The English Channel is one of the busiest maritime crossings in the world, with a very strong historical burden, especially associated with the defense of the British Isles. The seabed is full of wreckages and war remains, both human and material, from the two world wars.
It is situated between England and France, measuring 560 km from east to west, and 240 km in its widest section from north to south. It is the smallest and shallowest sea that surrounds the European continental shelf (77,000 km²), with a maximum depth of 120 m.
The main islands in the Channel are the Isle of Wight, off the English coast, and the Channel Islands –also known as îles Anglo-Normandes or îles de la Manche in French– off the French coast. The most important port cities on the British side are Plymouth, Southampton, Portsmouth and Dover, while on the French side Cherbourg, Le Havre, Dieppe and Calais stand out.
An inaccurate translation
The English Channel has received various names throughout history, beginning with Ptolemy in the 2nd century, who named it Oceanus Britannicus. It was not until 1450 that an Italian map used the term ‘canal’ (Canalites Anglie) for the first time. As of the 16th century, the Dutch atlases already showed the name of Engelse Kanaal, and this is probably the origin of the current English name: The English Channel.
However, from the other side of the Canal, the French decided to call it La Manche, which literally means ‘the sleeve’, since, in their perception, the Canal resembled the sleeve of a shirt. This French name adopted in the 17th century gave way to an inaccurate translation by some nations such as Portugal (Canal da Mancha) or Spain (Canal de la Mancha), which have nothing to do with the original meaning.
In the regions near the Channel, they are called Mor Breizh in Brittany (Breton Sea), or Mor Bretannek in Cornwall (British Sea). In my opinion, these two names are more accurate and inclusive than the current ones, which are motivated by national interests or are simply wrong translations.
Before the channel existed, the British Isles formed a single extension, and were linked to the rest of the European continent through an isthmus, that is, a spit of land that connects two bigger land masses. This was possible thanks to the fact that most of the planet’s water was frozen during this glacial period, and therefore the sea level was much lower.
Deep channels dug into the seabed served as evidence for geologist Sanjeev Gupta and his team to show that there was a catastrophic flood 200,000 years ago. This flood occurred as a result of the rupture of an immense glacial lake in Doggerand – the land mass that is now part of the seafloor of the North Sea. This event caused the erosion and subsequent disappearance of the Isthmus of Dover, leaving the British Isles disconnected from the rest of Europe.
At present, the seabed of the Canal is the habitat of communities called benthos –algae, corals, sponges, crustaceans …– and some mollusks. This area is very important for the growth of lemon sole, mackerel, or sandeel, and cod, flounder, and sprat can be found at the same time.
The topography in the Strait of Dover and its location between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean favor the dynamism of surface currents, especially affected by the weather. The shapes of the coastline cause the winds to blow from the southwest or northeast, producing difficult conditions for navigation, especially near the Strait of Dover, where the Canal reduces its section to a minimum of 34 km. As a consequence, the tides flow faster at this point, with a maximum velocity of 1.75 m/s.
There are many sandbanks, formed by the ancient rivers that flooded the low plains of the Canal, and which are currently marked by large illuminated buoys as a warning to ships crossing the sea. These topographic characteristics, together with the shallow depth of the English Channel, greatly limit the sighting of large mammals such as whales, dolphins or porpoises.
History on the both sides of the English Channel
From a cultural point of view, the English Channel is identified as a space of peace and prosperity, but it has also been a place of conflict, hosting multiple battles and invasions, as well as unsuccessful attempts in some cases.
There are maritime remains that prove commercial activity since the Bronze Age, as is the case of an oak boat found near Dover in the 1990s, which is around 3,300 years old. Many wrecks scattered on the seabed contained tools, and demonstrate the reality of frequent commercial activity both ways.
The English Channel offered strategic value for the defense of the British Isles, particularly in the Strait of Dover, which is the closest point of access from coast to coast. The first major invasions were those of Julius Caesar’s Roman Empire in 55 BC and later that of Claudius in AD 43. These events have left archaeological traces on English shores, such as the 18m Roman lighthouse on the cliffs of Dover.
The Norman invasions of the 11th century are another example of the maritime connection between the islands and the mainland. In addition to populating the Breton lands, the Normans promoted trade in the Canal, especially for the import of stone from France for the construction of Dover Castle and other fortifications.
During the following century, the creation of the Angevin Empire by the Plantagenet dynasty unified both sides of the Canal under the same government, although with certain singularities depending on the territory. However, with the fall of the Empire in the early 13th century, the English Channel once again became a defensive line between France and England.
A space of union
The sea unites and divides communities and territories, sometimes challenging the limits of the state.
The English Channel is a thin strip of water that makes a big difference, and if it weren’t for it, the story would be very different. It has been the scene and symbol of the great rivalry between France and England for centuries, and the idea persists now with the United Kingdom and Brexit as well.
Everything underlies the idea, extended three centuries ago, that geography creates natural divisions that human beings are unable to overcome, as Jean-Nicholas Buache de La Neuville stated: “Nature has divided the globe since its creation; it has divided its surface into an infinity of parts and has separated one from the other by barriers that cannot be destroyed by time or by human intervention”.
But water creates opportunities for trade, transportation and cultural exchanges, even in times of war. For example, in the 18th century, fishermen sold their products in enemy ports, and there was a truce so that the postal service could operate normally. Even smuggling reached a transnational level, connecting Dunkirk, Kent and Sussex to traffic in Dutch gin, French tea from China and India, coffee from Santo Domingo, or fabrics from Rouen and Lyon.
The English Channel as such was the subject of debate about its ownership and exploitation. As you can imagine, sharing a space with access to natural resources requests a sensitive approach, and on many occasions it is inevitable to avoid conflict between the parties involved. Fishermen’s point of view –or their interests– often differed from those of governments and customs, who used the mapping service to draw their own boundaries.
The Canal as a way of life
During the 18th century, overfishing was not considered a threat to ecological habitats, and the European maritime states benefited from an enriching activity that became one of the pillars of their development and influence.
At this stage in history, the English Channel could be seen as an open space full of activity, populated by interconnected communities across the sea, and whose benefits came from networks that operated regardless of national borders. This is a perspective that we can also find in the Hanseatic League from the 12th to the 17th centuries, where a cross-border trade network independent of the states developed, and it was mainly based on trust.
The landscape has not changed much: today the Canal is one of the busiest passages for freighters that circulate around the world carrying goods to their destination. The European Space Agency records satellite images showing the density of maritime traffic in these waters, a key point for the connection between northern Europe and the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, the concept of a maritime border is on the table for debate, not only in the Canal, but in many of the world’s seas –such as the South China Sea, the Arctic Ocean, or the Argentine Sea. Migrants, fishermen, merchants, smugglers, and travelers were the agents that populated the waters of this narrow body of water in the past, and they continue to do so today, defying state laws and turning international borders into transnational spaces.
The English Channel is a space of union and division, where the communities settled on its shores share a history and an identity.
- Renaud Morieux. The Channel: England, France and the Construction of a Maritime Border in the Eighteenth Century. University of Cambridge. November 2017, ISBN 9781108441841