Prevailing Winds, History, and Forgetting

One of the things I find most fascinating about the process of trying to understand the past is the extent to which we forget collectively about things that no longer seem to matter. How things that were once an acceptable or at least tolerable part of life become almost inconceivable. What we call progress is not simply a matter of overcoming problems and sidestepping obstacles, but of denying they exist. The Icelandic volcano that has disrupted air travel across Europe in the past month has been a reminder of just how dependent we are on a stable and predictable environment. We want our transport to be reliable and nothing less than a volcanic eruption can stand in our way. But even so the idea of being delayed in our travels round the globe because of a volcano seems faintly ridiculous. Volcanos are so prehistoric and passenger jets are so, well, shiny and modern. But what if transport, industry, and commerce could be disrupted by something as mundane as the wind blowing in the wrong direction?

In March 1822 William Scoresby and his crew of fifty men were preparing to sail from Liverpool to the whale fishery off Greenland in the ship, Baffin. Unfortunately the voyage was delayed for about a week because a westerly wind prevented them from leaving the dock. This would no doubt have caused problems for Captain Scoresby, since not only would the men have to be retained on the ship (as it happens two of the crew deserted during the delay) but the loss of a week from the short Arctic hunting season was expensive. Scoresby finally managed to begin his voyage north on March 27th when the wind shifted a little southward, but his ship was almost alone when it left the Mersey. Here’s how he describes it:

[We] were prevented from sailing by strong westerly winds, which prevailed for several days … At this time, nearly 500 ships were lying in the different docks wind-bound; but scarcely any of them attempted to put to sea on this occasion as the wind was not suitable for the South Channel, the outlet most suitable for the voyages to which the principal part of the fleet was destined.

Scoresby’s troubles should be seen in a wider context: around forty percent of world trade was conducted through Liverpool in the early nineteenth century.  Delays had a significant effect not only on individual ships but on the economy of Britain as a whole. Far more significant, no doubt, than the restrictions on European flights are today. It is also worth noting that the prevailing wind in Liverpool is from the West.

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