Book Review – ‘Cornish Wrecking 1700–1860: Reality and popular myth’ by Cathryn Pearce

By Philip Payton, published October 2020


In recent years the ranks of maritime historians have been swollen by a new generation of scholars anxious to expand the discipline’s purview by moving beyond traditional areas such as trade, shipbuilding and technical development, to embrace innovative aspects of social, cultural, literary and even legal history. Foremost among these academics is Pearce, whose recent Cornish Wrecking, 1700–1860: Reality and popular myth has been widely welcomed and has already assumed something of the status of a ‘classic’ in maritime historical writing. Put simply, and as the book’s cover blurb insists, Pearce’s examination of Cornish wrecking is ‘the first comprehensive, systematic inquiry’ into a complex subject that has until now been shrouded in myth and uncertainty. Her crowning achievement, in pulling back that shroud, is not only the careful deconstruction of the myth but also an explanation for its growth and perpetuation over time. The myth of Cornish wrecking – of ships being lured onto the rocks by false lights, of the apocryphal smuggler wrecker ‘Cruel’ Coppinger and the literary flights of fancy of Sabine Baring-Gould and Robert Stephen Hawker – is elucidated rather than dismissed, and accorded its proper place in a sustained analysis that shows remarkable intellectual dexterity. Pearce’s interdisciplinary instincts are fine-tuned, allowing her to move with equal assurance from consideration of the finer points of law and customary rights to discussion of the moral economy and social crime in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Cornwall. As Pearce emphasizes, her book has ‘two overarching, intertwined objectives: to establish the historical reality of wrecking and to achieve an understanding of the myth itself as a historical phenomenon’. That she has achieved both so convincingly is tribute to her keen historical imagination and to her skills of synthesis and analysis….

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Filed under: Atlantic | Irish Sea | Eighteenth Century | Nineteenth Century
Subjects include: Miscellaneous

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