If you don’t know who Dr Sam Willis is…you ought to! Not only is he an archaeologist and historian, but he is also on the telly! As one of the world’s leading authorities on maritime and naval history, Dr Sam has worked on various sets ensuring that every minute detail is historically accurate. He is currently presenting ‘Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History’ on BBC4.
Sam’s new book, published by Quercus Books.
As usual, we were intrigued. We wanted to know why Sam is so into naval history, and how he became the top of his game! Read on to find out…
Historical Honey: Your new book, “Shipwreck: A History Of Disasters At Sea”, uncovers the incredible stories of ships that have met terrible ends. What compelled you to tell the stories of shipwrecks?
Dr Sam Willis: I came to realize that Shipwrecks had become the almost exclusive focus of maritime archaeologists – that the majority of interest in shipwrecks was targeted at the objects themselves. A ‘shipwreck’ had become nothing more than a sunken, wrecked ship, when in fact the event of a shipwreck had a much more significant story to tell, one that could be linked to a broader narrative of cultural and social history.
HH: Understandably, a book such as this would have taken a very long time to research. Have you become particularly attached to one of the shipwreck stories featured within the book, and if so, why does it resonate with you?
SW: There are two really. The first is the wreck of the French frigate La Meduse in the early nineteenth century. It inspired one of the greatest images of shipwreck ever created, Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’ and its story says so much about the world at the time. There are issues of cultural identity, slavery, cannibalism, maritime incompetence and politics all tied up in the wreck.
The second, perhaps surprisingly, considering how many great relatively unknown wrecks I discovered, is the Titanic. You might think that we know everything there is to know about the Titanic but there are layers upon layers of fascinating history here. And for me the most important aspect of the wreck is not that there were insufficient lifeboats or that it struck an iceberg, but that it struck an iceberg – the wreck of the Titanic happened in a location and at a period in which the North Atlantic was populated by enormous icebergs, but because of global warming that entire landscape has now disappeared.
The wreckage of the Titanic.
HH: From working on the TV Series Hornblower, to taking part in amazing projects such as the Channel 4 film Shackleton, there have evidently been many a proud moment during your career. But what would you define as your career highlight so far?
SW: Seeing my first book in print for the very first time, taking it out of the box and putting it on my bookshelf. You just can’t beat that.
My first book: Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare was based on my PhD and was a re-writing of the history of fighting tactics in the Age of Sail from a practical perspective. No-one had ever done that before. Historians talked about the line of battle but we didn’t know how the sailors actually sailed in line; they talked about gunnery tactics but we never considered how the damage was actually repaired and therefore what the long-term impact of that damage was; they talked about tactical ideas but never considered how they were actually transmitted before and during battle. I bring an original approach to history in everything that I do but this was the book that started it all off and I still can’t believe that I wrote it.
HH: You have been named one of the world’s leading authorities on the sailing navy – but where did your passion for maritime history come from?
SW: I come from a naval family; in fact I have just been passed down some cartoons drawn on the China Station in the 1920s by my Great-Grandfather, sent to his 3 year old son – now my grandfather. I have published these on the Navy Records Society’s fabulous new online publication site www.navyrecordsonline.co.uk Perhaps the Navy has always been in my blood. I have certainly always been happiest by, in, or on the sea, but I can’t tell you why.
The Navy Records Online site.
HH: We are passionate about providing advice to young people who are looking to forge a career in heritage or the cultural sector. How did you start out, and what advice would you give to young people who are looking to turn their dream into a reality?
SW: Don’t specialize at an early date. I spread myself as widely as possible to understand history from as many different perspectives as I could. Such variety of experience is what will add value to your CV: I have an undergraduate degree in history and archaeology; a PhD in naval history and an MA in maritime archaeology. I then volunteered at the fabulous Royal Albert Museum in Exeter and subsequently worked at the SS Great Britain historic ship in Bristol. Meanwhile I began to consult on maritime art for Christie’s. That breadth of experience increased my contacts and made what I now do possible. To get that breadth of experience you have to work for free, which means working in the evenings to earn money. You have to play the long game.
SS Great Britain.
HH: And finally, you are off on a very long sea voyage…which three sailors from the past would you invite along for the journey and why?
SW: That’s easy.
Noah – Transporting animals by sea is one of the most complex and difficult of all maritime operations and it directly affected maritime operations throughout history. I want to know how he stopped the lions from eating all the other animals and how he stopped the long-legged animals, such as giraffes and zebras, from breaking their legs. And where did he keep all their food? If the lions were in cages, did he have another ark, full of animals to feed to the carnivores? There are many questions here.
Ahab – Someone really needs to sit down with this man and sort him out. He needs a very long counseling session. I mean really. OCD.
Nelson – I have a strong suspicion that he was a bit of a prat when it came to anything that didn’t involve beating the French and I would like to just check if I am right. I would also love to ask him just how cool it was in Naples when he, the son of a parson, was partying with the very elite of traditional European Royalty and had managed to begin an affair with the wife of the British Ambassador who had once been a prostitute. Beat that.
Nelson, one of Sam’s ideal travel companions!