Book Review – ‘People, Place, and Power on the Nineteenth-Century Waterfront: Sailortown’ by Isaac Land

By Isaac Land, published January 2021

Abstract

This book is the first serious effort to synthesize the disparate studies on this topic and relate it to larger interpretive frameworks. Readers will find rich, vivid accounts here of the costs and benefits of desertion, of boarding houses reputable and otherwise, and of efforts to investigate and reform the waterfront.

Although Graeme J. Milne has read widely and cites historians who work on somewhat earlier periods (such as Paul Gilje), the chronological focus of this book remains firmly in the second half of the nineteenth century, with a short concluding chapter carrying the story into the twentieth century.

A work of this scope, depth, and analytical incisiveness marks the maturation of sailortown as a field of study in its own right. Unfortunately, People, Place, and Power suffers from bad timing: its bibliography includes little material published from 2010 onwards, which happens to coincide with the emergence of a significant and theoretically challenging body of scholarship on this very topic, including more ambitious cultural and urban histories, as well as the first hints of an emerging ‘big data’ approach making intensive use of census records coupled with mapping software. However (especially given the sluggish timetable of academic publishing), any work that promises a synthesis can never do much more than offer a snapshot. If the image here comes out a little blurred, that is because Milne caught sailortown at a moment of historiographical transition …

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Filed under: Atlantic | Indian Ocean
Subjects include: Harbours & Dockyards | Manpower & Life at Sea | Miscellaneous

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