reads what I write now.

I’m reading photocopies of original logbooks, so the paper isn’t old; the quiet sense of awe we get when we’re actually touching what they touched isn’t there. But I’m reading them alone in the cold loft of a boat shop. Below me on the main floor, heavy black-painted spars are laid out on sawhorses. Rolled-up thick canvas sails hang high up on the walls. Right above my head, pulley blocks hang with freshly-dried varnish, waiting out the winter.

Spars on sawhorses. Photo by Phillip Reid.

I can see the street out the lower front window. Down that street is a marina, full of the boats one expects to see in a marina. Except for one. Bigger, heavier, made of wood, painted ochre and black, decorated with a flourish we don’t use now. An unremarkable sight on the riverfront two and a half centuries ago, Sultana stands out now like the alien craft she is.

Sultana, close-hauled. Photo by Michael Wootton, courtesy of Sultana Education Foundation. Used by permission.

The old papers I’m using to write A Boston Schooner in the Royal Navy, 1768-1772 are the same papers they used in the late 1990s to build a reproduction of this 1767 schooner—a vessel as ordinary in her own time as this reproduction is extraordinary, merely by existing. The book I have written about the original, and the existence of the reproduction in the real world of our own alive-time, spring from the same stack of “official documents” preserved by the government—the British government, that is, not ours—because then, it was ours. Commerce and conflict pushed back and forth, in and across the British North Atlantic, for the four years Sultana cruised up and down the eastern seaboard, in and out of commercial seaports. Ministries in London fashioned policy. Parliament passed laws. People with property met and talked. Mobs rioted and destroyed people’s property. Ministries fell, others rose. Parliament repealed laws and passed new ones. Meanwhile, small American schooners like Sultana, commissioned into the world’s most powerful navy, policed the British American waterfront, stopping and searching ships and small boats, enforcing British laws on who could trade what and what duties they would pay to do so. The Empire was expensive—especially this new, bigger version. Everyone making money in it would pay to play.

The interceptors were victims of their own success, just like the British Atlantic Empire they served. The career of Sultana, an improvisational technology serving improvisational policy, lets us watch closely as that Empire tried to sort itself out on the water, where it did its business. The smallest of the naval interceptors in North America, her role was, in the big scheme of things, no bigger than she was—but her story is representative not just of all the vessels in that service, but of the lurching and faltering attempts of these people, connected and divided by an ocean, to hold their world together. Like everyone alive now, or ever, Sultana’s crew employed clever but limited technology, tenuous commitment to a purpose, and the will to survive to make their way through their world as best they could while continually challenged by shifting forces beyond their control.

There is no inevitability in history, and this story ends in 1773 with none implied. It happened “then” but it reads like “now,” so that the experiences of real people, using the tools and skills they had to do what they wanted to do and what other people wanted them to do, can come through as real. We don’t really know what we’re doing, and neither did they. Whether literally or figuratively, whether they were in charge or taking orders, they were all just trying to keep their boat afloat in the storm.

This guest post was written by PHILLIP REID, an independent scholar based in Wilmington, North Carolina. He is the author of The Merchant Ship in the British Atlantic: Continuity and Innovation in a Key Technology (Brill, 2020). 

A Boston Schooner in the Royal Navy, 1768-1772: Commerce and Conflict in Maritime British America
By Phillip Reid
ISBN: 9781783277469, Hardback
List price: £75 / $99
Offer price*: £48.75 / $64.35
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