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An Ocean of Flame: "Roll Northumbria" and Alternate History

By Alexander Wallace

The Esso Northumbria as captured by Ship Photographer Kevin Blair

There are times when YouTube’s recommended videos give you gold; one of those times has led me to write this article. I am an aficionado of various anglosphere traditional music, and one day the algorithm gave me a haunting piece of music: Roll Northumbria by the Dreadnoughts:

It’s written in the style of a sea shanty, with a haunting sense of finality and some powerful vocals. One might guess that this song concerns a ship from the 18th or 19th centuries, but no: it’s an original song, about the Esso Northumbria, the largest ship built up until that point in the entirety of the history of British shipbuilding. It was a poorly engineered mess, having been a scaled-up version of a much smaller ship, its designers not bothering to take into account the implications of the much larger weight. The ship was launched in 1969 in Wallsend in Northumberland at the behest of Esso, who wanted larger tankers to use in case that the Suez Canal be rendered unusable.

The song has this melancholy tone that suggests a metaphor for the state of the British Empire during that time: a declining, faltering enterprise attempting to maintain its relevance. After the Suez Crisis, Britain had been left forced to contemplate that its own role in the world had been reduced to a second-rate power. The joint British, French, and Israeli effort to take back the Suez Canal had ended in denunciation by both the United States and the Soviet Union and the humiliation of two empires that had once carved up the world between them. The song is sung from the point of view of sailors contemplating this state of the world, proclaiming their patriotism whilst denouncing the men who have “never held steel or torch in [their hands.]”

Then one gets to the final verse:

For atop a wild breaker, the cracks in her frame

Spilled her black guts all across the wild main

She limped away through an ocean of flame

Roll, Northumbria, Roll, me boys

Roll, Northumbria, Roll

The imagery seems perfect for the end of the Empire: a confused and battered metropole leaving chaos and destruction as she pulls out of her dominions upon which the sun never set. It would be an incredibly poignant juxtaposition between the fate of a ship and the fate of an empire, but for one small thing.

The Esso Northumbria never sank in the way the song describes. Indeed, it never sank at all. Out of fears of a disaster like the one in the song, the ship was broken up in Kaohsiung, in Taiwan, in 1982. There was no great conflagration, just an anticlimactic ending to a career spent on the edge of an abyss. In a sense, it’s an even better metaphor for the end of the empire.

It also means that this song is alternate history.

Seeing that this implies the existence of a timeline in which the Esso Northumbria sank, let’s examine the implications of that.

Consider that the Esso Northumbria was larger than the Exxon Valdez, which had a catastrophic spill along King William Sound in Alaska in 1989. The Esso Northumbria was a larger ship, and consequently would have led to a larger spill, one that would have easily made the history books as one of the largest spills ever to occur. So what if there had been a catastrophic spill?

There is a historic precedent for such an event: the sinking of the Torrey Canyon in 1967 off the coast of Cornwall. The British government attempted to deal with the wreck, which was leaking oil after running into a reef. The British government, in a rather strange attempt at risk management, sent RAF bombers to bombard the wreck in the hopes that it would ignite the oil and prevent further damage; this did not occur. The British government also used high quantities of dispersants that did move oil off of the beaches of Cornwall, but these dispersants were highly toxic and in some ways were more damaging than the initial spill; however, the damage that these dispersants were doing was realized at the time, and practices changed accordingly. Another response was to bulldoze oil off the beaches, but that required putting the oil elsewhere. Similar was the French government’s response to oil on the beaches of Normandy, namely using work crews composed of French Army soldiers to remove the pollutant.

Given that bad practices were illuminated with Torrey Canyon, a disaster befalling the Esso Northumbria would likely have been dealt with better than its predecessor in disaster was. There would not have been the use of the toxic dispersants, for one, and some of the ecological disaster of the Torrey Canyon would have been averted in the case of the Esso Northumbria.

The results of an Oil Spill, this case in the Black Sea. Picture shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence..

Expanding this from the initial disaster, there is the question of how the British political establishment would have responded. The Torrey Canyon sinking did not have much of an effect on electoral politics, but is said to have an effect on the burgeoning British environmentalist movement. In the late 1960s, the modern environmentalist movement was coalescing, but would not become a political force for some time. Edward Goldsmith started his environmentalist magazine The Ecologist in 1970, and published the groundbreaking piece Blueprint for Survival in 1973. This time also saw the foundation of the PEOPLE Party in Coventry in 1972, the first organized green party in the United Kingdom and, after two name changes, later dissolved into the Green Party of England and Wales, the Green Party of Scotland, and the Green Party of Northern Ireland in the early 1990s. This group did not see success until 1989, when they won a large share of the British vote in the European Parliament elections. If the Esso Northumbria sank during this period there might be another source of support for this movement, but it would probably not have significant national electoral success for some time. There is the possibility of increased Green Party success on a local level in whatever locale the Esso Northumbria may sink in, but it would not have the national ramifications some might hope for.

Should a catastrophic sinking of the Esso Northumbria occur, environmentalist ideology may be more amenable to a solution that many green parties have opposed: nuclear power. A sinking of this magnitude may shift the British Overton window in the direction of nuclear power, especially as new Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors are constructed in different locations in the country.

In terms of the dominant parties, significant barriers exist for any systemic change to occur, especially in the failure of Torrey Canyon sinking to do much of the sort. Environmental issues were not a major concern to either the Conservatives or Labour. The Conservatives, with their roots in rural agrarianism, might be seen as a natural home for ecologists, but they were not a significant force when the Esso Northumbria was active. For Labour, the problem is somewhat different, as the party was very strongly influenced by trade unions who were skeptical of environmental regulations from a job security perspective, as well as a perception that environmental concerns were uniquely middle-class. A paper from the Institution of Environmental Sciences says that:

“Primarily concerned with short-term considerations of job protection and wages, unions expect Labour to be committed to economic policies based on growth and have objected to environmental proposals that directly threaten the livelihoods of their members”.

In conclusion, a sinking of the Esso Northumbria would likely have contributed to the development of a preexisting environmental movement, but would not have been significant enough to give the movement much more traction that it already had, perhaps a bit more success in the late 1980s at most. The movement was simply not strong enough, and its obstacles strong enough, to effect real change in the time period the Esso Northumbria could have sunk.



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