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Book Review


James P. Delgado, War at Sea: A Shipwrecked History from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xv + 465. Glossary, Bibliography, Index. $34.95 (cloth).


     Gazing out over Pearl Harbor in Hawaii or Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia, one gets the sense that shipwrecks are graveyards and memorials. They are both a final resting place for those who sacrificed their lives and a site of mourning and remembrance for the living. Yet, these underwater memorials are often distant from the communities who lost their loved ones and physically inaccessible to most people who lack diving expertise. Some shipwreck sites are so ancient that there is little to record their location and what happened there, making memorialization difficult. That remoteness of place and memory can cause people to mythologize a shipwreck site, such as that at Actium or Tsushima.

     James P. Delgado has spent four decades engaged in maritime archaeology and history, working for the National Park Service, the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SEARCH, Inc.; teaching at multiple universities; authoring, co-authoring, or editing almost three dozen books, hundreds of articles; and hosting National Geographic’s The Sea Hunters. During his time at the National Park Service, he began diving wrecks (to date, over 100) in efforts to understand what life at sea meant for the sailors aboard these vessels. Delgado includes many of those dives in this book to focus attention on the human element in maritime archaeology.

      Similar to his earlier publication, Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea,1 his intended audience for War at Sea: A Shipwrecked History from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century, includes “divers, students of the past, and those interested in the saga of war at sea” (xx). The inclusion of a glossary defining elementary terms such as ballast, helm, outrigger, and starboard indicate this is a book well-suited for popular history readers, students, and enthusiasts though seasoned professionals in the field will still find useful information in their areas of interest. For this diverse group, Delgado has written War at Sea as, “a review of what archaeologists have learned about lost warships, battles on the water, and the life and death of those caught up in those conflicts—a tour . . . through an imaginary museum of underwater archaeology” (4).

      The book begins with a number of maps showing the locations of key shipwreck sites: the Mediterranean and English Channel; Northern Europe; the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, and Central America; Colonial America; the Atlantic; and the Pacific. It is encyclopedic in its coverage, but not all entries are given equal treatment due to the availability of data. Each entry in the book is reminiscent of a modern ship’s watertight compartments—independent and discrete. The reader can flip back and forth through the book reading about particular ships or time periods of interest because the narrative does not include a strong theoretical foundation that builds from chapter to chapter.

     The chronological construction of the book lends itself well to examining shipwrecks on a global scale, beginning with a discussion of the earliest possible evidence of conflict on water: as long as 80,000 years ago based on DNA evidence in coastal Africa and most definitely by 10,000 years ago discovered at an archaeological site near Lake Turkana, Kenya. That said, Delgado’s approach is not one focused on the connections and exchanges familiar to world historians. Many innovations in ship design, such as the placement of cannons on deck and later below deck, are presented as developments without antecedent. When technological diffusion is mentioned, as after the Roman defeat of Carthage, it is perhaps too briefly stated for world historians: “Rome’s three wars with Carthage saw the Romans copy the captured ships of their enemies to build large fleets” (40). As an archaeologist with expertise in nineteenth and twentieth century American and European wrecks, Delgado’s book skews strongly towards those examples.

     Considering the book spans three thousand years of naval warfare, many entries do not receive deep coverage in War at Sea. Each chapter incorporates as much detail as possible about ship design, manufacture, and use. Earlier chapters in the book are a reminder that much of ancient history is simply unknown when scholars have only fragments of material culture for data and little to no textual evidence. Later chapters, such as “The Age of Gunpowder” and “The Age of Sail,” contain far more evidence on the experiences of those who sailed. Delgado’s inclusion of a photographed rosary and boxwood comb found at the excavation of the Mary Rose that sunk off the English coast in 1545 and Daniel Defoe’s eyewitness account of the sinking of the Stirling Castle in 1703 with, “The cries of the men, and the firing of their guns, one by one, every half minute for help” illustrate the ways he uses both material culture and historical accounts to humanize these shipwrecks (112-113, 146). Delgado’s coverage of World War I and World War II, in two separate chapters, are perhaps the strongest areas of the book because of the numerous excavations undertaken and declassified records that render substantial available data. Coverage of Cold War era shipwrecks is largely limited to those from the dawn of the atomic age and the wrecks at Bikini due to the ongoing classified status of documents. The ten primary chapters also include about a dozen images each along with sixteen full color plates in the center of the book, reinforcing the author’s intention of making this undersea museum accessible. This reviewer’s only lament is the lack of a notes section to provide direct sources for the many quotes from notable scholars in the fields of archaeology and military history. The bibliography and index are extensive, however, and the glossary surely helps popular audiences navigate unfamiliar terms.

      War at Sea may tread some of the same water as his earlier publication, but it includes several notable new shipwreck discoveries made in the intervening two decades and expands on earlier finds with new information. Delgado also relies on his numerous dives to explore the lives of those who lived, and often died, aboard these vessels. This archaeological review and material exploration of life at sea are directed towards two primary themes in his book. First, Delgado posits humans have a propensity to use violence as a means to an end with ships being used “to project power and inflict violence, others were built to defend against those who would come by sea to take, to impose, or to harm” (7). Numerous examples of ships used to project power or defend territory in times of war abound throughout the book, but Delgado’s argument is perhaps most focused in the chapter, " Colonial Conflicts in the Americas," which delves into European colonial competition for land in the Western hemisphere that can be found in the wrecks scattered across the sea floor near Jamaica, Panama, and as far north as Lake Champlain and Lake George.

      Delgado’s second theme is to memorialize those people who fought and often died on those ships by using material evidence of their lives found on excavations. For instance, the USS Monitor entry mentions boots left behind as men frantically evacuated the sinking vessel and indications of perhaps a faithful steward trying to save valuable silverware belonging to the ship’s officers (227-233). Delgado’s use of these small details provide us with a poignant reminder that these underwater museums are also testaments to the last few moments of those desperate to survive. To those taking this textual tour of the deep, he notes, “While there are and will always be fervent adherents to an ideology, patriots who fight for love of country, and those who follow the drumbeats of war, there are others who go fight and die because like so many in history, they were caught up in something bigger than themselves, and in events over which they as individuals had no choice” (7).

      War at Sea brings a valuable naval narrative to the history of warfare, which overwhelmingly focuses on land operations. It reminds us that water covers three quarters of the planetary surface and that those waterways were and are more than just conduits of transportation. The sea is indeed, “our greatest battlefield, and our largest cemetery” (420). Lives lived and lost on the seas, lakes, and rivers of this world deserve investigation and remembrance because of their service and sacrifice as we “confront the human face and the costs of our conflict-driven nature” (420). This book is a useful tool for educators who wish to bring more naval history into their classrooms. High school and undergraduate students will find the text lively and easy to understand, though assigning the entire book would probably best work in an upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses on oceans in world and military history. Public historians will find valuable information on artifacts and exhibits preserved in museums and private collections around the world. Scholars engaged in military history, certainly those focused on land warfare, will find material useful in expanding their view of military engagement.

Cynthia Ross is an Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University—Commerce. She is currently engaged in research on the intersections of militarization, empire, botany, and the introduction of species in the Pacific world. Dr. Ross teaches classes in world history, military history, global environmental history, and food history. She can be reached at

1 James P. Delgado, Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea (New York: Checkmark Books, 2001).

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