For two months during the summer of 2003, I traveled from Los Angeles to Cape Town on two cargo ships. Sailing via the Pacific Ocean, East Asia, the Indian Ocean, Suez Canal, Mediterranean, Europe and the Canaries, we stopped at 14 ports along the way.
I booked passage on these voyages as an initial foray into my dissertation topic: contemporary port culture. As a historian-in-training, I had read a lot of books about the Age of Sail which portrayed the workings of the ship-port nexus, but few sources discussed the modern industrial era. So I decided to check it out for myself.
My dad was an officer in the US Navy while I was growing up. My brother and I were both born in naval ports and we've always lived near the ocean. Lining the wall of our living room, Dad put up plaques from all of the naval tours he went on in his younger days. He sailed to places like Guam, Diego Garcia, Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa, and Yokohama, all which sounded quite exotic to me as a boy. Knowing that my dad had been to these far-flung nodes made me also feel connected to them. Our family history gave me a maritime sensibility.
In more recent years, when I've stayed in Cape Town to conduct research for my Master's degree, I have lived with the Jones family: a couple who epitomise dockside culture. Edward (or just Jones, as we all call him) is a salty sea-dog who has sailed the world many times over. His stories as a docker and a seafarer since the 1960s allowed me to see recent South African history through different eyes. His wife, Charlotte, grew up right next to the Cape Town docks with many of her family involved in dockworking and 'entertaining' the passing seamen. She helped see what it means for a people to live at the intersection of the maritime & terratime worlds.
When the chance came to choose my Ph.D. dissertation topic, I decided to write about port culture. Many Yale departments and programs were kind enough to support my research, and I was fortunate enough to win Fulbright, Fulbright-Hays, and Social Science Research Council scholarships which have enabled me to carry out this work.