Atlantic History Sailors
Niklas Frykman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0351


European overseas expansion and the processes of early modern globalization depended on the labor of sailors. It is therefore not surprising that they are among the most thoroughly studied occupational groups of the early modern world, especially as their historical importance is reflected in a relative abundance of archival source material. Legal records of various kinds have proven an especially rich source that has allowed historians to recover in remarkable detail the lives of early modern sailors as they crisscrossed oceans and imperial jurisdictions, moving back and forth between ship and shore, switching from the fisheries to the merchant marine, and on to naval service and back again. As one of the first predominantly wage-dependent groups of workers in the emerging capitalist world-economy, sailors were subject to an unusually complex constellation of forces that together provided the structure of the international maritime labor market, including the interaction of the push and pull of demand and supply with the multiple and overlapping coercive recruitment systems that in wartime funneled mariners by the tens of thousands onto the gundecks of Europe’s burgeoning war-fleets. But scholarly interest has not only been stimulated by the fact that sailors sailed the ships that projected European imperial aggression overseas, and then carried people, commodities, and ideas back and forth across the oceans. Historians have also been fascinated by the peculiar culture that emerged below deck and in port cities around the world, including its characteristic cosmopolitanism, political radicalism, and sexual libertinism. The titles listed in this bibliography highlight some of the most prominent studies on these and other subjects, but interested researchers will want to consult other Oxford Bibliographies articles as well, including Oceanic History, Ships and Shipping, Piracy, Smuggling, and The Maritime Atlantic in the Age of Revolutions.

General Overviews

The studies in this section all provide useful introductions to the life and labor of ordinary seamen in the age of sail. However, they also reveal meaningful differences in sailors’ experiences depending on the period and place in which they went to sea, the sector of the maritime industries they worked in, and their own racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds. Rediker 1987 provides the most comprehensive overall introduction but is focused in particular on the hardships, workplace struggles, and rebellious culture of early-18th-century Anglo-American deep-sea-going merchant sailors. Pérez-Mallaína 1998 is similar in approach, though focused on sailors in the 16th-century Spanish Indies fleet. Rodger 1986 provides a counterpoint from the perspective of the mid-18th-century British navy that paints a more positive picture of seamen’s experiences onboard ship. Christopher 2006 is focused on sailors onboard 18th-century slave ships, which was usually considered an employment of very last resort where conditions were as grim as one might imagine. Bolster 1997, by contrast, tracks the experience of African American sailors, mostly in the 18th century, and finds that in contrast to their European-descended counterparts life at sea often provided greater liberties than they would be afforded on shore. Finally, Cabantous 1995, Fury 2002, and Vickers and Walsh 2005 go beyond the focus on just the ship itself, and instead locate sailors first and foremost in the coastal communities from which they emerged and to which, in most cases, they eventually returned.

  • Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Remains the most comprehensive study of African American seafarers’ experience from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century.

  • Cabantous, Alain. Les citoyens du large: Les identités maritimes en France (XVIIe-XIXe siècle). Paris: Aubier, 1995.

    Broad and creative study of the emergence of a distinct maritime identity in French coastal communities in the period of European overseas expansion.

  • Christopher, Emma. Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730–1807. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Pioneering labor history of the work of turning captives into slaves during the transatlantic voyage from Africa to the Americas.

  • Fury, Cheryl A. Tides in the Affairs of Men: The Social History of Elizabethan Seamen, 1580–1603. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

    Rich social history that follows ordinary seamen from shore to ship and back again, in a period that is relatively understudied when compared to the 17th and 18th centuries.

  • Pérez-Mallaína, Pablo E. Spain’s Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century. Translated by Carla Rahn Phillips. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

    Important contribution to the social, economic, and cultural history of early Atlantic seafaring, from the Spanish Atlantic perspective.

  • Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    Pioneering work of maritime social history that identifies 18th-century deep-sea sailors as one of the first fully formed sectors of the modern capitalist working class.

  • Rodger, N. A. M. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986 [1996].

    Comprehensive survey of shipboard conditions in the mid-18th-century British navy. At pains to demonstrate that life onboard wooden ships of war was nowhere near as grim as most other maritime historians suggest.

  • Vickers, Daniel, with Vince Walsh. Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    A detailed social history of the lives of the men who sailed out of Salem, Massachusetts, from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

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