University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Cut-throat communities, angry noblemen, and a noseless pirate! My journey through the joys and horrors of writing a dissertation

Below, the first of a series on this year’s bumper crop of student dissertations, from my own supervisee Tom Underwood.  Tom was one of the most prepared and organised students I’ve ever supervised, but as he mentions below, also still honing his dissertation down to the wire, and we were blown away with the results.  Tom is planning to continue onto an MRes, where his impressive skills at reading early modern handwriting, and patience with sifting his way through basement archives should come to further good use. – ed

Whether its Errol Flynn’s smooth-talking Captain Blood, or Johnny Depp’s rum-soaked Jack Sparrow, the pirate occupies a special place within popular imagination. A glint in the eye appears – well for me at least – to see sails catch the sea breeze, the thunderous sound of cannon fire and the sight of the notorious Jolly Roger flag unfurl in the salty sea air. It is a childhood feeling of freedom, fraternity and insouciance. But, within these multi-sensory interactions there are – rather sadly – misrepresentations which go beyond Davy Jones’ tentacles and Robert Louis Stevenson’s black spot!

My dissertation looked at the ways in which perceptions of the pirate have been driven and curtailed by a series of archetypes in the historiography of sixteenth-century piracy. I examined the very complicated nature of Tudor maritime law and the even murkier local privileges that had been granted to regional governments in the medieval period to show that piracy was a communal crime rather than a crime committed by an individual.

I would be lying, however – as I sit here writing this – if I said I had always planned to write my dissertation on Elizabethan piracy – a subject I have come to embrace. In fact, (my slightly protracted) dissertation journey started on my second day at University. While I always had the intention of writing my dissertation on early modern maritime history – even before I joined University – a chance meeting with Dr James Thomas, a true master of everything wooden-world related, although sadly no longer at the University, altered my somewhat naïve attitude to the subject. He showed me in the very few minutes that I sat and spoke with him the need to look beyond certain key individuals and the need to view the bigger-picture. My dissertation, although without his guidance, is a sum of what he, along with every other history lecturer at the University, has taught me as an undergraduate over the three years. I am indebted to James Thomas particularly for not only his personal insight, but also his research which I hope to have followed – if only loosely and in a different historical time-frame.

Overall, my dissertation took no structured form in its embryonic stages, but I knew I wanted to focus on the smaller social dynamics within historical coastal communities. My argument never stayed the same and adapted and was enriched with every unit that I completed. In particular, a second year unit co-ordinated by Dr Fiona McCall who would later become my dissertation supervisor – positively altered my critical approach to early modern social structures and Tudor court systems. In a weird sense, the unit gave my dissertation a kind of hybridity where I appropriated elements of crime history and understandings of state formations, which I then blended with forms of maritime history to reinterpret the Tudor pirate.

While the dissertation was fundamentally driven by my individual research, it drew heavily on the apparatus and advice / teaching I had been exposed to – perhaps subconsciously at times – across the three years. Archival research was two-words – which as a twenty-year-old – filled me with dread going into the third year. For historians, however, as for Elizabethan state officers, the brazen English pirate of the sixteenth-century has been an elusive figure; historical records are far from forth-coming. My initial research drew a blank. Searching deeper I realised that to gain any access to relevant sources would take effort on my part – and a boat load of it! I had to adopt the role of the detective – as much as the historian – with a lot of suspects, little clues and no circumstantial evidence. The pirate was hidden away in the dark recesses of time and history, but also the archive!

The Discovery engine on the National Archives website proved an invaluable tool in my quest of the pirate, and initial searches showed certain documents that had potential, but not necessarily relevance. My dissertation, as a study, was driven by the local dimension of piracy, and by combining key word searches with certain geographical locations narrowed my search immensely. I realised quite early on that Southampton Records Office held the majority of documents pertaining to my area – which was initially but somewhat unimaginatively Portsmouth! Having recorded all the document reference numbers, I went the archive. Stepping off the train at Southampton central station my first emotion was to get straight back onto the train. I felt archival research was beyond me, in both my years and capability. Unfortunately for me I had realised I hadn’t bought a return ticket!

SC8/1/1 – Southampton’s Admiralty Court Book

SC8/1/1 – Southampton’s Admiralty Court Book

I persevered, I knew that to write the dissertation on the subject I wanted would require some degree of internal strength – which at this point was lacking. Going into the archive – which I initially couldn’t find, but that’s a story for another blog – I was confronted by everything that I expected; a dimly-lit, deathly quiet basement reminiscent of the IT Crowd. But, despite the appearance I was met by the most friendly, helpful and knowledgeable staff. Seeing, and touching, 500-year-old documents is an unbelievable experience. At many points I had become so captivated by what I was touching that I had forgotten why I was there.

Archival research is something that necessitates patience. Be prepared to be given a box full of documents, transcribe Elizabethan writing in your mind and on paper, only to find there was nothing of pertinence to your argument. Countless train journeys and days spent in the archives may from the out-set appear laborious and futile, but through it you can develop some invaluable – and some less valuable – skills. I have become a more patient person; I can also fully read and transcribe even the most difficult Elizabethan writing. But I have also gained some memories. Sitting in the archive touching the signatures of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, and Dr Judge Julius Caesar – a well-known figure in the Elizabethan piracy world – can be an exhilarating moment – if you’re that way inclined!

SC8/1/1 – A page within the book displaying the complicated, but highly fascinating, nature of Elizabethan documents

SC8/1/1 – A page within the book displaying the complicated, but highly fascinating, nature of Elizabethan documents

I lost count of my trips to the archive, and it became something I enjoyed rather than loathed. My dissertation, and archival, journey had brought me before some of the most interesting documents I have ever had the privilege to read. From angry mayors trying to protect their piratical behaviour within Portsmouth’s waters to pirates that have been identified by their victims through their distinctive facial features, reading through unpublished material can be hugely exciting, especially when it offers information that goes against the current scholarship.

SP 12/132 f.1 – The hardest document that I have had the pleasure to transcribe. Early modern writing can be hard to decode and can make you feel like you want to give-up at first. But, weirdly, after a while they become easier to read

SP 12/132 f.1 – The hardest document that I have had the pleasure to transcribe. Early modern writing can be hard to decode and can make you feel like you want to give-up at first. But, weirdly, after a while they become easier to read

My dissertation journey has been a long one, but also one that I have devoted the most hours of my life to. At many points I have felt like I have been stranded on an island, surrounded by a sea of documents (this is the last nautical pun, I promise!). But the opportunity has offered me a lot of freedom and has enabled me to formulate my own judgements as a trainee-historian. I feel lucky to have had a supportive dissertation supervisor that has pushed me further and further – even to the last days before submission! Without Fiona McCall’s guidance I would not have produced the dissertation in the forms it is currently in. Her support and constructive criticism helped shaped my research, but also sharpen my analytical tools. I cannot wait to continue researching my topic and get back to the archive!

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