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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

“Maritime war is lucrative”—Exploring the background and impact of discourse in the early modern England

Shinsuke Satsuma
Junior Researcher, Assistant Professor Waseda University Organization for European Studies

■Caribbean music led to my research on piracy

My area of expertise is British history. I have conducted research on early modern British navy, piracy in North America and the Caribbean Sea, and privateers, areas which are almost untouched by other Japanese researchers. I wrote my graduate thesis on witch-hunting in America, but it became necessary to change my theme when entering graduate school. At that time, my interest in Caribbean history was spurred by my fondness toward reggae and other Caribbean music. Upon reading several research publications, my heart was captured by the dynamic history about colonies and the growth of unique culture. I then became interested in the role that piracy played in expanding the colonies of England and other nations. While studying in the Master’s Program, I researched British policy for suppressing piracy as pertaining to piracy in the Bahamas.

Afterwards, I entered the Doctoral Program of a Japanese university. However, in addition to British colonization and piracy, I felt it would be best to study the history of England itself, as well as the Royal Navy history. Based on my belief that foreign study would be the best way to refine my knowledge in these areas, I entered the University of Exeter in 2006. I selected the University of Exeter because it is the center of British maritime history. I then spent about three and a half years researching new themes while studying overseas.

Statue of Francis Drake in Plymouth

From around the start of the 16th century to the start of the 19th century, the idea that “the sea is the appropriate battleground for England” carried great influence in England. This idea was based on the belief that maritime war with Spain in South and Central America was lucrative. Throughout early modern times, the oceans were seen as a place to amass fortunes. In addition to piracy, a system existed for amassing wealth through lawful pillaging such as privateering (pillaging with national authorization) and capture by the navy. Amidst such circumstances, there was often great support for economically beneficial maritime war when England was engaged in conflict. In particular, there was a strong call for active maritime war in Spanish colonies which were seen as a source of funding for the enemy nation of Spain.

During research conducted while studying overseas, I carefully perused historical documents to investigate discourse in support of maritime war, the background for support, and the impact on actual government policy. Without exception, British researchers specializing in the 18th century British navy tended to focus on how the navy had grown. Therefore, even among British researchers, almost no one concentrated on researching the discourse that “maritime war is profitable.” As a Japanese researcher, I decided to conduct research different from other researchers to show my unique idea in terms of y theme.

The origin of discourse that maritime war is profitable can be traced back to the national hero Sir Francis Drake. Drake was an admiral in the 16th-century British navy and succeeded in defeating the Spanish Armada. Drake also engaged in repeated pirate-like privateering on Spanish colonies, capturing many lucrative spoils of war. This historical memory became the basis for a sort of myth that “maritime war is profitable.” This myth was supported by politicians in various positions as a shared interest, and the idea continued to exist until early modern times.

■Investigating historical materials in London

At the University of Exeter, I received instruction from Professor N.A.M. Rodger (currently a Senior Research Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University), a leading figure in early modern British maritime history. Since no one in Japan specialized in early modern British maritime history, it was necessary for me to seek an instructor overseas. Although I had no previous acquaintance with Professor Rodger, he sent me a detailed response when I contacted him via email. Afterwards, I translated my thesis into English and sent it to Professor Rodger. Fortunately, he found my work interesting and accepted me as a student.

Unlike the group seminars conducted at Japanese universities, postgraduate education at the University of Exeter used a supervision method consisting of one-to-one interaction with the instructor. At that time, Professor Rodger and I spent about two hours discussing the research theme which I would focus on. It was time very well spent. Looking back, I was so fortunate to have received instruction from Professor Rodger. Due to his long career as an archive manager, Professor Rodger possessed deep knowledge of various materials. He possessed an overwhelming amount of knowledge and astounding language skills. Professor Rodger embodies the essence of a British historical researcher. He has written a three volume overview of British maritime history, the kind of work that only appears about once every hundred years.

Example of old manuscripts recorded using a digital camera.

After formulating a research plan, I began to survey related literature in earnest. In historical studies, it is of vital importance to survey primary materials such as official documents and texts written in that period of the past. Of course, when dealing with long time periods or vast themes, researches sometimes depend on secondary materials such as research theses and books. Nevertheless, it is important to first acquire experience in surveying primary materials. Accordingly, I would make the three-hour journey from Exeter to London by bus and train, and then spend my entire day investigating materials at the National Archives (United Kingdom) and the British Library. My time spent immersed in diligent surveying of archives in England was a most meaningful experience.

Old manuscripts are all hand-written and cannot be borrowed. Although the National Archives permits photography using digital cameras, photography is prohibited at the British Library. Consequently, I had to input important parts into my computer word-for-word. The materials which I surveyed can be divided into three main categories: old manuscripts related to the British navy, private documents of politicians, and printed materials such as newspapers and pamphlets. Although official documents were written clearly, it was difficult to decipher personal memos and writings of politicians. Practice was of extreme importance, and I gradually became able to decipher the script through intense concentration.

Doctoral thesis published as a book by a British publishing company: “Britain and Colonial Maritime War in the Early Eighteenth Century: Silver, Seapower and the Atlantic” (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013)

Careful reading of historical materials revealed several types of discourse in support of maritime war. The supporting power sometimes changed according to conditions in that era. For example, during the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 18th century, England and France battled over supremacy in the South American markets. Eventually, England achieved superiority and obtained lawful trading rights with Spanish colonies. Afterwards, a British government which had insisted upon strong measures against Spain could no longer afford to be so bold due to fear of adverse effects on official trade. In contrast, opposition parties actively called for strong measures.

Politicians and merchants also held a different support stance. Although politicians showed support for maritime war from the perspectives of both commerce and military strategy, the goal of merchants and other economic groups was strictly limited to continued trade and profit. Plans to deploy the navy into Spanish territory were supported by merchants who wanted to secure new markets. However, merchants held the stance that use of force was not necessary as long as trade was possible, even if such trade came in the form of smuggling. In summary, I learned that while both groups supported maritime war, there were differences in the ideas and actions of politicians and merchants.

When conducting a survey, researchers have a vague theory which they want to pursue. However, after reading a certain amount of historical material, such theories are usually disproved. Through interaction with historical materials, researchers formulate a thesis while correcting their theories. By repeating this kind of diligent work, I completed my doctoral thesis. I then spent about two years getting my thesis published as a book. Upon presenting my research at an overseas academic conference, I was overjoyed to receive an unexpectedly positive response. After presenting my research at an international academic conference on maritime history, a prominent American professor specializing in naval history took the trouble to find me and compliment me on an interesting presentation. Needless to say, I was thrilled.

■Interest toward Japanese historical relations

The warship HMS Victory, anchored for display at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Although there are many foreigners in London, Exeter has a much different environment in which old England exists unchanged. There were few Japanese in the area and a feeling of alienation. However, the chance to engulf myself in a traditional British atmosphere was a precious experience.

After returning Japan, I expanded my research to include more recent periods in naval history. Once a year, I visit England in order to survey historical materials. I am also putting renewed effort into research piracy and privateering, which were themes I pursued prior to studying abroad. Furthermore, I contributed writings to a general text (photograph) for students who are interested in sea history. During the writing process, I engaged in repeated discussion with other writers in order to further polish my contributions.

Umi no Igirisu Shi: Touso to Kyosei no Seikai Shi (British Maritime History: World History of Conflict and Co-Existence; co-written, Showado Publishing, 2013)


After becoming involved in this research, I started to read books and watch films related to piracy and the navy. I have read the popular Japanese mange ONE PIECE. While it is not of much use in my research, it gives me something to talk about with students. In the future, I would like to write a specialized book on piracy and privateering. Furthermore, I hope to write more general works, including something on Japanese historical relations which is completely unrelated to my current work.

Shinsuke Satsuma
Junior Researcher, Assistant Professor Waseda University Organization for European Studies

In 2004, Shinsuke Satsuma completed the Master’s Program of the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. In 2010, he completed the Doctoral Program of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of Exeter. He holds a PhD in history. After holding positions such as Part-Time Lecturer at Waseda University and Full-Time Instructor at Doho University, he assumed his current position in 2014. His areas of specialization include modern/early modern British history, British maritime history and Atlantic history. His major written works include Britain and Colonial Maritime War in the Early Eighteenth Century (Boydell & Brewer) and Umi no Igirisu Shi (British Maritime History; Showado Publishing, co-written with Shusaku Kanazawa et al.). He is the winner of the 2014 Waseda Research Award.