“Launching a ship was a most important social event in these seaside towns, to which everyone looked forward with great excitement. It was considered by everybody to be an unofficial public holiday. The headmaster recorded many times in the school log that on such occasions (as at harvest time) he had to close the school because it was impossible to get children to attend. On the previous day of the launch, workers would be employed to open a large trench from the stern of the ship to the sea to facilitate an easy passage at the following high tide. The launching would start with a traditional religious service of blessing…”, Nefyn Shipbuilders and their Ships, Mr O J Cowell
Such a scene was replicated in beeches and small harbours along the Welsh coastline (& of course around the world). For instance, and typically, the village of Llantsantffraed with a total population of 1,286 (1851 census), produced 55 sea-going vessels between 1786 and 1864. Bear in mind that a boat may have taken two years to build.
The Lleyn Peninsular was particularly famous for its shipwrights, producing both ocean going and shore-hopping vessels to order from throughout Britain.
Porthmadog schooners (for the American and Australian slate trades) could match the great tea clippers for speed and modern design. The last was built in 1914.
Nearly all these vessels were financed, built, fitted-out, cargoed and crewed by local skills, without a word of advice from government, corporation, college, or bank. Of course those local skills were both inherited from within a tradition and also enlivened by the curiosities of travel – both physical and literary.
I borrow the following from Welsh Ships and Sailing Men, by the great Aled Eames.
The brig Anne Catherine was built in 1859 on the beach at Llangranog. Length – 193ft, 211 tons and built for the ocean trade. Finance for her construction, cargo and crew was raised entirely from within the community – as was the custom. Finance for such projects was raised by shares – tradition had evolved a system of 64 shares – known as “sixty fours”.
In this case, shares were bought by 2 master mariners, 1 shopkeeper, 2 blacksmiths, 2 innkeepers, 1 merchant, 1 tanner, 1 joiner, 1 spinster, 2 widows, 2 private individuals, and 7 farmers.
Llangrannog is a small village. Evidently, in 1859 it had a multitude of trades and trade’s people with income to spare for boat-building and sail-trading ventures. Today, it relies on tourism and EC subsidised farming. You’ll find no boat-builder, or sail-trader, and little fishing – no blacksmith and no tanner. There may be a joiner for fitting out holiday homes. If any widow, or “private individual” has money to spare, then it will almost certainly be re-invested in property (to create further inequality), or in shares for the further corporate destruction of a once self-reliant Llangrannog. Meanwhile, young people cannot afford a home. In any case, tourism and grass farming provide insufficient work.
In 1859, this was a self-reliant economy, but one which looked out to sea. To be sure, it’s domestic heating was provided by coal, but transport was by foot, cart horse and sail.
Land enclosure had dispossessed the bulk of rural populations across Britain. It created city slums and mass emigration. Then rentier effects had further bled productivity – land-holders became richer and trade’s people became poorer. However, for coastal Wales (and I presume elsewhere) the sea, tradition and ingenuity provided a kind of counter-commons. Shipwright; sail-maker; navigator inherited filial knowledge and passed it on. No other education can be as intimate, complex and self-sustaining.
The reader can guess where I am heading – How do we re-create such an economy today? We have no other choice (minus the coal) but to return to such a solid, reassuring, slowly-evolved, tried and tested integration of economy into its terrain. We need an economy which follows laws of physics and of nature. Nothing can replace the extra-ordinary powers of fossil physics. Nothing can replace the extra-ordinary ways of life it has generated. No renewable energy source can power suburbia, the family car, air travel, the centralised supply chains of super markets… Many pursue that end. They are deluded. Many say that proposals such as mine cannot be serious – sail-trade is good for a laugh, but not for the serious business of a modern economy. Yet if we sit down and consider simple laws of physics, economy and ecology (as we must) then nothing can match sail-trade for its efficiency, or for its spur to economic regeneration and for its use as a tool to integrate a modern trading economy more or less inside a reviving ecology.
Large populations must always aim for surplus and then for trading between scarcity and surplus.
I speak of sail trade as developing from the already highly-developed model of the 19th Century – probably boats similar to the fore and aft rigged, 200ton schooner. I think that sail-assisted tankers and container ships lead us nowhere. They “green” with utter futility, an impossible oil-powered model. It is a similar proposal to the greening of (utterly impossible) super markets. Such greening prolongs and replicates an impossible oil-powered way of life.
As Richard Heinberg has pointed out, the massive economic growth of the 20th & 21st Centuries has not been caused by improving technologies, but by rapidly-increasing consumption of coal, gas and oil.
We must return to ordinary history – It works. We resume where oil began and ordinary human-scale life ended. We can retrace our steps to Llangrannog in the 19th Century and begin then. If we can reclaim some commons in the process and so remove the parasitic, counter-productive effects of enclosure, then we have an opportunity for a far more convivial economy than today. Readers will be familiar with the idea of a land value tax to fund a citizen’s dividend…
That’s by the by – How can we switch on this illumination – The extra-ordinary oil-powered years were a wild madness, whose Nemesis is now increasingly apparent – not only in the increasingly-resented poverty its monopoly has caused among the dispossessed, but in what may level possessions in flood, storm, mass migration, famine, war…
The return to ordinary, limited human powers may invoke a great common sigh of relief. By switching off the oil we switch off the unaccountable monopoly – or duopoly of consensus politics and consumerism. From dependency on an invisible and unaccountable supply, we may become suddenly and marvellously dependent on each other…
With regards to the family car, here is Ivan Illich
The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.
Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity, 1973
By all that’s holy, what’s not to love about the end of oil?