Historical wood supply and dynamic trade networks

Wood Resources, Shipbuilding and Social Environment: The Historical context of the ForSEAdiscovery Project by Dr. Ana Crespo Solana (ITN Coordinator ForSEAdiscovery) 


The history of deforestation in Europe is closely linked to economic development and military expansion. Wood was the first and most important natural resource to construct the first exploratory fleets, and subsequently to build and arm navies for the expansion and conquest of new territories, as well as for the associated merchantile operations. Therefore, the use and exploitation of forest resources over the modern period is comparable to the use of oil since the Industrial Revolution in terms of strategic importance. However, historiography has yet to develop nuanced analyses of the relationships between deforestation processes and the use of resources for shipbuilding. Historical analyses of European expansion and Atlantic trade have traditionally been approached from economic, social, or political viewpoints , leaving a lacunae with regard to the technologies and raw materials that enabled and sustained them. Similarly, previous historical studies have neglected the possible influence that commercial, maritime, and colonial European expansion had in the use of natural resources, especially forests. To date, only a few relevant works exist that relate expansion and deforestation , but their coverage of the Early Modern Period focuses on the 18th century, leaving references to 16th and 17th century brief and shallow. Some authors have pointed (if not directly then indirectly) to the role wood trade had in the economic growth of 16th and 17th century European empires  and although other historical works have tackled the subject of the raw materials used for shipbuilding , they again mostly focus on the 18th century, including references to 16th century as mere anecdotes.


The role that the massive use of wood in shipbuilding played in deforestation in Europe in the Early Modern Period has perhaps surprisingly been assumed rather than subjected to sustained study and academic discourse. Some historical studies address the problem of deforestation related to the development of agricultural land, but they approach it from an ecological, peripheral view, more than as a historical global process that was linked to the expansion of the western world through commercial maritime routes. Considering that the construction of a large, ocean-going ship could require the felling of over 4,000 large trees , there is a need for considered studies of the impact of shipbuilding on forest resources, and critical examination of an often presumed direct causal link to deforestation. Although there are indications that shipbuilding was a contributory factor in deforestation , no empirical studies such as the one we propose with ForSEAdiscovery has been attempted.

Developments in recent decades, particularly in disciplines such as nautical archaeology and wood provenancing, i.e. tree-ring research and geo/dendrochemistry, allow a subject previously largely studied through historical enquiry to be re-examined through multi-disciplinary and trans-national research. Nautical archaeology has led to the discovery of numerous shipwrecks from the Age of Discovery and European expansion, both within and beyond Europe. Well-preserved remains of ship-hulls of European construction (often Spanish and Portuguese) have been discovered and excavated with a global distribution reflecting the rapid expansion of oceanic exploration, trade and colonisation in the Early Modern Age (e.g. Molasses Reef Shipwreck, c. 1510, Turks and Caicos; Bom Jesus, 1535, Namibia; San Juan, 1565, New Foundland; Santo António, 1589, Seychelles; Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, 1606, Portugal; or Santíssimo Sacramento, 1668, Brazil). The surviving timbers of these hulls present direct evidence of forests managed and exploited by maritime nations at this time, complementing contemporary documentary evidence  and providing evidence where no other information exists. Whilst shipwreck assemblages from North Sea and Baltic Sea shipbuilding industries have been the subject of dendro-archaeological study, this has not been true for Iberian vessels.

Although some studies published in the last decade have combined archaeo-historical or tree-ring research to address the question of shipbuilding in the Age of Discovery , there is still a lack of systematic research of such remains from a multidisciplinary perspective, which leaves unsolved questions, such as the date and provenance of timber-remains from Iberian shipwrecks.

Advances in historical dendrochronology now allow the precise dating and provenancing of timbers originating from areas where regional tree-ring chronologies have been developed . While the tree-ring dataset has grown and acquired a high resolution in some areas of Europe (mostly in countries from central and northern Europe where this science was established decades ago), there are still data-gaps in crucial geographical areas, such as the Iberian Peninsula, that hamper the dating and provenancing of wood with this origin by means of tree-ring research . Therefore, the development of reference tree-ring chronologies in areas from Atlantic Iberia that supplied wood for shipbuilding (Cantabrian Mountains and Cazorla and Segura Mountains in Spain, and Portugal) would be a first step towards the assessment of the date and provenance of Iberian ship-remains. Emergent techniques such as stable isotope analysis (particularly Strontium) of archaeologically recovered wood from shipwrecks offer complementary research tools to address this question.


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