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.

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

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

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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Why can you change gender but not race?

Marina Benjamin on the curious logic of modern identity politics. 

At my daughter’s state girls’ school, many of the students see themselves as gender fluid. Some feel more like boys than girls. Others feel like boys on some days and girls on others. A lot of the girls are out, with many identifying as gay and quite a few as bi- or pansexual. No doubt, in time, a small minority of them will migrate across the gender spectrum entirely, crossing permanently from one side to the other.

Such freewheeling thinking about gender and sexual identity was unimaginable until just a few years ago, yet in this brave new world of gender mutability, most teens are as fluent as they are fluid. It is a testimony to the speed and success with which gender­queer and trans activists have challenged societal norms around masculinity and femininity, bringing about the kind of meltdown in gender roles that feminism was unable to achieve despite 50 years of trying.

This is a world in which, controversially, subjective feeling reigns supreme. If you feel male and wish to be known as “he”, then that is your prerogative, regardless of your sex. As Frank Browning points out in The Fate of Gender, US colleges (those ever-sensitive barometers of social change) now routinely ask students for their preferred personal pronoun. They provide “gender-neutral” toilets and free counselling for transsexual students. One elite college recently cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues after some students protested that “not all women have vaginas”.

Browning’s interest is in the way “gender radicals” have “[upended] the routines, rituals and rules of gender”, leading to radical transformations in how we live. Like a disaster tourist travelling through an earthquake zone, he finds his eye drawn to “upheavals”: to kindergarten ­teachers in Oslo, dedicated to eradicating what they see as gendered behaviour in the very young children they teach; to same-sex couples negotiating new ways of parenting post-­surrogacy or adoption; to a voyeuristic drive-by past Naples’s femminielli – street-walkers famed “for their beautiful legs, their sumptuous breasts and their large penises”; to discussing masturbation with a middle-aged Shanghai sociologist who offers classes in self-stimulation to empower women.

The politics of the transgender movement skids in and out of the narrative but never moves centre-stage. Browning is more interested in gender equality at work, or how the Catholic Church is and isn’t adapting to gay marriage.

Browning spent many years working as a radio journalist and his book resembles nothing so much as a mid-morning magazine programme. There’s a bit of chat, a bit of travel, a sprinkling of interviews with academic experts and some sharp insights that get somewhat lost in the babble. The result is a loose collection of gender-busting exemplifications, rather than a tightly argued thesis. You could reorder half the chapters in the book and still enjoy the same mildly entertaining reading experience.

Some of the most fascinating subjects that Browning touches on remain underexamined. He notes, for example, that at least one in every 1,500 (some suggest the figure is more like one in 150) children born in the US and Australia is intersex: that is, they possess genitalia and a chromosomal identity that admit of ambiguity. Until very recently, doctors in the US would perform sex reassignment surgery on such newborns, at the risk of leaving them infertile and, just as dreadful, in bodies that they would often grow up believing to be wrongly sexed.

Browning doesn’t interview anyone who has had such an experience, or mine literary works for perspective, or link the intersex phenomenon into broader identity politics, or discuss the painful subterfuges that hermaphrodites such as the late Olympic track and field star Stella Walsh resorted to in order to “pass” – in her case, as female. Instead, he makes a rather tenuous link between the horrors of institutional surgical reassignment and tribal female genital mutilation. Cutting is cutting, of course, and always reprehensible, but readers never get to grips with what it means to be intersex.

It’s a shame, because, as Rogers Brubaker argues in his pacy and stimulating extended essay Trans, it is in the in-betweenness that our binaries break down, whether we are talking about nature v nurture (where discoveries in epigenetics are busy dissolving firm oppositions); male and female (those tired categories with which trans politics is playing havoc); or, most interestingly, black v white. Following social scientists such as Alondra Nelson of Columbia University, Brubaker takes up the case that race has little basis in genetics: it is an epiphenomenon, or, to use the lingua franca of anti-essentialists, a “social construct”.

Brubaker’s book was inspired by the media’s synchronous pairing of Bruce Jenner’s rebirth as Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal’s outing as white in 2015. Dolezal had lived as a black woman for years, braiding her hair and darkening her skin. She identified as black and became head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yet in most quarters her claim to be black met with angry ridicule. Her reception was in pointed contrast to Jenner’s, whose debut as Caitlyn was heralded by a sexy Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series. If public legitimation could be ­extended to Jenner, why not to Dolezal?

Dolezal’s teacher memorably called her “a white woman with a black soul”, but this was not enough, Brubaker says, to counter the flurry of negative commentary about “passing, choice, authenticity, privilege and appropriation” – which are precisely the themes that animate his lively book. He makes a persuasive case that the trans movement belongs to “a much broader moment of cultural flux, mixture and interpenetration”, of a piece with the “burgeoning discussions of hybridity, syncretism, creolisation and transnationalism in the last quarter-century”. Simply put, Trans illus­trates a sharpened tension between the language of choice and that of givenness.

The nub of Trans’s argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical. In public discourse today, there is no such thing as a racial spectrum: you can’t be a bit black or a bit white. You have to choose and you certainly can’t cross over to the other side. As Brubaker sums it up: “Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self.” Dolezal was guilty of “cultural theft” (in contrast to Michael Jackson, who was deemed a race traitor, she was a “race ­faker”); Jenner was fighting gender oppression.

I remember getting flamed on Twitter when I asked why the hell Dolezal couldn’t be considered black. The hot-button term, it turned out, was “transracial”. This expression emerged in adoption circles, where activists concerned that adoption “could lead to changes in racial identity – in particular to the loss of one’s authentic identity for want of social support for it”, sought to strengthen racial categories. I also received a dozen tweets telling me that Dolezal hadn’t suffered enough to be black – a line likewise pushed by some feminists critical of the territorial claims made by transgender women.

With respect to Jenner, I was sympathetic to views expressed with wicked humour by Germaine Greer, but more acceptably by ­Lionel Shriver, who, in response to Jenner’s claim to have a “female brain”, railed against the neo-essentialism of the trans movement for relying on and reinscribing outmoded gender stereotypes. Pointedly, Brubaker also notes “the remarkable power of the binary gender system to adapt to and reabsorb transgender people”. Better to make a show of taking in migrants than to acknowledge that your borders are fundamentally weak.

With its push-me-pull-you politics, gender fluidity understandably creates controversy. The irony is that, in theory at least, transracialism ought less to do so. Not only is there no genetic basis for racial difference, but the boom in genetic ancestry testing, which tests autosomal DNA (inherited from both parents, and accounting for the full, multi-stranded range of one’s genetic ancestry), often reveals complex mixtures of biogeographic lineage, thus leaving considerable room for what Alondra Nelson calls “affiliative self-fashioning”.

Genetic ancestry testing gives credence to the likes of Dolezal, who might wish to see herself as environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually black, even if the “technologies of migration” which support transgender journeys – institutionalised in legal, medical, social and activist bodies – are not yet in place for transracial journeys such as hers.

However mind-bending such ­determined migrations might seem, the brouhaha over race and gender shows that we are primed to understand categories of identity in ways that are legibly embodied. In this, we are not so different from our intellectual ancestors the ancient Greeks, who, as Adrian Thatcher reminds us in Redeeming Gender, championed a “one sex” theory on the basis of bodily homologies between men and women that saw female genitalia as mirroring male genitalia. Only inside out.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “The Middlepause: on Turning Fifty” (Scribe)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times