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
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.
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.
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.