Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Bligh Cosmos

Plan and Section of the H.M.S. Bounty's Stern (Source: Project Gutenberg)

Way back in the day, many careers ago, I actually studied maritime law. It was a specialization in the truest sense of the word: its tangled skein of laws and lore were esoteric enough to sustain my interest. It was a simple choice, really. Should I bog myself in the minutae of corporate and securities law, or should I read about naval battles, perilous salvage operations, sunken treasures, and hot pursuit across international waters?

I quickly learned that the field of admiralty had some very interesting peculiarities. For example, ships have juridical power in American maritime law. A sloop, steamer, tugboat, frigate is chattel that not only merits a special type of jurisdiction, but that also has "rights". In other words, a ship can have the same legal status as a person. A chance look at an admiralty docket thus reveals a type of poetry in which ships with wonderfully evocative names sue each other in Federal court.

It thus follows that as a piece of chattel, a vessel is subject to the same matrix of property laws that would extend to real estate. A ship was literally a floating piece of property, a mobile island, so to speak. These rights also extended to the arena of public international law, where a ship enjoyed a certain amount of territorial sovereignty. A ship was therefore governed by the laws of its flag of convenience. A ship flying an American flag was covered by U.S. Law, a French by French law, and so on.

Hans Hollein, Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape (1964) (Source: MoMA)

What my law professors failed to convey was that a ship was a place. A vessel's riggings, superstructures, et cetera all comprise a spatial configuration addressing a particular programmatic need. In other words, a ship can be thought of in architectural terms. It is no surprise that when the Austrian architect Hans Hollein declared that "Everything is Architecture", he chose to depict a gigantic nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the middle of a grassy landscape in service of his point.

The most eloquent statement of a ship's architectural-ness comes from the Australian historian Greg Dening. In his 1993 book, Mr. Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power, and Theatre on the Bounty, Dening provides an in-depth look at the events leading to Fletcher Christian's 1789 uprising aboard the H.M.S. Bounty. Dening rightly portrays the insurrection as one with a particularly spatial origin. On the Bounty's fateful expedition, its officers' compartments (see above) were fitted to carry breadfruit and other plants -- a situation that surely infuriated the Bounty's subordinate officers.

Dening captures the Bounty's significance as a space of habitation in the following passage:
Space and the language to describe it make a ship. Space was inseparable from the authority it displayed and the the relationships it enclosed. The 'quarterdeck' in naval parlance was a place -- the upper deck abaft of the mainmast. It was also a social group -- those who had the privilege of walking the quarterdeck and and using the space associated with it, usually the great cabin and the wardroom. From the earliest times the quarterdeck had been a sacred place for shrines of the gods of the sea ans seamen. By the eighteenth century, the quarterdeck was sacred to the presence of sovereign power in displays of etiquette and privilege. It was the captain's territory -- his to walk alone, his to speak from but not to be spoken to unless he wished it. But the captain himself also owed the quarterdeck a deference. He too saluted this shrine as a sign that he was subordinate to the power that others saluted in him. The quarterdeck embodied this commission from the King. It was the space of his sovereign's power, and all its trivial gestures and etiquette were its geography. The quarterdeck, for officers of a fighting ship, was a space for very deep plays. It was there that an officer was expected to stand exposed, shielded only by his honour, when others on the ship might fight with more protection. The dread possibility but also the hope that any officer might have of treading where captains trod touched even the most trivial gesture with solemnity (1992: 19-20).
The H.M.S. Bounty was Captain Bligh's literal and figurative cosmos. It was also an architectural object freighted with power. This view is not uncommon with Herman Melville's passages describing the Pequod as a maritime abbatoir, a seagoing slaughterhouse plowing the mains in search of more ambergris -- all in service of a captain's maddening quest.

1 comment:

sevensixfive said...

Ah, fantastic. That makes me wonder if, in some near future mobile infratructure scenario, we will ascribe person/placehood to our Shipping Container Plugins, our Biodiesel Airstream Trailers, and our Greenroofed Walking Cities.

I already do this with my wifi network. Having moved on average about once a year for the last five, it gives me comfort always logging on to 'sevensixfive', no matter what state I happen to reside in that month.