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Distance and difference : seamen and maritime communication in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the Atlantic World, 1730-1800 Hay, Stephen P.


Historians say that common seamen communicated news during the eighteenth century. However, this commonsense belief remains mostly untested for regions other than the Caribbean and periods before the 1790s. This study tests whether such communications were new during the Age of Revolutions. It applies interpretive, qualitative, and digital history methods to the print, manuscript, oral, and musical communication of Massachusetts and Rhode Island mariners and demonstrates how all sorts of seamen communicated with each other and people on shore about politics, gender, and race. This study argues that transformations in maritime communication during the 1760s made America seem different from and opposed to imperial Britain in various ways. Indeed, maritime communications connected everyone in port to the larger British Atlantic because all ranks of men worked at sea. Thanks to them, other early Americans did not have to rely on printers and postmasters for information. During the Imperial Crisis, early Americans made avoiding postage on ship letters a way to protest imperial taxation. Rumors and news overlapped for early American mariners when they used maritime communication to resist what they saw as the tyranny and despotism of navy impressment and French captivity. Massachusetts provincials adopted mariners’ complaints about naval impressment, and seamen generalized their complaints about impressment to object to British rule. Moreover, expressions of mariners’ attitudes about women, courtship, and marriage appeared in sea songs, where differences increased between American-composed verses that expressed new, sentimental opinions about women and marriage and British-composed verses that expressed Anglicized, patriarchal opinions. Furthermore, as Governors attempted to use maritime communications to regulate British subjects who voyaged to the fisheries and Inuit trade of Labrador in the north, Massachusetts provincials resented and resisted these regulations that they believed were an imperial encroachment. Finally, on slaving voyages to the Upper Guinea Coast and the West Indies in the south, news about slave ship uprisings indicated how these American maritime communications had become redundant and robust, even over long distances. This suggests that even before early national newspapers and the federal post office, early Americans imagined how America differed from Britain when they chattered with seamen.

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