“‘Rising with the Tide of History’: The Age of Sail as Industrial Alibi”

Publication Date

Spring 2019


In the fall of 2016, construction began on the third major condominium project on the twenty-first century Halifax harbour. Queen’s Marque – its name a reference to the royal authority carried by privateers of the eighteenth century – promises to see the region rise again in “a new era of growth and prosperity in Atlantic Canada.”

In popular and scholarly histories coastlines tend to feature most prominently in the age of “discovery” and the age of sail. This article argues that in fact the Atlantic coast has been highly useful to Canada as a nation-state after Confederation in 1867. The age of sail has served to legitimate the development ethos so central to both the nation-building project and the Anthropocene writ large, and specifically, the pursuit of fossil fuels. While sailing ships have long been used to market Nova Scotia in tourism, visual references to the age of sail take on a more insidious role in an era of climate change because these ships supply an environmental alibi to our extractive economy. An icon of renewable energy (the sailing ship) in a non-industrial setting supplies a visually appealing representation for non-renewable energy projects. It uses one generation and one genre of energy history to simultaneously represent, distract from, and license another. The age of sail helps us camouflage the age of oil.

This article compiles, contextualizes, and analyzes a full seventeen images – ranging from commercial maps to Canadian Press photography – to explore the historical development of this alibi over the past century or so; the relationship between the Bluenose and “Ships Start Here” with the reality of a provincial and national commitment to fossil fuels; and how the tall ships alibi remains at work especially in justifying offshore exploration, urban architecture, and the federal naval procurement strategy.


Papers in Canadian Environmental History (PiCHE)



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