Sam Willis on Shipwrecks: from Shakespeare to cannibalism

They were the price Britain paid for dominating the waves from an island surrounded by rocks. But, as Dr Sam Willis will reveal in his new television series, shipwrecks also played a vital role in British culture, inspiring playwrights and transforming murder laws

Illustration depicting a scene from The Tempest - Kean Collection/Getty Images

Due to air on BBC Four tonight, Shipwrecks: Britain's Sunken History will explore the social and cultural significance of the shipwreck.

Starting with the embarrassing story of the unstable Mary Rose, the storm that wrecked the Spanish Armada, and the real-life disaster that inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest, Willis will show how and why the shipwreck came to loom so large in the popular imagination.

We spoke to Willis about his new series, and about how shipwrecks changed the course of British history.

Q: What story are you looking to tell with your new series?

A: Everyone sees shipwrecks as objects, but my series is about how they were interpreted.

There’s a hidden maritime story here – shipwrecks had a huge role to play in British culture.

They inspired art, helped to change the law, and shaped our national identity – our sense of ‘Britishness’.

This is an exciting and surprising story, and one that has never been told before, so I’m absolutely delighted to be a part of it.

Q: We understand you’re kicking off your series with the story of the Mary Rose – can you tell us more about that?

Everyone focuses on the Mary Rose as an object, because of its extraordinary survival. But I will be talking about why it sank, and fitting that into the broader story of British seapower in the 16th century.

The sinking of the Mary Rose says quite a lot about the difficulties of wielding seapower in the 16th century, even about failure and incompetence. It’s not just a treasure trove of information about Tudor life.

And with the Armada, rather than talking about the scale of the invasion and imperial ambition, I’m focusing on how its stormy end was interpreted by the British at the time – as an act of God which confirmed their superiority over the Catholic Spanish empire.

Q: And you’ll also be exploring the disaster that inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest?

A: The Tempest was inspired by the wreck of a ship named Sea Venture. It was one of the very earliest wrecks to happen in the New World.

Until that point, if your ship was wrecked you would be stranded and die there. But by the time of the Sea Venture wreck, there were enough ships and there was enough traffic for it to be possible for you to make it home.

People came home and told their story, so for the first time, you had travel writing that included shipwrecks. Everyone became obsessed with these exotic stories – it was this mad, other world; within this world but out of sight, over the horizon. It fascinated everyone.

Q: What other stories did you come across while filming your series?

A: Cannibalism at sea. Picture it: you are abandoned on a ship and there are, say, five of you. Who do you eat first?

There were established customs about what you were supposed to do in that situation, and these changed as more and more ships were wrecked.

It is horrible, but when you start thinking about the practicalities, you open a magical box of history.

Before you could eat someone, you first had to murder them. So cannibalism changed the British murder laws – it shaped the legal system.

Q: Could you tell us more about the significance of the shipwreck?

A: As a maritime nation, all of our hopes and fears were linked to ships and our society on land was reflected in life at sea.

When ships went down, therefore, we see the breakdown of order and behaviour which reveals a huge amount about the societies from which those ships came from.

Shipwrecks: Britain's Sunken History will air on BBC Four Monday 2 December. To find out more, click here. Dr Sam Willis is a visiting fellow at the University of Plymouth.

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