Jonathan Stafford

Research Group: Modern Interiors Research Centre
Award studied: PhD

Project title

Modernity at Sea: P&O and the Production of Nineteenth Century Imperial Time and Space


Conceptions of modernity have tended towards the identification of urban spatial practice as the primary signifier of meaning in this discourse. While much of this work has been crucial in identifying just what is at stake in a reading of modernity as a spatial and political project, this has lead to an oversight of the importance of the increasingly global character of social relations in this narrative. This thesis attempts to engage with this question from the perspective of the steamship, writing a cultural history of the introduction of steam power into colonial shipping during the mid nineteenth century. Taking as a case study the steamships of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, widely known as P&O, it sets out to highlight the importance of globalised networks of mobility in our conception of the experience of modernity. The introduction of steam is explored through the experiences of the passengers on these ships. Utilising diaries, archival material, contemporary press reports and published accounts of voyages, the impact of technological change is charted through associated cultural attitudes and altered conceptions of global travel. While the transitions which accompanied steam power's entry into global shipping present a radical historical disjuncture, empirical research points rather to a complex structure of co-constitution between technology, global capital and the newly mobile human subjects aboard these vessels. The consequences of a departure from sail power gave rise not simply to a transitional society at sea on a different scale and at a greater velocity, but made possible structural change which allowed for a new kind of specifically modern, idiosyncratically imperial environment, in which global actors reinforced and recoded aspects of control through performative instances of imperialism. Calling for an innovative interdisciplinary engagement with the maritime humanities, the thesis utilises a critical approach to historical material, seeing developing attitudes toward sea travel in relation to wider discourses governing conceptions of empire, colonialism and global space in the modern era.

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Jonathan Stafford