In May 1963, an ocean liner called the Empress of Britain made the journey from Liverpool to Montreal with a young Simon Winchester aboard. He clutched a ticket it had taken him six months to save up to buy (“I think I developed a rather unhealthy attachment to this ticket, freighted as it was with so much symbolism–freedom, the New World, adventure, the Atlantic Ocean”). During the 7 days, 6 hours, and 7 minutes he was at sea, Winchester developed a fascination with the ocean that culminated in his attempt to write its story.
Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories is part biography, part love letter, and designed to inspire in readers a greater sense of awe and responsibility for — oh the indignity of the moniker — “the pond.” In roughly chronological order, Winchester recounts the Atlantic’s growing importance to humankind as the “inland sea of classical civilisation,” uniting Europe and the nascent Americas. Exactly which European first managed to cross the Atlantic and reach the New World has been a matter of contention, but all evidence, says Winchester, is that he was “a Norseman, a Viking” by the name of Leif Eriksson. It certainly wasn’t Christopher Columbus, who made the trip a full 400 years after the first Viking settlements were established. Winchester laments the misplaced American enthusiasm for the Italian, who never actually set foot on their shores.
Once colonisation in the New World gains momentum, Winchester addresses the growing slave trade, during which “eleven million Africans were carried westward across the Atlantic between the fifteenth century and the end of the nineteenth.” At the same time, the British Navy became the envy of the world over (and of Napoleon in particular), and new conveniences, like a transatlantic mail service, developed. Winchester notes that in the late 18th century “a Londoner who posted a letter on the first of January could expect it to be read in New York City during the third week of February,” an achievement that would soon be upstaged by the hugely impressive telegraph. Though the original technology, which involved laying telegraph cable across the ocean floor, would ultimately prove faulty, the amazement at the first successful transmission can hardly be overstated. Following its completion, the Times wrote breathlessly: “the Atlantic is dried up, and we become in reality as in wish…one country…The Atlantic Telegraph has half undone the declaration of 1776 and has gone far to make us one again, in spite of ourselves, one people.”
The sense of overcoming the Atlantic — of conquering its distance and menace, and employing it as a means to an end — was a prevalent theme of the 20th century. The ocean was crentrally involved in the conflicts of the early part of the century, when the invention of radar, sonar and submarines “changed every rule of modern warfare”. Winchester writes: “These and a thousand other pieces of wizardry turned the oceans, and the Atlantic in particular, into a very different arena for the conduct of war.” With the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat during World War One, it became clear that the sea could be used strategically, not simply as a battleground, as in previous maritime warfare, but as a co-conspirator. The progression of aviation lead to renewed sense of respect for the distance travelled in the air when crossing the ocean, but even the first men to do it, Jack Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, flippantly brought along their pet kittens (Twinkletoes and Lucky Jim) for the ride.
Winchester likens our perceptions of the Atlantic to those of Mount Everest, which once inspired such wonderment, and now, thoroughly dominated, has to suffer the indignity of having rubbish strewn across its summit. There are approximately 475,000 Atlantic transits by plane each year, rendering the trip a commonplace occurrence for many. Winchester observes that most passengers barely spare a glance for the sea below, and regard it as a vague inconvenience more than anything else. This casual indifference of travellers — though disheartening to the sailor — wouldn’t be significant for the ocean’s survival, but Winchester finds the attitude emblematic of more ominous trends. “In lockstep with this change of perception,” he says, “there are been a steady lessening, some would say an actual abandonment, of humankind’s duty of care toward it.”
Though Winchester occasionally gets bogged down with the cumbersome mass of history he recounts, this is an often absorbing narrative. Perfect reading material, in fact, for your next flight to New York.