The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, by Lincoln Paine
Although more than 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, it is generally neither realized nor accepted that the history of the world is very much a maritime history. Lincoln Paine’s The Sea and Civilization seeks to rectify this: it is an ambitious work of more than 700 pages dense with facts and rich in detail that tells mankind’sstory from the perspective of our relation to the seas—as well as lakes, rivers and canals. The success of the effort is that by the end, the underlying idea seems self-evident: man’s relation to the sea has been a driving force ofhuman history; the interrelations and reciprocal influences are the prevalent condition in world history, and not the exception.
Taking inspiration from Fernand Braudel’s classic and influential The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II,Paine taps into the recent increasing emphasis on analysis of the interplay between geography, economics, politics, military and cultural history, and the role of the sea and water in particular.
The oldest advanced navigators were probably the inhabitants of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, although how they reached those remote Pacific islands remains an enigma. As in other areas of ancient history, our knowledge isconstrained by a dearth of records, here aggravated by the improbability of finding underwater relics and the difficulties of marine archeology.
Evidence becomes clearer for historic periods closer to our own, allowing us to gain a reasonable understanding of everything from theaboriginal paddlers of the North American birchbark canoes and Arctic skin boats to the intrepid Vikings and their exploits from the Mediterranean to what is now Newfoundland in Canada.
Nowhere were the conditions more favourable for cultural interaction than in the Mediterranean; its enclosed nature and short distances, its predictable currents and winds, were central to the civilizations that flourished there for millennia. The sail is known to have appeared at around 3000 BC in Egypt. Two masts were used for the first time by the Etruscans. The Phoenicians expanded their seaborne trading network westward—in competition with the Greeks—and were the first to build different ships for trade and for war.
But not surprisingly, a maritime history of the world quickly becomes a history of international trade, for the legal and financial instruments that facilitated the exchange of goods between peoples of different cultures were born in connection with the sea. Luxury and basic goods as well as, sadly, slaves, were traded by sea, which also provided the conduit for ideas, religions and the written word.
Among the earliest vestiges of the Greek language is an inscribed cup mentioning Nestor and Aphrodite, found on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples; it could only be brought there on a ship. Sea voyages are prominent in the Epic of Gilgamesh, echoes of which are left in theBible and in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Buddhists stories collected in the Jatakas are a remarkable source on Indian seafaring as well. And like symbolic representations of human conflicts that took the seas as the stage, Aeschylus fought in the battle of Salamis, and Cervantes in Lepanto.
The book covers the little known but rich maritime history of the Monsoon Seas—the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia.
China is covered at length too: the rise and expansion of Chinese civilization was made possible by the harnessing of the Yangtze and the Yellow River and the accomplishment of a remarkable network of canals. This inland navigational knowledge would later facilitate China’s exposure to the open seas and itscultural, religious and political imprinton neighbouring Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Non-maritime elements are overlaid on the narrative, and some are particularly well-explained, such as the influence of the short-lived Sui dynasty on the blossoming of the succeeding Tang, or the context of the backlash against Buddhism in mid-9th century.
The Sea and Civilization is a coherent history of world’s civilizations rather than a history of navigation. Although highlights of different vessels and developments in shipbuilding are interspersed throughout the narrative, the discussion of early books of navigation is fragmentary, the compass merits an entry in the index but longitude does not, and the landmark invention of the sea clock is covered in one paragraph and its inventor, John Harrison, is just mentioned once.
But technology had its role and Paine gives its fair share, noting for example the fundamental shift in Mediterranean shipbuilding sometime during the early Middle Ages, when shipwrights abandoned the shell-first for the frame-first hull construction: a more practical method that ultimately allowed European expansion across the Atlantic and beyond, all the way to Asia.
It is not hard to agree with the author when he singles out the main navigational feats of any age: Columbus’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1492; da Gama’s voyage to India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1498; Magellan-Elcano’s circumnavigation of the globe from 1519 to 1522; and Urdaneta’s first west-to-east crossing of the Pacific in 1565.
In the age of sail, these were no easy achievements—before Urdaneta found the right currents and the right winds, many Spanish crews were lost at sea. In the end, those voyages inaugurated the era of true global interdependence.
From that point on the world becomes better understood, if not necessarily better. Mankind has gone from adaptation to mastery of the seas to, now, the endangering of the maritimeenvironment that nurtured civilization in the first place. This book is a call to save it.
Juan José Morales is a Spanish lawyer and management consultant who writes for the Spanish magazine Compromiso Empresarial. A former President of the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, he has a Master of International and Public Affairs from Hong Kong University and has also studied international relations at Peking University (Beida).
Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, Lincoln Paine (Knopf Publishing Group, October 2013; Atlantic Books, 2014012)
© 2014 The Asian Review of Books.
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