Monday, April 6, 2015

Stephen R. Berry's "A Path in the Mighty Waters"

Stephen R. Berry received his doctoral degree at Duke University and is an associate professor of history at Simmons College where he teaches courses in Early American, Atlantic World, and American religious history. He enjoys sailing and wrote part of his new book, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World, at the Munson Institute of Mystic Seaport.

Berry applied the “Page 99 Test” to A Path in the Mighty Waters and reported the following:
If you turn to page 99 of A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World, you will find yourself in the middle of a description capturing the particular difficulties that women passengers faced aboard British sailing ships. This section argues that maritime workers created a distinctly masculine space that created problems for women when they embarked upon these vessels. “Male crews sometimes viewed women aboard ship to be “Jonahs,” on whom could be placed the responsibility for seagoing misfortunes.” After citing several examples of how sailors scapegoated women for problems encountered during the voyage, I conclude, “Eighteenth-century sailing vessels were anything but gender-neutral sites.”

My book focuses particularly on the religious aspects of shipboard culture, and page 99 shows how clergy could also be singled out as “Jonahs” within the particular gendering of this space. For example, the eighteenth-century itinerant preacher George Whitefield noted the disfavor his presence stimulated during a military convoy “that our ship was looked upon with an evil eye, upon my account and that I was the Jonah in the fleet.” Faced with the same sorts of accusations as women, clergymen often allied with female passengers to combat the perceived excesses of shipboard masculinity.

Overall, this page demonstrates my book’s concern with how the distinct shaping of shipboard time and space affected the cultural practices of those crossing the Atlantic. The conflict over the gendered nature of ship space took place in the extended time of the Atlantic crossing and within a space that condensed social distinctions. In terms of religious practice, Atlantic travel narratives from the eighteenth-century reveal a kaleidoscope of practices and beliefs. Europeans of varying backgrounds intermixed on British sailing vessels without the dominance of any single religious tradition. In varying degrees, these groups competed to establish themselves aboard ship and to create community where none may have existed previously. The ship required a reorganization of practice to enact spiritual order on the chaotic sea. The beliefs of the Old World did not simply transfer to the New, but experienced a translation in the crossing. Approximating the old cultures, migrants never completely recreated them. The barrier of the storm-tossed Atlantic Ocean accounted for the disruption in the transfer of mental and material culture, yet this same Atlantic provided the time and space in which the process of cultural adjustment took place. Page 99 illustrates this type of cultural shifting in terms of the gendered space aboard ship.
Learn more about A Path in the Mighty Waters at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue