International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 44:2 (2015): 453–55
Reviewed by Julia Strauss, London
Man’s interaction with the sea has been a driving force in human history, through migration, war, exploration and trade. This is what Lincoln Paine hopes to demonstrate, and accomplishes admirably, in this monumental history of the world from a maritime point of view. The reader should not be put off by the 600 pages of text, for each chapter can stand on its own; it is, however, a compelling read and will surely appeal to a wide audience. This reviewer, at least, was sufficiently captivated to read about places and eras that had not previously been of great interest to her.
Paine pulls together an astonishing amount of information to narrate and analyse this chronological history, from the peoples of Oceania who bravely set out to sea 50,000 years ago, to the 21st-century container ships that carry 90% of the world’s trade. He tackles a far wider timescale than other maritime authors have done and he is also much less Mediterranean- and Western-supremacy-centric. In fact, the narrative jumps from one continent to another, but it is only by doing this that one can appreciate how maritime activities have shaped civilizations and cultures in every age and in every part of the Earth. Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II(1949) was the first book to encompass geography, economics, politics and culture in this way and Paine, using similar ideas, broadens the field and examines geographical areas that have previously been studied in isolation. He answers the question ‘What is maritime history?’ with another: ‘What is terrestrial history?’ It is then that we realize how important the sea actually is, covering 70% of the globe. The exploitation of rivers, lakes and canals is included too as having played its part in the growth and success of land-locked regions around the world.
The 20 chapters of The Sea and Civilisation include the first sea crossings in the Pacific, Ancient Egypt, the ClassicalWorld, early Arab seafarers, Chinese traders, Viking conquerors, the Mediterranean Sea in medieval times, the Monsoon Seas of the 11th century and the Golden Age of Sail and European expansion of the 16th century onwards. The chapters on the advent of steam in the mid 19th century that enabled greater changes to naval power than had happened in the previous 25 centuries, and on the age of containerization in the 20th century bring the book to its present-day conclusion.
It is not possible to comment on every chapter, but some deserve particular mention. Ch. 1, ‘Taking to theWater’, offers an absorbing insight into the Pacific islands and the subject of migration. Spreading over nearly 39-million square kilometres (an area larger than the continent of Africa), Oceania was one of the last regions of the globe to become populated. People first crossed from Sundaland (South East Asia) to Sahul (Greater Australia) by sea about 50,000 years ago. Presumably they crossed on rafts of lashed logs—logboats only originated 20,000 years ago—but they may well have been able to keep land in sight. The next wave of migration happened north of New Guinea no later than 13,000 years ago, but these islands and those of the Solomons, the eastern-most limit of expansion, retained their diversity as can be seen by the many different languages spoken, ‘a linguistic stew found in no other region of comparable size’.
The history of Pacific voyaging becomes more impressive once a pattern of west to east migration began from the Solomon Islands towards Western Polynesia in about 1500 BC since seafarers would have lost sight of land. After centuries of stops and starts of seafaring in various directions, Hawai’i was finally populated in about AD 400 and New Zealand about 1000 years ago. An intriguing question is what motivated these people to sail across open water: not population pressures, nor trade. Paine tentatively mentions mere curiosity but, if that were the case, there is no comparison for such exploration until the 19th century. There is no archaeological evidence for the boats used by these voyagers but it seems likely that the double canoes observed by Captain Cook in the 1770s were the boats of choice. Single hulls with outriggers were used for fishing but were not stable enough for ocean sailing. Double canoes could measure up to 27 m long, and therefore carry people and provisions for up to six weeks.
In contrast to the open-water migrations of Oceania, the most popular theory about how the Americas became inhabited is that of a coastal route of migration about 15,000 years ago—also from Asia but via Beringia, an area of Siberia and Alaska that was still joined together until 11,000 years ago. Human settlement reached all the way down to Chile. A possible catastrophic El Ni˜no at some point during the 1st millennium BC then drove people from the coasts up to the highlands.
Chapter 4 focuses on the Phoenicians and the Greeks and their contribution to Mediterranean history over a 500-year period. They were responsible for the creation of many ports and centres of trade still in use today, for the first ships intended solely for military purposes and for furthering exploration into the Atlantic Ocean.
The international nature of trade can be seen very clearly in Ch. 11, ‘China Looks Seaward’. The beginning of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) brought in a golden age of Chinese civilization ensuring its prominence in Asia. Seeking to increase the monies raised from tax, the government allowed a more relaxed approach to trade than there had previously been. This internationalism can be seen most interestingly in the Belitung wreck of AD 826; a huge number of Chinese products, including 60,000 pieces of ceramics, and silverware, was being transported in a ship built in Southwest Asia. The ceramics were decorated with motifs to suit their intended markets: geometric designs for the Abbasid Caliphate, green-splashed bowls for the Persians and lotus symbols for the Buddhists.
Of special interest to this reviewer, and probably to the readers of this journal too, is the development of shipbuilding techniques throughout the ages, although Paine states in the introduction that this book is less about ships per se than about the things they carried. To focus solely on a couple of areas is all that space allows here. Ancient Egypt, a country normally associated with the desert rather than water, provides the most comprehensive body of evidence for the development of shipping in the ancient world, both archaeologically and epigraphically. The Nilewas the lifeline of this arid land, providing a means of transport for all sorts of merchandise, from 1000-ton stone blocks used for the pyramids to luxury goods such as incense and exotic animals. Egyptian mariners were also sailing in the Mediterranean to the Levant by 2600 BC and down the Red Sea to the land of Punt. The earliest surviving written references to Mediterranean trade are Egyptian (The Palermo Stone) as is the oldest surviving shipwreck narrative, ‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’. The return of Hatshepsut’s ships from Punt, c.1470 BC, is beautifully illustrated in the Temple of Thebes; some ships are being rowed and some are solely reliant on single sails; some are laden with storage jars and others with myrrh trees in baskets.
Egypt’s first vessels, however, were papyrus floats or rafts that were cheap to make but did not last much longer than a year, so by the middle of the 4th millennium they had been replaced by wooden boats. The earliest-known portrayal of a sail dates to the late 4th millennium BC and is depicted on the Gerzean jar, showing a single square sail positioned well forward on a single pole mast, although the earliest ships with masts were actually Mesopotamian and date to the 6th millennium BC.
The biggest and best-preserved ship from antiquity is the royal ship of Khufu that was found in the tomb at the base of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Dating to 2500 BC and comprising more than 1200 pieces of wood, mostly imported cedar, laid out in perfect order, it was painstakingly re-assembled over 13 years from the mid 1950s to form the 44 m pleasure ship it had once been. Built shell-first, the ship was flat-bottomed and held together by a combination of mortise-and-tenon work, and an estimated 5000 m of cordage. There was also a deckhouse that included an anteroom and main cabin, as well as two canopied areas.
Many other ships have been discovered in tombs and, added to the descriptions of boats in The Pyramid Texts, about 100 different kinds of vessels have been logged. The enormous working barges that plied the Nile were made from local woods such as acacia and sycamore fig that were only available in short lengths, hence the ‘brick-work’ kind of construction that is still used today.
On the other side of the world in North America, at roughly the same time, the choice of boats was logboats, skin boats, kayaks and bark canoes. These were designed to be light yet resilient for hunting walrus and seals in the cold northern seas and for carrying cargo and people in lakes and streams. While planked boats and sails were beginning to be used in Eurasia, they never developed in the Americas and the question as to why not remains a mystery.
Jumping forward a few centuries, interesting changes occurred in planked boats in the Mediterranean. The shell-first method had been used for centuries with both edge-joined, such as those fastened by mortise-andtenon joints, and clinker construction. A transitional phase occurred in which the hull was still built shell-first but with widely spaced mortise-and-tenon joints no longer fixed by pegs, as seen in the 7th-century Yassıada A ship off the coast of Turkey. The complete frame-first method developed in the later Middle Ages and revolutionized the way that ships could be manufactured. No longer were skilled boat-builders needed for the whole construction: they were still required to set up the keel, stem and stern-posts but less experienced workers could then attach the planks. The 11th-century Serc¸e Limanı ship, also off the coast of Turkey, is a good example.
Paine’s bibliography is extensive and up-to-date, the maps useful and clear. His treatment of end notes works very well: no distracting superscripts, but rather a 60-page section at the back simply corresponding to the page numbers. It would have been a bonus had there been more illustrations both colour and black-and-white, but those that have been chosen are clear and well-placed. Another bonus would have been some kind of chart depicting the types of boats and especially their sails as the descriptions can be difficult to visualize.
This massive and encyclopaedic retelling of world history through the eyes of a maritime historian is peppered with anecdotes, details and descriptions, such as the conditions on slave ships in the 1780s and the tragedy of the Arctic in 1854. Paine opens his work with the statement: ‘I want to change the way you see the world’. For this reader, that goal has been achieved. Such an enormous undertaking as this had not previously been tackled, and perspectives, especially of early history, will surely now be changed.