Skip to main content

'A transregional and interdisciplinary study of the societal impact of the shipworm epidemic in the North Sea region in the eighteenth century'

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - SHIPWORM ('A transregional and interdisciplinary study of the societal impact of the shipworm epidemic in the North Sea region in the eighteenth century')

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-10-31

The main issue addressed in this research is how an environmental crisis affects society at large. An environmental crisis is viewed as a development – either with a natural or a human cause – that severely degrades or even destroys a local or a global ecosystem. The degradation or destruction of such an ecosystem can have an important impact on human society, especially when this concerns the human ecosystem. To better understand how environmental crisis affect society this research has focused on the Great European Shipworm epidemic in the 1730s, which particularly hit the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands).
Shipworms are vermiform wood-eating molluscs that bore tunnel-like holes in immerged wooden structures in a marine environment. The appearance of these marine organisms in the North Sea created havoc in the water protection system, as all the dikes protecting the low-lying lands were made of wood. Also the shipping industry faced grave problems as shipworms were destroying both the commercial fleets, as well as military fleets. On the brink of disaster, these coastal societies had to face a wide-spread panic that led for instance to religious fanaticism (mass execution of homosexuals), economic hardship (taxation) and social unrest, but also to political change (enlightened democratisation or increased absolutism), technological innovation (water protection systems) and a changing geopolitical context (new shipbuilding techniques e.g. in the military). In other words, to face the threats of an environmental crisis these societies had to show a certain degree of resilience, or the ability to change and innovate. Since human society is now facing an existential threat due to global warming, it is important to gain a better knowledge of how mankind reacts to environmental crisis.
The overall objects of the research is to find out when and why a society ends up in deadlock, that is a situation where that society is unable or unwilling to find a solution. In the same way, what kind of societies (and why) are able to move forward and put an end to the environmental crisis. It is equally important to research if the solution to the environmental crisis has an impact – positive or negative – on the researched societies or other societies , whether these are neighbouring or more distant. By looking at both the Belgian and Dutch societies in the 18th century it is possible to obtain a better understanding of the mechanisms in battling environmental crisis.
At the beginning of the project research was undertaken in several Belgian and Dutch libraries, such as in Leuven and Leiden, in order to find existing literature on this topic. Additional research was undertaken in these countries’ archives (Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, The Hague) to find existing documents on this subject. The majority of documents consisted of reports on the water protection system. The reading of these documents allowed for a better understanding of the water management system, its costs and the possibilities and difficulties to innovate. Because the flood or water protection system was taken care of by local or subnational authorities, these aspects are well documented. Personal reports and church documents gave an insight in how the people in the coastal areas viewed the likelihood of a nascent flooding and their reaction to such a possibility.
Far less documented are technological innovations in commercial activities, for these were rarely written down and kept in archives. This was especially the case for shipping and shipbuilding. Safeguarding ships against shipworm attacks is not a well-documented item. Nevertheless, ship builders started to cover wooden ship hulls in the 18th century with copper plates. The copper plates stopped the shipworms from destroying the wood, but it also proved to be an excellent anti-fouling method because the copper’s oxidation prevents marine organisms, such as molluscs, algae or cnidaria (e.g. sea anemones) to grow and cover the ship hull. Over time the copper plated ship hulls remained smooth which allowed for less resistance in the water and thus for faster travel. This fact was recognised in the 18th century, but it has remained impossible until this day to calculate this advantage due to a lack of sources. To calculate this advantage of the copper plated ship hulls, two series of wooden boxes were made in a shipyard specialised in old sailing ships. One series was covered with copper plates. Both groups of boxes were immersed at the CNRS marine biological test station in Banyuls-sur-Mer, some for six months and others for 18 months. Then the boxes were taken to the hydrodynamic test facility of the Université de Liège in Belgium to measure their resistance in the water. The results allows to calculate the advantage of this new shipbuilding technology. A technology that was invented because of the shipworm threat. Faster ships meant higher commercial revenues for ship owners, faster military ships for those countries that were able to tap the copper ore, or in other words an important commercial and geopolitical advantage.
Progress beyond the state of the art is especially true for the case of Belgium, which was not yet described in historiography. The Great European Shipworm epidemic has shown what kind of difficulties societies encountered when facing environmental crisis. One of the major difficulties was that of the elites’ entitlement to certain existing modalities that had to go in order to innovate and to curb the environmental crisis. The constant failing of these entitled elites in Flanders to put an end to the dangers of flooding due to the shipworm epidemic caused the balance to tip in favour of those groups in quest of innovation. Although there were other events at play, the Great European Shipworm epidemic played a necessary role in establishing a new form of government in Flanders in the 1750s. This new enlightened government not only used new building techniques for dikes, but also pioneered in new fiscal management that ensured a larger degree of security for the people living in the areas threatened by flooding.
The technological improvements in shipbuilding – the use of copper plates – were of little effect after six months. After six months ships with copper plated hulls were somewhat faster than ships with wooden hulls covered with marine organisms. The new shipbuilding technologies – at least with regard to speed - thus had little impact. Copper hulled ships were of little use for regional shipping. This corroborates the finding that copper was little used in regional shipping. On inter-continental shipping, which lasted longer than six months, the results are probably completely different. The hydrodynamic tests to prove this, have however been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is difficult the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of a history project like this one, but by opening up this research to a large public it is possible to show and explain how past societies coped with environmental change and crisis. This helps the public to reflect on their own society and its challenges. By participating in scientific events (such as Nuit des chercheurs and Fête de la science) open to the public and by promoting this research in the press (written and TV) it has been possible to reach a very large audience.
Wooden and copper boxes immersed in the sea.