The Last Shantyman
Who would have imagined such unexpected twist of fate – there was a young boy, sailing across the Seven Seas for two decades. He sang the same few sea-shanties, battling the deep waters. Whenever he docked his watercraft, he was exposed to exotic languages, unheard-of customs and unexplored cultures. He who then retired at 40-ish and settled on land, getting married, and having children of his own. For another 45 years, he led a career as a formidable historian of the ‘civilized’ world – despite being covered with bands of native tattoos that might have been the ‘India inks’.
With the publication of ‘Sailortown’ in 1967, this man initiated discussions over what constitutes the notion of a sailortownby introducing potent insights into mariners’ life and their associated cultural constructs. He is the Last Shantyman: Stan Hugill.
Stan Hugill’s book
Sailortown is one of the most celebrated and academically scrutinized books on maritime cultures. Whilst the work typically applies to disciplines surrounding humanities, such as music and art, linguistic and literature, sociology, at times socio-economy, and more generally, history, we are only starting to see maritime archaeologists applying Stan Hugill’s conception of the Sailortown in the archaeological records quite recently.
But before looking at how these ideas are constructive to the theorization of maritime cultures, what exactly do we mean by the word ‘sailortown’? Here, I will offer my two cents by deconstructing the diction, offering a plausible explanation of why Stan Hugill preferred to call sailortown ‘Sailor-town’, but not Sailor-village, Sailor-city, or Sailor-world.
Sailortown, the conjoining of the words ‘sailor’and ‘town’.
As inquisitors, we shall all agree to start by interrogating the choice of diction – that the terminology is conditioned to be associated with a ‘town’, but not a ‘city’, or a ‘village’ or a ‘world’ per se. This town-ish framing could become slightly problematic if we inferred the sense of a ‘separated world’ from Hugill’s explicit depiction of how ‘Sailortown was of all countries’, seen ‘throughout the world’. Often, seafarers are seen as ‘a world apart’ and sailortowns as something spatially separate from the ‘normal’ town.
Bigger than a ‘village’, but smaller than a ‘city’
Semantically, a town is categorized, according to an assemblage of prestigious dictionaries and legal interpretations, as a place where it is bigger than a ‘village’, but smaller than a ‘city’. It is, at times, tempting to blame the Last Shantyman for positioning the size of the influence of ‘Sailortown’ in this awkward terrain of being ‘not-too-big and not-too-small’. But on a closer look, we could decode it as a blunt display of perceived reality, that a ‘sailortown’, and by extension ‘sailors’, was not viewed as segregated from the land, being distinguished as a stand-alone ‘world’, or being entirely synced with so-called normal towns and cities.
Separated yet included: Bridging mariners (water) with landers (land)
This, I reckon, as strategic framing, too, because, by locating ‘sailor’ within the settings of a ‘town’, the bridging between land and seafarers are cohered– surely an advocacy gradually much valued in the realm of maritime archaeology by Bass and Wsterdahl. After all, sailor’s ‘town’ is indeed part of a larger city, thus invoking the ideas of separation from other non-sailor’s towns, but still conforming to the inclusion of it in the larger port-city.
Why should maritime archaeologists read Stan Hugill’s book?
Hugill wrote his ‘Sailortown’ in the 60s, and it intersected with the establishment of maritime archaeology as a formal academic discipline. At the time, Maritime archaeology was at its infancy between the 60s and 70s. Later, it has gradually metamorphosed to a respected field that no longer focuses just on-and under-water excavations, but also towards the intertwining relationship of waters and lands, as suggested in the word ‘maritime“land”scape’ in Westerdahl’s celebrated publication in 1992 and 2011.
Meanwhile, narratives associated to the seafaring communities are increasingly more valued alongside other historical, archival and scientific endeavours. This inclusiveness of the anthropologic, ethnographical and somewhat fragmented accounts by the persons within the seafaring community is also what drives maritime archaeology to its current-day cross-disciplinary prestige. In a way, Stan Hugill narratives could be viewed as a data, a source of human accounts that correlates with the variegated narratives of sailors – an asset needs better utilization by archaeologists, at least, for example, for the detection of potential artefacts and theorizing maritime cultures.
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