Old harbour photos: A brief reflection on ships and men

by | Jan 10, 2022 | Nature and the Environment, Philosophy, Photography

A harbour is often thought of as a place bustling with maritime commerce. The Britannica definition of the term reminds us of its primary function: “any part of a body of water and the manmade structures surrounding it that sufficiently shelters a vessel from wind, waves, and currents, enabling safe anchorage or the discharge and loading of cargo and passengers.”

The following old photographs serve as a metaphor for the harbour as home — a place of safety, rest and tranquility. Although a good picture should speak for itself, I have added some thoughts of my own to drive home the idea.

Ships and boats, sailors and fishermen. They are like rolling stones. But no matter how far they travel, at the end of every voyage is a place where they can find refuge.

Oamaru Harbour. Moonlight, no date
Photo credit: Muir & Moodie studio, Burton Brothers studio
Courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Harbor view, Ajaccio, Corsica, c. 1850s
Photographer unknown
Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Schepen in een Rotterdamse haven (Ships in a port of Rotterdam), 1860 – 1866
Anonymous photographer
Courtesy of Riksmuseum, Amsterdam

Imagine that there were no harbours. Ships and their crews would be at the mercy of hailstorms and hurricanes. Thank heavens, natural harbours exist. Man only makes improvements to what a benevolent higher power has provided.

[Santa Marta], c. 1910
The Santa Marta (built 1909), a refrigerated fruit transport (“banana boat”) at an East River dock in New York city, with Brooklyn Bridge in background.
Bain News Service, publisher
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

War can wear down the human spirit. Both warships and naval crews need to take a break. Alas, they can never rest too long. Always there will be wars or threats of war to disrupt the peace.

The French Fleet, Cherbourg, August 1858
Gustave Le Gray (French, 1820–1884), photographer
Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“I take it,” Joseph Conrad wrote in his 1911 novel Under Western Eyes, “that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace.” His words ring truer than ever in the 21st century as men try to find peace in a world that has been deprived of it. In the end, everyone must find his or her own way to some harbour — a place of love, comfort and peace.

Boats anchored in a harbour, 1880-1925
Crombie and Permin, photographers
Courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Whitby harbour, 1880–1900
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (British, 1853–1941), photographer
Courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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