Barbara Tomlinson. Commemorating the Seafarer: Monuments, Memorials and Memory. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2015. Illustrations. 256 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-970-5.
Reviewed by Matthew McRae (Western University)
Published on H-HistGeog (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Jon G. Malek (Western University)
The Old Monument and the Sea
Monuments are meant to be seen and experienced. In the introduction to her book Commemorating the Seafarer: Monuments, Memorials and Memory, Barbara Tomlinson notes that “memorials are three-dimensional objects located in a social and geographic context. There is no substitute for seeing them in the flesh and visiting them is always something of an adventure” (p. xi). Commemorating the Seafarer ably captures the author’s love of the subject matter and her extensive knowledge of British maritime memorials. Her book is more than simply a catalogue of statues, tombs, and plaques. Tomlinson’s tight focus on the memorials themselves, however, leaves little room for wider discussions of the role of collective memory and national identity in British history; this task will be left to future scholars, who will no doubt reference this useful resource in their own work.
Tomlinson has gathered an extensive knowledge of maritime memorials during her thirty-seven years as curator of antiquities at the National Maritime Museum in the United Kingdom. Her book has its origins in a memorial database started in 1978 and put online in 2002. Many monuments described in the book are drawn from the database, although the author notes that Commemorating the Seafarer is in no way an exhaustive compendium of Britain’s maritime memorials. Despite this, Tomlinson does an excellent job of presenting the reader with a representative sample drawn from all sections of society and from various geographic locations.
Starting around the year 1500, the writer sketches out major trends in maritime memorials leading up to the present day. Monuments of the 1500s and 1600s tended to commemorate the naval achievements of a small dynastic elite. These memorials were dedicated to individuals and usually commissioned by women or heirs of the deceased.
Over the course of the 1700s, more naval officers began to receive memorials as the role of the navy expanded. The monuments also changed to reflect Britain’s increased global connections and growing imperial ambitions. For example, the tomb of Vice-Admiral Charles Watson (1714-57) used classical imagery but also incorporated palm-tree columns to reflect Watson’s service in India. Most naval memorials of the era were still dedicated to individuals and had a “distinctly maritime as opposed to military identity” (p. 35). It was only during the wars with France at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century that truly national naval monuments would begin to be built.
Tomlinson describes how the wars with France (the author focuses on the years from 1783 to 1815) saw memorialization increasingly become a concern of the state. She notes that national monuments became part of a propaganda war, and thus “a series of expensive memorials were voted by Parliament during the course of what came to be seen as a fight for national survival” (p. 39). Monuments took on a far more militaristic tone. Tomlinson states that “the public liked to read that mortally wounded heroes had stayed on deck, remained in charge and retained their faculties and sangfroid until they expired in knowledge of victory gained” (p. 45).
Perhaps the greatest exemplar of heroic naval death was Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson, who died during the battle of Trafalgar, became a national hero in Britain, with a public funeral, a grand tomb, and multiple memorials across the country as well as throughout the British Empire. The most famous, in Trafalgar Square in London, was not completed until 1867 due to a depression, initial insufficient funds, and finally a series of design problems.
After the Napoleonic Wars, Tomlinson notes, naval monuments once again declined in number, although commemoration did become somewhat more democratic. For example, the Victorian era saw the first government-issued campaign medals awarded to all naval personnel for the First China War. Of course, the navy did not become too democratic, as Tomlinson states that “lists of names on naval memorials were always tabulated strictly in order of rank and hierarchy” (p. 92).
The twentieth century saw many of the last vestiges of hierarchy disappear completely from naval memorials. Monuments were now dedicated not just to a few but all who sacrificed for their country, and hierarchy was abandoned in favor of simple alphabetical lists of names. Memorials appeared not just to those serving in the British navy but also to the merchant navy and to civilian casualties lost to U-boat attacks, such as the Lusitania.
Tomlinson does not restrict her overview of maritime memorials to the Royal Navy and monuments connected to conflict. The author dedicates a chapter to maritime commerce and commemoration, and is careful not to leave out memorials to those who grew wealthy on the Atlantic slave trade, which was for so long the livelihood of many British merchants. Commemorating the Seafarer also includes a chapter about maritime accidents, which encompasses far more than just the most famous disasters, such as the Titanic. Her examination of the iconic vessel’s memorialization is a very interesting part of the chapter, however; she discusses the role of social mores in shaping subsequent memorials, such as the relatively recent tradition of “women and children first” and the notion that one should “Be British” in the face of disaster.
Yet another chapter looks at maritime explorers, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir Ernest Shackleton. It is one of the few parts of the book that widens her scope beyond the British Isles, as some explorers, including Captain Cook, became famous in Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, and therefore the subject of commemoration. The chapter also allows Tomlinson to look at how public memory can ebb and flow, with explorers “often commemorated by public memorials erected long after their death” (p. 177).
The author’s final chapter ties up loose ends, covering memorials to fishermen, lifesavers, and leisure. As with previous chapters, memorials to lesser-known events and individuals are included along with the more famous figures, such as monuments to British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who drowned in 1822.
Taken together, Tomlinson’s work is impressive, giving readers an overview of more than five hundred years of maritime memorials in Britain. The author notes changes in the style of monuments over time, as well as the gradual democratization of commemoration. While most of the monuments discussed are large sculptures, tombs, or monuments, she does not neglect to include more modest forms of memory: paintings, tombstones, church windows, and even hand-carved mementoes.
The author does acknowledge one of the biggest limitations of Commemorating the Seafarer. She states that her preoccupation with maritime material culture “can blind one to the bigger picture, in this case relationships between memorials to seafarers and to their shore-based contemporaries” (p. 231). Tomlinson also does not engage with any of the extensive existing scholarship on collective memory and commemoration, meaning her study ends up with an extremely narrow focus, isolated from the wider scholarship on the subject. Tomlinson states her work is “just a snapshot taken at a particular moment” (p. 232). That may be true, but it is a very vivid and informative snapshot. Scholars interested by issues of memory and memorialization will find Commemorating the Seafarer to be a valuable addition to their library, providing both detailed descriptions of individual monuments and a wider context that situates these memorials within the long history of maritime commemoration in Great Britain.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-histgeog.
Matthew McRae. Review of Tomlinson, Barbara, Commemorating the Seafarer: Monuments, Memorials and Memory.
H-HistGeog, H-Net Reviews.
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