Why Ocean History?

By Helen Rozwadowski, Natalia Gándara-Chacana, and Samantha Muka


By Helen Rozwadowski, University of Connecticut, Avery Point

Scholars working emerging fields, such as ocean history and allied areas like coastal history, oceanic history and the like, benefit from the enthusiasm and momentum that accompanies new questions, new approaches, and new communities. Successful recent PhDs, with innovative dissertations that are already exerting outsized influence, face fresh, often quite stubborn challenges looking for positions in institutions whose definitions of academic fields do not reflect present currents. This situation may be especially true for ocean-related scholarship, given the profound and long-standing terrestrial bias of historical scholarship and the institutions that foster it. In what follows, two early career scholars, Samantha Muka in the US and Natalia Gandara in Chile, offer valuable reflections on their experiences and the reasons they believe ocean history enriches history departments, universities and other historical communities and institutions.

As a historian whose work has focused on oceans throughout my career, I recognize both the challenges and the opportunities offered by ocean history. Like many of their generation, I found it difficult to convince hiring committees that I fit their job descriptions. My dissertation on the scientific and cultural history of the ocean’s depths in the mid nineteenth-century involved British and American actors and institutions, along with some Scandinavians. No one took me seriously for British or European history jobs, and US history jobs seemed a non-starter because my time period, focused on 1840-1880, didn’t conform with the standard pre- and post-Civil War periods. When I did finally (seven years after my PhD) get a permanent – and incredibly perfect-fit job, founding a maritime studies program at a great institution – I noticed that my new department’s website at the time listed faculty names on a world map…with no facility for listing a name on the blue space representing oceans! My eventual job search success depended on my PhD and research in the recognized field of history of science and my ability to teach the new (to my hiring department) field of environmental history. Once hired, I benefitted from a department that has supported me throughout my career. Today, another colleague teaches a history of the oceans course I developed at a different campus, and there are five other history faculty members who are affiliated faculty of the maritime studies program, a sign of the burgeoning importance of the oceans in history.

I invite readers of these two reflections by Muka and Gandara to use the comment field to extend this important conversation about how we, individually and as a community, can help explain the importance and potent potential of ocean histories for our understanding of the past and our world today.

Arguments for Ocean History

By Natalia Gándara-Chacana, Postdoctoral fellow of the Centre of Climate Action and the Institute of History at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (Chile)

As an early career historian of the oceans and ocean sciences I have found it difficult to convince faculty staff to hire me instead of historians delving into more traditional historiographical research such as political history, labor history, or even gender history. After sharing this concern with fellow ocean historians, they encouraged me to write this blog post with a series of reasons why the history of oceans not only matters but is advantageous for the faculty and the university as a whole. So, here are my reasons:

First, Ocean History engages with multiple subfields and relevant topics, namely global history and the history of globalization, maritime and military history, labour history, gender history, history of science, economic history, history of fishing, environmental history, colonial and imperial history, national histories, legal history, history of commerce, among others. Hiring a scholar who produces research on the history of oceans guarantees the integration of broad topics in their own research but also in their teaching. In the same vein, ocean historians create excellent survey courses for similar reasons, potentially attracting students from a diverse range of fields. This aspect is particularly relevant for the faculty as they need academics who can engage with students interested in the humanities and in the STEM fields.

Presently about 40% of the world’s population lives within 100 kilometres of the coast. In countries such as the US, the population of coastline counties has doubled since the 1960s due to domestic and international migration. In South America, most capital cities and principal urban centres are located less than 75 kilometres from the coast. Ocean history, then, can act as local and regional history. Courses on the history of oceans allow students to reflect on pressing social issues, examining the impact of migration, industrialization, and the processes of globalization on oceans and the relationship between society and marine environments.

The repercussions of the new epoch, the Anthropocene, challenge universities to rethink scholarly endeavours and their social role and impact. In this context, interdisciplinary and collaborative work seems to be the future of academia as society needs more complex solutions and interpretations to current problems. Ocean historians are particularly well equipped to work with scholars from different fields as their research often engages with literary studies, anthropology, oceanography, marine biology, law, mining, fishing, and engineering, among many others. Furthermore, there is a growing interest in the humanities for studying the ocean, incorporating not only research on the surface but especially on what lies below, in what has been called the ‘blue humanities’ (Gillis 2013). The historicization of the oceans remains one of the most important topics in the blue humanities. Historians, therefore, have a central role to occupy, leading and participating in research groups and courses on the history of human relations with oceans and other bodies of water.

Finally, to tackle the current environmental crisis, we need citizens knowledgeable about the huge impact of human activity on marine environments and the intricate relationship between the oceans, people, and the Earth system. As Helen Rozwadowski has recently argued there is a “need to integrate the humanities into ocean literacy and stewardship” (Rozwadowski 2020, 365). Courses, seminars, as well as research on the history of oceans are instrumental in the devolvement and accomplishment of this goal. Moreover, it could be a platform to prepare individuals in the urgent global fight against climate change, understanding that the production of knowledge stands at the core of the human relationship with nature.


Gillis, John R. 2013. The Blue Humanities. In studying the sea, we are returning to our beginnings. Humanities. Vol. 34 (3) https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2013/mayjune/feature/the-blue-humanities 

Rozwadowski, Helen M. 2020. Ocean literacy and public humanities. Parks Stewardship Forum 36(3): 365–373.

Oceans History’s Interdisciplinarity

By Samantha Muka, Stevens Institute of Technology

In a recent discussion about teaching ocean history, the question arose of how to help prospective departments and communities understand the importance of ocean history. How do we get a department to hire us as ocean/marine historians or to offer an ocean history course? To put it bluntly, how do we sell our subject (and our work) to the academy at large?

As I have written about elsewhere, one strength and issue with convincing others that ocean history is important is how broad and ill-defined it is as a field. What does it mean to be a maritime historian? Or even a historian of marine science? My time on the job market shows how interdisciplinary marine history is, and how hard it is to clearly define your work because of that interdisciplinarity.

My dissertation was on the history of the institutional network of marine biological stations throughout the world, with a strong emphasis on American stations between 1880 and 1930. It was by-and-large an institutional history from a marine biological perspective with a driving question: how did the growth of this type of space influence the development of marine science? I had an undergraduate degree in literature, a master’s in history and philosophy of science, and a PhD in history and sociology of science. I read my exams in history of medicine (with an emphasis on public health and labor), American labor history (with an emphasis on women’s labor), and history of biology. All of this is to say that my educational background and dissertation were highly interdisciplinary.

When I began to apply for jobs, I applied to anything that felt like it would fit: gender and women’s history, American history (general), American history (labor, business, and/or economic), history of life sciences, environmental history, history of biology, history and philosophy of biology, marine history, and the sociology of life sciences. And it might surprise you to know that I got first and second round interviews for jobs in most of these categories. I was finally hired, after 4 years on the market, as a historian and sociologist of life sciences – the label I would most commonly use to define my work. But being able to apply to this wide a spectrum of positions is the best example of how broadly applicable, and hard to define, marine history is.

The challenge of how to make marine history important to potential employers is one that asks us to define our work using disciplinary boundaries that we fit into, but that are not sufficient in defining our own field. If you are applying for a gender history job, it isn’t hard to fit marine science into that category. Jenna Tonn, Naomi Oreskes, and I are just a few scholars who have written specifically about gender in the marine sciences. Marine history fits wonderfully with economic or labor history: there have been a huge number of books and articles of recent years using the lens of fisheries to look at the development of economies in the Caribbean, South America, Asia, and the United States. Marine history also fits with military history, histories of colonialism and globalization, scientific exploration, laboratory science, and environmental history. In fact, there aren’t many topics in history or sociology that you could name for which I couldn’t find an example from the marine historiography. But in some ways, this is a hurdle.

We don’t have many programs built specifically around marine history, nor are there often classes on the books dedicated to marine history. Instead, marine historians must work to both show our similarities to other disciplines while introducing students and administrators to our particular subdiscipline and what it can offer the university.

For most of us, the important work will be showing how versatile we can be in research and writing: whatever you need, marine historians can provide. And in the process of being interdisciplinary, we use marine history as our main approach. For instance, I was hired as a historian and sociologist of the life sciences. I most commonly teach a history of science freshman seminar and upper level reading and discussion courses on smaller topics. When I got to my current job, there were several classes on the books with titles broad enough to allow instructors to put their spin on the course. For a course called “science and visualization,” I taught the class on underwater visualization. The course was a huge hit and after a few more semesters of classes with broad marine themes, I pitched a new course on environmental history. The course was taken up, and now I teach an upper-level reading course called Humans and the Environment every other semester.  By working marine history into established courses and showing how well-received they were, I was able to convince my department to let me build my own courses.

In addition to building courses in history, those of us who work in the blue humanities shouldn’t shy away from reaching out to try to work with scientific colleagues. At my university, we work on water quality technology and city planning for climate resilience. Introducing myself to these colleagues has made them aware of my work and they send their undergrads my way. Intertwining my work with my university’s expertise in marine engineering helps me make a case for expanding the marine history and sociology offerings every year. It isn’t enough to know that these departments exist though; you have to create relationships with those departments and understand not only what you can teach but what their students want to take.

Being an interdisciplinary academic can be tough. It is hard to know where marine history lands (filling out questionnaires about where my work is concentrated makes my head spin; could there be a non-terrestrial option?). But this interdisciplinary nature also gives us the ability to teach widely and to speak across history departments to other subdisciplines and across the university to our science colleagues. In these ways, we show the academy how useful and widely applicable the history of the oceans can be.

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