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The promise and the power of the ocean, a conduit for all history

A history of empire and civilisation is a history of the sea.

All at sea: the container ship Rena, which ran aground in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand in 2011. Photo: Polaris/Eyevine.

The Sea and Civilisation: a Maritime History of the World
Lincoln Paine
Atlantic Books, 784pp, £30

In the latest tempestuous weather to hit the British Isles, members of the public were warned not to walk near the sea. It was as if the mere sight of the crashing, spumy waves posed a malign, almost preternatural threat – a reminder that, for all our supposed dominion, the sea remains an uncontrol­lable power that might yet rise up against us. Yet it also served to underline our increasing disconnection from the sea and all it means.

Perhaps that explains a swelling cultural fascination with the subject. In the past 12 months we’ve had Nottingham Contemporary/Tate St Ives’s eclectic exhibition, “Aquatopia: the Imaginary of the Ocean Deep” and the National Maritime Museum’s “Turner and the Sea”; Penny Woolcock’s film and interactive website, From The Sea to the Land Beyond, with a soundtrack by British Sea Power; the forthcoming exhibition “From Ship to Shore: Art and the Lure of the Sea” in Southampton, and the artist Tania Kovats’s show “Oceans” at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Along with books such as the marine biologist Callum Robert’s Ocean of Life; the naturalist Horatio Clare’s container-ship adventures, Down to the Sea in Ships; and a brilliant collection of critical essays from Royal College of Art students, As is the Sea, the horizon looks positively crowded with watery artefacts, texts and displays.

The US historian Lincoln Paine’s global history steams into view from across the Atlantic, a brilliantly researched and ambitious affirmation of the sea and civilisation. It begins with an arresting image: the earliest representation of watercraft in 6,000-year-old rock carvings of hunting scenes in Norway. Soon, we are following the extraordinary migrations of Oceania peoples in dugouts, using intuitive navigational skills that assessed wind and tide, the mere colour of the sea, or the “loom” of an island, the changing light that land cast in the sky long before it was visible on the horizon.

The Mediterranean – itself the relic of an ancient sea, the Tethys – bore witness to the first colonial sea empires. The legacies of the Phoenicians and Greeks remain in the ports that still ring the Mediterranean; Aristophanes’ fifth-century BC description of trading quays at Piraeus filled with “nets of onions, garlands and anchovies and flute-girls and black eyes” seems almost timeless.

With empire came conflict. The ascendency of Rome would have been impossible without mastery of the sea, an era of sail-and-oar-powered warships – triremes and quinqueremes – and tyrant-rulers such as the wonderfully-named Demetrius “the Besieger”. Demetrius encouraged an arms race of ever more bloated boats, powered by slaves – sometimes eight to an oar – and armed with catapults launching bolts, boulders and, as one “creative tactician” suggested, buckets of vipers and scorpions. More peaceable but equally overblown were mercantile ships such as the Syracusia, a precursor of an ocean-going liner – complete with first-class accommodation, decorated with mosaics and comprising a library, a gymnasium, baths, flower-bed-lined promenades and a chapel dedicated to Aphrodite.

Europe remained a maritime back­water until the Middle Ages. Paine writes that Viking depredations are exaggerated and they were far more concerned with trade; I’d never thought of the provenance of Norway as the “North Way”, a parallel to the “whale roads” of Anglo-Saxon poetry. But it took the monopolistic influence of the Hanseatic League to shift the focus firmly north by the mid-1300s. As well as bringing wealth to Lubeck, Hamburg and Copenhagen (“merchants’ harbour”), it also brought less welcome imports, such as the plague.

Paine is full of such illuminating facts. I was glad to read of my own hometown, Southampton, that it was England’s first naval base and shipbuilding port in 1420; and that in 1439, for instance, a Venetian great galley sailed from Southampton containing 2,783 cloths and 14,000 tons of tin. Yet each of the modern container ships that slip down Southampton Water every day contains more cargo than the total volume of trade carried to Venice during an entire year of the 15th century.

Paine forestalls any western bias with excellent chapters on Asian expansion. Long before the European age of navigation was enabled by the compass and the astrolabe, Chinese fleets of hundreds of ships and hundreds of thousands of sailors and soldiers were sailing to the Indian Ocean. Yet Zheng He’s seven expeditions under the Ming dynasty would be written out of its own history by the increasingly isolationist Chinese as “deceitful exaggerations of bizarre things”.

Such a withdrawal left the oceans open to figures such as Henry the Navigator. Although Henry – a Portuguese prince and grandson of John of Gaunt – never travelled further than Morocco, the power of his sponsorship extended Europe’s dominion; as did the voyages of Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral and Ferdinand Magellan.

Yet, so much of this was accidental. Christopher Columbus was alerted to new lands to the west by tales of strange flotsam drifting across the Atlantic – “in Galway, in Ireland, a man and a woman with miraculous form, pushed along by the storm on two logs” – and in the Azores, “the sea flung ashore two dead bodies, with broad faces and different in appearance from the Christians”. (Four centuries later, in 1877, the Ocean Notes for Ladies guide to sea-going etiquette would recommend that “a body washed ashore in good clothes, would receive more respect and kinder care than if dressed in those only fit for the rag bag”.)

As Rosalind Williams demonstrates in her recent book The Triumph of Human Empire (University of Chicago Press), the ocean was mare liberum until the 18th century, not subject to the sovereign claims that had carved up much of the terrestrial globe. Even in 1812, Byron could still write, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, “Man marks the earth with ruin – his control/Stops with the shore . . .”

But then the world’s latest and greatest maritime power declared a three-mile nautical extension – the distance that a British cannonball could be shot – to assert its imperial rights. As Paine notes, the first commercial transatlantic service, in 1838, was greeted by the headline, “Annihilation of Space and Time”. Yet space and time were never more important. By the 20th century, a new empire, the US, had extended its coastal governance to 200 miles off its shores.

Now, even the waters under the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap are staked out by Russian flags, while European fishing fleets pillage the coasts of African countries. Piracy and slavery are still with us; perhaps more than ever, the sea is an arena of dispute, both above and below. New proposals have been made to mine recently discovered abyssal volcanic vents for rare earth metals. Meanwhile, off the British coast, cold-water reefs with 4,000 year old spires of coral are destroyed by trawlers.

Abused, ignored, trashed and transversed, the sea is a sink for all our sins. I’d like to think that Byron, my fellow open-water swimmer, had the last words – “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!/ Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain”, but I fear that I’m indulging a romantic fantasy. “The sea held no promise for slaves, coolies, indentured servants, or the dispossessed”, Paine reminds us, and while it is “fickle and unforgiving, it is a fragile environment susceptible to human depredation on a scale unimaginable to our ancestors”. And yet, whose heart does not sing out when they see the sea? Our last resort, it still holds its promise and its power.

Philip Hoare’s “The Sea Inside” (Fourth Estate, £9.99) is published in paperback this month