The Last Shantyman

With the publication of Sailortown in 1967, he initiated discussions over what constitutes the notion of a sailortown by introducing potent insights into mariners’ life and their associated cultural constructs. He is the Last Shantyman: Stan Hugill.

Stan Hugill’s book

Sailortown is one of the most celebrated and academically scrutinized books on maritime cultures. While the work has typically applied to disciplines surrounding the humanities, we’ve only just started to see maritime archaeologists applying Stan Hugill’s conception of the Sailortown in the archaeological records. 

But before looking at how these ideas are constructive to the theorization of maritime cultures, what exactly do we mean by the word sailortown? Here, I will offer my two cents by deconstructing its diction and offering a plausible explanation of why Stan Hugill preferred to call sailortown ‘Sailor-town, but not Sailor-village, Sailor-city, or Sailor-world.

Sailor-‘town’

Sailortown, the conjoining of the words ‘sailor’ and ‘town’

As inquisitors, we can agree to start by interrogating the choice of diction – that the terminology is associated with a ‘town’, but not a ‘city’, or a ‘village’ or a ‘world’ per se. This town-ish framing could become slightly problematic if we inferred the sense of a ‘separated world’ from Hugill’s explicit depiction of how ‘Sailortown was of all countries’, seen ‘throughout the world. Often, seafarers are seen as ‘a world apart and sailortowns as something spatially separate from the ‘normal’ town.

Separated yet included: Bridging mariners (water) with landers (land)

This, I reckon, is strategic framing too, because by locating ‘sailor’ within the settings of a ‘town’, the bridging between land and seafarers are cohered – surely an advocacy much valued in the realm of maritime archaeology by Bass and Wsterdahl. [KS8] After all, sailors’ town is indeed part of a larger city, thus invoking the ideas of separation from other non-sailors’ towns, but still conforming to the inclusion of it in the larger port-city.

Why should maritime archaeologists read Stan Hugill’s book?

Hugill wrote his Sailortown in the 60s, and it intersected with the establishment of maritime archaeology as a formal academic discipline. At the time, Maritime archaeology was at its infancy between the 60s and 70s. Later, it has gradually metamorphosed to a respected field that no longer focuses just on- and under-water excavations, but also towards the intertwining relationship of waters and lands, as suggested in the word ‘maritime landscape’ in Westerdahl’s celebrated publication in 1992 and 2011. Meanwhile, narratives associated to the seafaring communities are increasingly more valued alongside other historical, archival and scientific endeavours. This inclusiveness of the anthropologic, ethnographical and somewhat fragmented accounts by people within the seafaring community is also what drives maritime archaeology to its current-day cross-disciplinary prestige. In a way, Stan Hugill narratives could be viewed as data, human accounts that correlate with the variegated narratives of sailors. It is an asset which needs more appreciation by archaeologists, at least, for example, in the detection of potential artefacts and theorizing maritime cultures.

Jay Mokchiyan

Jay is a passionate Hongkonger with an interest in archaeology, digital humanities and heritage exploration projects. As an archaeologist, she wants to be buried with fake elephant bones so that future...