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The Mariner's Mirror Podcast

Maritime Africa: African Canoemen

This begins a handful of episodes that will explore the maritime history of Africa. We begin with the fascinating story of African canoemen.


African indigenous seafaring canoemen operated as middlemen between European traders and the coastal estuaries, rivers and land of West Africa. The topography of the coast often necessitated their involvement in trade because it was variably rocky, broken by sandbars and shallow waters, or treacherous in other ways to large sailing ships. Canoemen allowed access to trade by using surfboats that could surmount the waves on the coast in ways European boats could not. They often were hired as navigators and pilots on European ships or worked as menial labourers or ordinary seamen on European ships. Canoemen also frequently came alongside European ships to board them and trade goods or enslaved people. As a result, when Europeans began to build trading entrepots, such as Elmina Castle in Ghana, Monrovia in Liberia, or Cap Verde in Senegal, they hired canoemen to contract out trade.


To find out more about this little-known aspect of African maritime history Dr Sam Willis spoke with Megan Cructcher, a PhD Student in the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University who is looking into the roles, identities, and material culture of these canoemen in West African maritime history, especially during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries.


More episodes

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  • Shipwreck Survivors

    We hear about an exciting project to save and record accounts of shipwreck survivors. The project's goal is to raise awareness and understanding of the experiences of those who have been unfortunate enough to experience shipwreck. This is crucially important at a time when familiarity with life at sea is diminishing and there is a noticeable absence of empathy for seafarers in distress - and yet, as a maritime nation, seafaring remains a huge part of our history and shipping is a growing industry that brings us ever more of our worldly needs. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Daniel Jamieson who is running the research project at the University of Plymouth. They discuss the long and fascinating history of shipwreck survivors' accounts before discussing the many interviewees who have already contributed to the project, providing eyewitness insights into a variety of contemporary and well known maritime disasters as well as far more personal stories of maritime disaster. The stories include Helen Cawley, who survived the sinking of the liner Lakonia in 1963 as a 14-year old; Sheelagh Lowes, stranded on Suwarrow of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific 1996 for 6 months, her yacht Short Time having been thrown on a reef; a number of survivors of the sinking of the liner Andrea Doria in 1956; Sara Hedrenius, who survived the sinking of the ferry Estonia in 1994 in the Baltic; and Ben “Skippy” Cummings whose vessel capsized andsank on a reef off Antigua, four miles from the finish of his trans-Atlantic race.
  • Sea Monsters Part 2: The Eyewitness Accounts

    An entire episode dedicated to historical accounts of sea monsters! In the last episode we learned how sailors' encounters with sea monsters inform us of a changing world and link themes of religion and science with exploration of the natural world and safety at sea. In this episode we hear what they actually had to say, in their own voices. We hear about 'The Great Sea-Serpent' spotted from the decks of HMS Daedalus in 1848; the 'Anchertroll Horror' off West Africa of April 1871; a snake with a white mane seen in 1746 off Norway and a 'Devil-Fish' that swallowed a schooner east of Sri Lanka in 1874. The episode was put together with the help of Graham Faiella, maritime historian and author of 'Mysteries and Sea Monsters.'
  • Sea Monsters Part 1: The Analysis

    In this episode we hear about the extraordinary and long history of sailors coming across monsters from the deep. It’s a complex and fascinating topic intimately linked with the human experience of sea, but for historians it exists as a strand of knowledge and experience which runs alongside developing ideas of faith and developing understanding of science. It’s a topic that links superstition, myth and legend with the imagination – the imaginable and the unimaginable – and all experienced within the context of the age of reason and the scientific enlightenment. It’s a topic that will bring out the believer or the sceptic in you and in so doing will inspire you to learn a little more about the particular monster that inspires you because of what it tells us about the past.
  • WW2 Battle Convoy: HG-76

    In December 1941 HG-76 sailed from Gibraltar to Britain and was specially targeted by a wolfpack of U-boats whilst, in a rare example of German inter-service cooperation, the Luftwaffe pounced from French airfields. In Gibraltar and Spain, German intelligence agents had known every detail of HG-76 before it had even sailed.Nonetheless, the convoy fought its way through. Improved radar and sonar gave the convoy's escorts an edge over their opponents, and the escort group was led by Commander Walker, an anti-submarine expert who had developed new, aggressive U-boat hunting tactics. The convoy was also accompanied by HMS Audacity, the Royal Navy's first escort carrier – a new type of warship purpose-built to defend convoys from enemy aircraft and U-boats.Through seven days and nights of relentless attack, the convoy reached the safety of a British port for the loss of only two merchant ships. Its arrival was seen as the first real convoy victory of the war.To find out more about this, one of the most dramatic maritime stories of the Second World War, Dr Sam Willis spoke with Angus Konstam, author of a new book 'The Convoy HG-76: Taking the Fight to Hitler's U-boats' that brings the story to life.
  • Smugglers, Pirates and Terrorists: Maritime Crime and Security

    Recent conflict in the Red Sea caused by Houthi attacks on commercial shipping has brought the subject of maritime crime and security into focus. In this episode Dr Sam Willis speaks with Christian Bueger, Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, Director of the SafeSeas Network for Maritime Security and author of the important new book Understanding Maritime Security. They discuss historical perspectives on maritime crime including smuggling, pirate attacks and terrorism and highlight just how significant maritime crime and security is to the modern world with over 80% of contemporary global trade transported by sea.
  • The Dreadnought Hoax

    The Dreadnought Hoax is one of the most fantastical events of all naval and maritime history. In 1910 four white English people – three men and one woman – pretended to be members of the Abyssinian royal family, complete with black face make up, false beards and magnificent robes, and were given a tour of HMS Dreadnought, the most powerful battleship ever built, the pride of the Royal Navy and the pride of the British Empire. The hoax worked like a dream. No-one suspected a thing. Even more remarkable, one of those people was none other than the young Virgina Woolf, yet to be married and take the name of Woolf and yet to amaze with world with her intellect and literary skill. It is a story that touches on questions of race, gender and empire; on credulity, outrage and humour; on cultural norms and expectations; and all wrapped in ideas about seapower. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Danell Jones, author of the excellent new book The Girl Prince: Virginia Woolf, Race and the Dreadnought Hoax.
  • Vrak - The Museum of Wrecks, Stockholm.

    In this episode we visit Vrak - The Museum of Wrecks in Stockholm. Nowhere else in the world are there as many well-preserved wooden wrecks as there are in the Baltic Sea. People have lived on the shores of the Baltic ever since the end of the Ice Age, where they have travelled, sailed, hunted and waged war, for millennia. The Baltic has special water conditions: it is cold and brackish and has low oxygen levels, which means there is no shipworm to destroy sunken timber. As a result, at the bottom of the Baltic is an exceptional collection of timber heritage sites, from the Stone Age to the Vikings and beyond. Vrak - The Museum of Wrecks is a contemporary museum designed to explore and share this heritage in innovative ways.
  • The First Naval Architect: Fredrik Henrik af Chapman (1721-1808)

    In this episode we explore the extraordinary life of Frerik Henrik Af Chapman, the man considered the grandfather of naval architecture. Born in Gothenburg in 1721 to immigrant English parents, his father served in the Swedish navy before becoming the manager of a shipyard in Gothenburg. His mother was the daughter of a London shipwright. Frerderik was therefore born into a life of ship design and construction and he was just ten when he designed his first vessel. By 23 he ran his own shipyard maintaining and repairing Swedish East Indiamen. This was a period when the science of shipbuilding reached new heights and Chapman, uniquely a mathematician and a shipwright, led the way. Mathematicians who studied shipbuilding lacked the practical skill to implement their own ideas; while shipwrights lacked the mathematical understanding. Frederik was the first person who combined those two skills. He made it possible to predetermine and assess mathematically different attributes of vessels such as stability and sailing qualities. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Jonas Hedberg, curator at Sweden’s National Maritime Museum in Stockholm.
  • Sweden's National Maritime Museum

    The third episode in our mini series on Maritime Sweden is a tour of Sweden's National Maritime Museum in Stockholm: Sjöhistoriska Museet. Listen in as Dr Sam Willis is guided around the museum by its curator, Jonas Hedberg. We hear about the founding of the purpose-built maritime museum in the 1930s; explore the extraordinary collection of ship models; artefacts including a magnificent figurehead from mid 1750s; stories of migrants to Sweden after the Second World War; a rail ferry that once transported Lenin across the Baltic; and a Swedish Royal Yacht from the eighteenth century.