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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge