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The onset of global seafaring

Watch Dr Jesse Ransley and Dr Julian Whitewright discuss the expanding reach of European seafarers from the sixteenth century.
JESSE RANSLEY: Hello. I’m Dr. Jesse Ransley and this is Dr. Julian Whitewright and we’re here to talk to you about the Age of Sail, the onset of global seafaring and European empire. So Julian, what are the key characteristics of this period? DR.
JULIAN WHITEWRIGHT: Well, we’re really looking throughout this period at a big increase in the movement of principally goods, people, and ideas and the increase in the global connections all around the world, specifically from Europe going out to the West Indies, the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean and it’s really apt that I think we’re here near the Port of Southampton, which today in Britain is one of the biggest ports in the country and is still bringing all of these things - goods, people, ideas - from all over the world to Southern England but also in the other direction as well. So what is it that really drives this European expansion that we see at this time? DR.
JESSE RANSLEY: Well, the European expansion in the Age of Sail was partly driven by the ability to be able to travel transoceanically. So we had these changes in technology that we’ve talked about and seen in the medieval period and this enabled ships to travel for further distances and for longer periods of time but what drove it in terms of why Europeans decided to set sail, it was more about questions of acquisition. It was about commerce and it was about religious belief and national interests and it also became about empire, it became about colonies and it became about expansion in those terms. So Julian, what are the key characteristics of this period? DR.
JULIAN WHITEWRIGHT: We’re really looking at a process of going from, I suppose, a local scale on the one hand where you have European countries competing with each other within Europe increasingly on the sea as a means to express their identity and their power and then evermore moving westward, first to the Americas and the Caribbean and the Atlantic world that develops and the competition around there and the development of warships that can operate in those waters and then increasingly through to the Indian Ocean and to the Far East and at the same time, it’s all about people as they move into these places developing colonies to exploit the goods, the resources and bringing all of those back to Europe.
So all of these changes that we see taking place in this time must have had a really profound impact on the lives of the seafarers as well. I mean, what difference does it make for them? DR.
JESSE RANSLEY: Well for seafarers, particularly European seafarers, it was a really big change; you’re talking about change in terms of time at sea, you’re going away for months, years often, you’re talking about changes in terms of increased mobility - so there’s this movement to places that people in Europe have no idea about, that the seafarers are the first people to get to, to the Indian Ocean, to areas that were just gaps on the map previously - and it’s also about a mixing of seafaring worlds because a lot of the European seafarers entered an Indian Ocean world which had already got a very developed set of networks, set of Maritime traditions, set of seafaring communities and there’s this mixing of language and culture even on board vessels when you get Indian Ocean seafarers crewing British and European ships and they are going back to London and to Europe.
So there’s this increasing engagement between what were previously distinct seafaring worlds. DR.
JULIAN WHITEWRIGHT: So it’s a really two-way process then in that you have the Europeans going out and also coming back again, hopefully some of the time, but lots of influences from all of those other places, Far East, Mediterranean, the West Indies, all coming back to the European sphere as well. DR.
JESSE RANSLEY: Definitely. I mean, in particular, when the Europeans entered places like the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, they didn’t have the seafaring knowledge or the navigational knowledge, so one of the key things was that they needed to engage with people that were already sailing those oceans and already knew how to navigate around those waters. DR.
JULIAN WHITEWRIGHT: So given that amazing narrative that we have developing at this point in time, why is this, I mean, this period, it’s obviously really, really important, but it’s more than just about the glorification of European empire and recounting the rise and fall of empires, isn’t it? DR.
JESSE RANSLEY: Well, I think one of the dangers is that if we just view it as a question of studying empire and those kind of fading glories, particularly when we’re looking at Britain’s past, which we will do during the activity, you miss a lot of the very important narratives. So this is also the foundation of really interesting trade networks that are about those raw materials that drive the Industrial Revolution and industrial processes but were also about luxury goods and creating new markets and about consumerism. So what we’re really talking about is development of the world as we understand it today. It’s the development of the political, the economic and the social world and modern world. DR.
JULIAN WHITEWRIGHT: So the Maritime element of that is absolutely critical to things. I mean, we talk a lot of different periods about Maritime connectivity and how important it is, but in this period, it really does absolutely underpin and drive everything. DR.
JESSE RANSLEY: Yeah. I mean, none of those ideas, none of those empires, none of those changes would have happened if we hadn’t have been viewing the world as a global Maritime space.
In this video, Dr Jesse Ransley and Dr Julian Whitewright discuss the expanding reach of European seafarers from the sixteenth century. They sketch out the development of transoceanic European Empires and, ultimately, the onset of global seafaring.
Throughout the video, they highlight the importance of the mixing (and clashing) of established seafaring worlds (particularly in the Indian and Pacific Oceans) and the development of new ones, as well as the technological and social changes this brought to mariners’ lives.
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