Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Vintage Books

The Sea and Civilization

A Maritime History of the World

By Lincoln Paine

About the Book:

A monumental retelling of world history through the lens of the sea—revealing in breathtaking depth how people first came into contact with one another by ocean and river, lake and stream, and how goods, languages, religions, and entire cultures spread across and along the world’s waterways, bringing together civilizations and defining what makes us most human. The Sea and Civilization is a mesmerizing, rhapsodic narrative of maritime enterprise, from the origins of long-distance migration to the great seafaring cultures of antiquity; from Song Dynasty human-powered paddle-boats to aircraft carriers and container ships. Lincoln Paine takes the reader on an intellectual adventure casting the world in a new light, in which the sea reigns supreme. Above all, Paine makes clear how the rise and fall of civilizations can be linked to the sea. An accomplishment of both great sweep and illuminating detail, The Sea and Civilization is a stunning work of history.

About Lincoln Paine:

Lincoln Paine is the author of five books and more than fifty articles, reviews, and lectures on various aspects of maritime history. He lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife, Allison.

Read an Excerpt

I want to change the way you see the world. Specifically, I want to change the way you see the world map by focusing your attention on the blues that shade
70 percent of the image before you, and letting the earth tones fade. This shift in emphasis from land to water makes many trends and patterns of world history stand out in ways they simply cannot otherwise. Before the development of the locomotive in the nineteenth century, culture, commerce, contagion, and conflict generally moved faster by sea than by land. The opening of sea routes sometimes resulted in immediate transformation, but more often it laid the groundwork for what was later mistaken for sudden change. The best example of this is the trade networks of the Indian Ocean, the oldest of which were pioneered at least four thousand years ago by navigators sailing between Mesopotamia and the mouths of the Indus River. By the start of the common era two thousand years ago, the Indian subcontinent was a point of departure and destination for merchants and mendicants from across the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. This is all but unnoticed in the written record, which boasts of no figure comparable to a Gilgamesh or Odysseus, and despite a growing body of archaeological evidence, these undertakings remain largely unrecognized. As a result, the later arrival in Southeast Asia of Muslim traders from the Indian subcontinent and Southwest Asia, of Chinese merchants of various faiths, and of Portuguese Christians seem like so many historical surprises. Only the last were absolute newcomers to the Monsoon Seas that stretch from the shores of East Africa to the coasts of Korea and Japan. The others were heirs to ancient, interlinked traditions of seafaring and trade that long ago connected the shores of East Africa with those of Northeast Asia. This book shows many similar examples of maritime regions that were quietly exploited before events conspired to thrust them into the historical limelight.

Two questions merit consideration before taking on a maritime history of the world as either writer or reader: What is maritime history? and What is world history? The answers to both have as much to do with perspective as with subject matter. World history involves the synthetic investigation of complex interactions between people of distinct backgrounds and orientations. It therefore transcends historians’ more traditional focus on politically, religiously, or culturally distinct communities seen primarily in their own terms at a local, national, or regional level. As a subject of interdisciplinary and interregional inquiry, maritime history is a branch of world history that covers obvious topics like shipbuilding, maritime trade, oceanic exploration, human migration, and naval history. Considered as a perspective, however, the premise of maritime history is that the study of events that take place on or in relation to the water offers unique insights into human affairs. The maritime historian therefore draws on such disciplines as the arts, religion, language, the law, and political economy.

An alternative and perhaps simpler way to approach the question, What is maritime history? is to tackle its unasked twin: What is terrestrial history?— the view from the land being our default perspective. Imagine a world of people bound to the land. The ancient Greek diaspora would have taken a different character and been forced in different directions without ships to carry Euboeans, Milesians, and Athenians to new markets and to sustain contacts between colonies and homelands. Without maritime commerce, neither Indians nor Chinese would have exerted the substantial influence they did in Southeast Asia, and that region would have been spared the cultural sobriquets of Indo-China and Indonesia (literally, “Indian islands”)—in fact, the latter would have remained unpeopled altogether. The Vikings of medieval Scandinavia could never have spread as quickly or widely as they did and thereby altered the political landscape of medieval Europe. And without mariners, the history of the past five centuries would have to be reimagined in its entirety. The age of western European expansion was a result of maritime enterprise without which Europe might well have remained a marginalized corner of the Eurasian landmass with its back to what Latinate Europe called Mare Tenebrosum and Arabic speakers Bahr al-Zulamat, “the sea of darkness.” The Mughals, Chinese, and Ottomans would have overshadowed the divisive and sectarian polities of Europe, which would have been unable to settle or conquer the Americas, to develop the transatlantic slave trade, or to have gained an imperial foothold in Asia.

The past century has witnessed a sea change in how we approach maritime history. Formerly a preserve of antiquarian interest whose practitioners lavished their efforts on “ancient ships and boats, ship models, images, ethnography, lexicographical and bibliographical matters and flags,” maritime history once focused chiefly on preserving and interpreting material that was readily available. This directed historians’ attention to European, Mediterranean, and modern North American maritime and naval history. Maritime accomplishment was almost always viewed as a peculiarly European phenomenon that only attained real importance with Columbus’s epochal voyage to the Americas in 1492. In this telling, the story proceeded directly and exclusively to an explanation of how Europeans used their superior maritime and naval technology to impose themselves upon the rest of the world.

Taking Europe’s “classic age of sail” from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries as a model for the rest of maritime history is seductive but inadvisable. While the global change wrought by mariners and the dynamics of maritime Europe are of unquestionable importance to a proper understanding of the world since 1500, maritime achievement is more broadly spread and its effects more complicated than such a narrative suggests. European supremacy was far from inevitable. More important, the concentration on Europe’s past five centuries has distorted our interpretation of the maritime record of other periods and places and our appreciation of its relevance to human progress. No parallels exist for the almost symbiotic relationship between commercial and naval policy—what we might call a “naval-commercial complex”—characteristic of Europe’s maritime expansion. There is nothing like it in classical antiquity, in Asia, or in Europe before the Renaissance, and by the twenty-first century the close ties between national naval strategy and maritime commerce so prevalent in this age had all but vanished. The period of western Europe’s maritime dominance was critical, but it is a misleading standard against which to measure other eras.

This Eurocentric worldview was reinforced by the widespread belief among western historians that race was a sufficient explanation for “the inequality of various extant human societies.” In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the clearest material manifestation of racial superiority writ large was maritime power and Europeans’ ability to extend their hegemony overseas to create and sustain colonial empires half a world away. This gave rise to the ahistorical generalization that there are maritime people like the Greeks and British and nonmaritime people like the Romans and Chinese. Such assumptions mask complex realities. Put another way, the extent to which different nations rely on cars or planes depends on economics, industrialization, geography, and other considerations, and no one would think of ascribing car or plane use to racial or ethnic tendencies. In reaction to this assumption of an innate European and North American superiority at sea, a number of writers attempted to redress the balance by writing explicitly ethnocentric or nationalist maritime histories about non-Europeans. While these valuable correctives exposed previously untapped indigenous writings and other evidence of seafaring by people otherwise considered to have had little or no maritime heritage, they tended to create their own versions of maritime exceptionalism.

Even as this tendency was running its course, Fernand Braudel’s magisterial The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) ushered in a new approach to maritime history. Inspired by his brilliant analysis of the interplay between geography, economics, politics, military, and cultural history, maritime historians looking past nationalist paradigms have embraced the validity of treating seas and ocean basins as coherent units of study and the past half century has seen a surfeit of works examining individual oceans and seas. This is an enlightening exercise that enables us to consider cross-cultural and transnational connections without constant reference to the mutable fiction of political borders. At the same time, we run the risk of replacing a set of arbitrary terrestrial boundaries with an equally arbitrary division of the world ocean. There is little agreement about how to parcel the waters of the world into discrete, named bodies of bays, gulfs, straits, channels, seas, and oceans, and in practice sailors rarely recognize such distinctions drafted from afar. An ancient Greek epigram acknowledges the unity of the world ocean with stark simplicity:
All sea is sea. . . .
Pray if you like for a good voyage home,
But Aristagoras, buried here, has found
The ocean has the manners of an ocean.
This book is an attempt to examine how people came into contact with one another by sea and river, and so spread their crops, their manufactures, and their social systems—from language to economics to religion—from one place to another. While I have not ignored the climactic moments of maritime history, I have attempted to put them in a broader context to show how shifting approaches to maritime systems can be read as indicators of broader change beyond the sea. I have concentrated on a few themes: how maritime enterprise enlarges trading realms that share certain kinds of knowledge—of markets and commercial practice, or navigation and shipbuilding; how the overseas spread of language, religion, and law facilitates interregional connections; and how rulers and governments exploit maritime enterprise through taxation, trade protection, and other mechanisms to consolidate and augment their power.

I have sketched this history as a narrative to show region by region the deliberate process by which maritime regions of the world were knit together.
But this is not a story of saltwater alone. Maritime activity includes not only high seas and coastal voyaging, but also inland navigation.* Islanders may have obvious reasons to put to sea, but the exploitation of freshwater rivers, lakes, and canals has been critical to the growth of countries with large continental territories. The center of North America became economically productive thanks to its accessibility via the St. Lawrence and Welland Rivers and the Great Lakes, and by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Neither corridor could have reached its potential without the development of maritime technologies—steam power in the case of the Mississippi, and locks and dams in the case of the Great Lakes.

If the geography of water, wind, and land shapes the maritime world in obvious ways, maritime endeavor becomes a determining force in history only when the right combination of economic, demographic, and technological conditions is met. Few fifteenth-century observers could have imagined the prosperity that would accrue to Spain and Portugal as a result of their navigators’ peregrinations in the eastern Atlantic. While they sailed in search of a route to the spices of Asia, they also came upon the Americas, a source of untold wealth in the form of silver and gold; of raw materials for European markets and new markets for European manufacturers; and territory—“virgin” in Europeans’ eyes—for the cultivation of recently discovered or transplanted crops like tobacco and sugar. Papal intervention in disputes over which lands would be Portuguese and which Spanish resulted in a series of bulls and treaties that partitioned the navigation of the non-Christian Atlantic and Indian Oceans between Portugal and Spain, and helps explain why the majority of people in South and Central America are Spanishor Portuguese-speaking Catholics.

A maritime perspective complicates our understanding of the “westward” expansion of the United States. California achieved statehood in 1851, two years after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, when the territory was virtually unknown to Americans back east and the number of United States citizens on the Pacific coast numbered only a few thousand. Thanks to the extraordinary capacity of the American merchant marine of the day, tens of thousands of people reached San Francisco by ship, a mode of transportation that was faster, cheaper, and safer than the transcontinental journey, although the distance covered was more than four times longer. The United States conquered the interior of the continent—what are today known as the fly-over states, but at the time could aptly have been called the sail-around territories—in a pincer movement from both coasts, rather than by a one-way overland movement from the east.

Yet for the most part, if ships, sailors, ports, and trades exist, the default tendency among most writers is either to celebrate them in isolation from the world ashore, or to acknowledge them only to explain particular events such as the arrival of the Black Death in northern Italy; the voyages of the Vikings to the Caspian and Black Seas (by river) and to western Europe and North America (by sea); the Mongol invasions of Japan and Java in the thirteenth century; or various other diasporas of people, flora, and fauna. But by situating our collective relationship to oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and canals at the center of the historical narrative, we can see that much of human history has been shaped by people’s access, or lack of it, to navigable water. For example, given non-Muslim westerners’ ingrained impression of Islam as a religion of desert nomads, it seems remarkable that the country with the largest Muslim population is actually spread across the world’s biggest archipelago. There are no camels in Indonesia, but there are Muslims, and also Hindus—especially on the island of Bali—which is especially curious when one considers Hindu prohibitions against going to sea. If these two religions are so tightly bound to the land, how did they manage to cross the ocean? Have the religions changed over time? Or are our impressions about the nature of these religions wrong? As is written in the Quran, “Do you not see how the ships speed upon the ocean by God’s grace, so that He may reveal to you His wonders? Surely there are signs in this for every steadfast, thankful man.”

These “signs” indicate that mankind’s technological and social adaptation to life on the water—whether for commerce, warfare, exploration, or migration— has been a driving force in human history. Yet many mainstream histories are reluctant to embrace this. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies gives barely a page to “maritime technology,” by which he means watercraft and not the ability to navigate or any associated abilities. What is curious about this is that maritime traffic was central to the diffusion of many of the technologies, ideas, plants, and animals that Diamond discusses in such illuminating detail, not only between continents but also within and around them. In all but ignoring the maritime aspect of his story, he essentially overlooks both the means of transmission and, in the cases of some very important inventions, the things transmitted as well.

To take another example, J. M. Roberts’s History of the World is, according to the author, “the story of the processes which have brought mankind from the uncertainties and perils of primitive life and precivilized life to the much
more complex and very different uncertainties and perils of today. . . . The criterion for the inclusion of factual data has therefore been their historical importance—that is, their effective importance to the major processes of history rather than intrinsic interest or any sort of merit.” Roberts acknowledges inland and saltwater navigation, stressing the importance of the former, for instance, in Russia’s eastward colonization of Siberia in the seventeenth century. However, he jumps to the ends without reference to the means, or the processes. He notes that from Tobolsk to the Pacific port of Okhotsk three thousand miles away there were only three portages; there is no discussion of the vessels used, the foundation of intermediate settlements, or the impact of river trade on the development of Siberia. He does not even name the rivers, which is rather like talking about the water route from Pittsburgh to New Orleans without mentioning the Ohio or Mississippi.

Had Diamond or Roberts written a century ago, their works likely would have incorporated considerably more maritime content. That they do not reflects changes in the public perception of the maritime world, for the merchant marine and naval services no longer hold the attraction for people that they once did, when ocean liners and freighters crowded the piers of Manhattan, Hamburg, Sydney, and Hong Kong. At the start of the twenty-first century, ships and shipping lines are the warp and woof of globalization. Ships carry about 90 percent of world trade and the number of oceangoing ships has grown threefold in the past half century. But the nature of shipping has led to the relocation of cargo-handling facilities to places remote from traditional port cities, while a growing proportion of the world’s merchant fleets has been put under so-called flags of convenience—that is, owners in search of less regulation and lower taxes have registered their ships in countries not their own. As a result, ships no longer stand as emblems of national progress and prestige as they did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although airplanes have replaced ships in most long-distance passenger trades—transatlantic, between Europe and ports “east of Suez,” or transpacific—more than fourteen million people annually embark on a sea cruise. This is far more than ocean liners carried before the passenger jet rendered them obsolete in the 1950s, when the names of shipping companies were as familiar as (and far more respected than) the names of airlines today. The idea that people would go to sea for pleasure was almost unthinkable even 150 years ago. The cruise ship industry, to say nothing of yachting and recreational boating, owe their growth to changes in economics and technology, social reform movements that ameliorated the often wretched conditions of sea travel for passengers and crew alike, and shifts in attitudes toward the natural environment of the sea. These also gave rise to the emergence of a conscious appreciation for the sea and seafaring in painting, music, and literature, and set the conditions for people’s interest in the sea as an historical space interpreted through museums, film, and books.

In fact we live in an age deeply influenced by maritime enterprise, but our perceptions of its importance have shifted almost 180 degrees in only two or three generations. Today we see pleasure where our forebears saw peril, and we can savor the fruits of maritime commerce without being remotely aware of its existence, even when we live in cities that originally grew rich from sea trade. In considering the course of maritime history, we must account for this change and remember that our collective relationship with maritime enterprise has undergone a profound metamorphosis in only half a century.
The idea for this book began to take shape while I was writing Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia—in essence, a collection of vessel biographies that sought to explore the reasons for certain ships’ fame or infamy and to situate them in a broader historical context. Some of these stories have obviously found their way into this work. But while ships are integral to the narrative that unfolds here, this book is less about ships per se than about the things that they carried—people and their culture, their material creations, their crops and flocks, their conflicts and prejudices, their expectations for the future, and their memories of the past. In considering the prospects for this undertaking, I have been guided by the words of the naval historian Nicholas Rodger, who has written: “A general naval history would be a prize of great value, and if the first person to attempt it should fail altogether, he may still have the merit of stimulating other and better scholars to achieve it.” The scope of this work goes well beyond naval history and entails correspondingly greater risks, but if nothing else I hope this book will inspire further exploration of this fascinating dimension of our common past.


“Superbly realized. . . . Elegantly written and encyclopedic in scope. [A] forceful reminder that the urge to ‘go down to the sea in ships’ has shaped civilizations and cultures in every period and in every part of the globe.” —The Wall Street Journal

“The Sea and Civilization is, without doubt, the most comprehensive maritime history ever produced. . . . An all-consuming vision oozes from Paine’s book. His passion is to tell the story of the sea. History is seldom written with that kind of passion today.” —The Times (London) 

 “The most enjoyable, the most refreshing, the most stimulating, the most comprehensive, the most discerning, the most insightful, the most up-to-date—in short, the best maritime history of the world.” —Felipe Fernández-Armesto, author of Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years

 “Here is a story told with assurance and a refreshing perspective. . . . A bracing journey.” —The Dallas Morning News

Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title Selection, 2014

 “Fascinating and beautifully written. . . . An eloquent vision of how the sea served as a path to the modern world.” —Foreign Affairs

 “Paine is full of such illuminating facts. . . . [He] forestalls any western bias with excellent chapters on Asian expansion. . . . ‘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.” —New Statesman (London)

“A magnificently sweeping world history that takes us from the people of Oceania and concludes with the container. In contrast to most books on maritime history, the majority of The Sea and Civilization covers the history of the world before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and at least as much of the narrative focuses on Asia as it does on Europe.” —The Telegraph (London)

“An ambitious work. . . . Dense with facts and rich in detail that tells mankind’s story from the perspective of our relation to the seas—as well as lakes, rivers and canals.” —Asian Review of Books 

“Brilliantly realized. . . . we have at last a responsible and persuasive explanation of the inextricable connection between the ocean and world civilization.” —Peter Neill, World Ocean Observatory

“Takes the reader through history via the seas . . . Paine’s highly detailed work encompasses a wide array of topics, from trade and the influence of the sea on warfare and political coalitions, to ship building techniques through the ages, to piracy and slavery.  . . . Paine has compiled an invaluable resource for salty dogs and land-lubbers alike.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Paine deftly navigates the complexities of global culture to create an eminently readable account of mankind’s relationship to the sea. Both profound and amusing, this will be a standard source for decades to come.” —Josh Smith, U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, editor of Voyages
The Sea and Civilization presents a fresh look at the global past. Bringing to bear a formidable knowledge of ships and sails, winds and currents, navigation techniques and maritime law, Lincoln Paine offers a lively tour of world history as seen from the waterline. The result is a fascinating account, full of little-known episodes and novel insights. A major contribution.”  —Kären Wigen, Stanford University, author of A Malleable Map

"Paine's a lyrical stylist, and the breadth of his historical vision is extraordinary." —David Mitchell, GQ

Author Q&A

A conversation with Lincoln Paine, author of
A Maritime History of the World

Q: THE SEA AND CIVILIZATION retells the last 3,500 years of civilization’s history through the lens of maritime travel, trade, and exploration; Felipe Fernández-Armesto calls it “the best maritime history of the world”! There are many books on the topic of maritime history—what sets yours apart?

One thing that distinguishes my book from a lot of other books about maritime history is that I didn’t approach the project with the idea that I wanted to prove anything. I started the book at what I took to be the useful beginning of the story and generally followed where the evidence led. The whole basis of the historian’s work is to make inquiries and ask questions. At the same time, as authors we are supposed to write with authority. The problem is that many people follow the trial lawyer’s dictum that you never ask a question unless you are sure of the answer. I have no problem asking questions to which I don’t have the answers. And the delight in researching and writing The Sea and Civilization came from discovering things about which I previously knew absolutely nothing and which have given me—and I hope my readers and other accomplices—new ways to understand the world.

Q: Often we think of sea exploration as a Western specialty—Phoenicians, Vikings, the Spanish Armada—but you also write about the seafaring societies of Africa and Asia. How was maritime trade and exploration formative in African and Asian societies?

I’m delighted that you include among westerners the Phoenicians, who lived on the coast of what are now Lebanon and Syria. But to answer your question, no one culture, race, nationality, religion, or linguistic group has a monopoly on maritime endeavor. Beyond that, until relatively recently, seafaring was of vastly greater importance to the people of North and East Africa and Asia from the Red Sea to the Yellow Sea than it ever was to non-Mediterranean Europe.

Seafaring was formative for Asia and Africa in any number of ways, but there are three especially significant examples. The first was the spread of Austronesian-speaking people from southern China through island Southeast Asia and east into the Pacific islands, which they began to reach about 3,500 years ago. Somewhat later than this, 2,000 years ago, a branch of Austronesian-speakers from Southeast Asia began sailing west across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar and the coast of Africa, to which they introduced three modern staples of sub-Saharan African cuisine: taro root, the water yam, and the banana. The last, and most obvious maritime transformation was the spread of religion—Hinduism and Buddhism eastward from India, and Islam south and east from the Arabian Peninsula.

Q: How did you go about your research? What did you discover that most surprised you?

I did a fair amount of reading, but the challenge wasn’t the reading itself so much as it was ferreting out the right things to read. I spent a lot of time in university libraries, including a week a month at Columbia for the better part of a year. In Maine I practically commuted to Bowdoin College for longer than that, and I availed myself of online services and the interlibrary loan program at the University of Southern Maine.

The single most surprising discovery in my research has to be the symbiotic relationship between commerce and religion, which is ancient, profound, and universal.

Q: You write, “I want to change the way you see the world.” Why is it so important to “let the earth tones fade” and shift our focus to the sea when we study world history?

It is very difficult—for me, anyway—to think about the progress of world history without taking stock of what happened on the oceans, seas, and rivers of the world. The lines of communication they fostered made long-distance cultural exchange not only possible but transformational. This is obvious in a host of scenarios, from the transplantation of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula and environs to South and Southeast Asia, to the transplantation of Spanish, Portuguese, and English culture—including language and different strains of Christianity—and of African culture, through the slave trade, to the Americas.

One thing I would like readers to take away from this book is the need to think actively about the environmental and cultural constraints on and benefits of maritime enterprise, and to think about terrestrial enterprise in the same terms. We seldom stop to consider what makes networks of people possible now or in the past. Since the development of trains, cars, and airplanes, we’ve lost sight of the fact that in many parts of the world, land transportation was just as seasonal as transport by sea, and even in the best of circumstances, infinitely less efficient in terms of cost, energy, and time.

Q: What are the significant moments in maritime history that we tend to overlook?

The problems of the Egyptian peasant Khunanup four thousand years ago are not, in and of themselves, terribly momentous. But his story illustrates an ordinary Egyptian’s familiarity with, and appreciation of, the importance of navigation to the well-being of all Egyptians, from the pharaoh down. At the same time, it offers the opportunity to discuss the almost universal metaphor of the ship of state in the millennia since then.

Similarly, the discussion of the ninth-century Scandinavian merchants Ohthere and Wulfstan lets me introduce, in the words of contemporaries, the idea that not all Scandinavians of the age fit the popular image of Vikings. Norse, Swedish, and Danish mariners could be every bit as thoughtful, inquisitive, and trade-oriented as many of their contemporaries in Europe and beyond (who in turn could be just as thuggish as Scandinavians).

Of more immediate relevance to us was the Dutch capture of the Portuguese ship Santa Catarina near modern Singapore. This could easily have been just another in an endless line of similar events except that it was the catalyst for Hugo Grotius’s treatise, The Free Sea. Grotius subverted Spanish and Portuguese claims to in essence divide the whole non-Christian world between them, and his arguments helped shape the concepts of sovereignty, property, and freedom of navigation that undergird modern international law.

So we could say that these are examples of moments we have tended to overlook. But as with any event, without context these vignettes constitute data, not history. And in reading history, we have to be mindful of the fact that all events need to be understood in context. It is not enough to say: I recognize Columbus and 1492. Two notes do not make a symphony.

Q: What are the differences between saltwater and inland navigation in shaping world history?

There are few things more deceptive on a map than the blue lines tracing the route of a river. Few people who don’t actually live on or near one, and some lakes, realize how difficult and expensive freshwater navigation is. In northern climates especially, rivers tend to be very seasonal. In winter they freeze; in spring they flood; and by the autumn their water levels have often fallen so low that they are too shallow to navigate. If the terrain they flow through is not relatively flat, they are often navigable only going downstream, if that. In short, they need a lot of human intervention to make and keep them useful.

While rivers were essential for the development of many ancient civilizations—the Nile in Africa, the Indus in Pakistan and India, the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers in China, and the Mississippi and Amazon in the Americas—it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Europeans really began to harness what is the most intricate and (now) navigationally useful network of rivers on the planet. On the whole, though, outside of China, rivers and their related canal systems didn’t come into their own until the advent of steam propulsion in the nineteenth century, when markets in continental interiors were opened up to the rest of the world.

Q: In THE SEA AND CIVILIZATION, you show how advances in boatbuilding, technology, and navigation are constantly opening up new opportunities for sea travel. How do such developments affect the nature of global power and economic responsibility?

When speaking of global power, you’re really talking only about the past five hundred years or so. European mariners had definite technological advantages over Native Americans, but the conquest of the Americas had as much to do with infection as with ingenuity. Elsewhere the globalization of European power took far longer, and lasted far less time, than is generally assumed—no more than 250 years at the outside, and for many places barely a century. It is commonplace to speak of the end of the Soviet Union as the watershed moment of the period since World War II, but the collapse of European colonialism in the 1950s and ’60s was more significant for more people, and is proof positive that maritime technology and naval supremacy are not enough to guarantee global power.

The end of these maritime empires coincided with the rising phenomenon of decentralized maritime commercial power. In this new world order, shipbuilders, shipowners, ships’ crews, and ships customers all hailed from completely different parts of the world. This is one face of globalization, which is as ruthless as it is efficient. The prevailing dogma of globalization has made many aware of how events in one place affect those in another. But it also makes it difficult to forge consensus about what you call economic responsibility, which I take to include a consideration of the effects of economic dislocation and environmental degradation caused by the growth of economic efficiency.

Q: You write that the cruise ship industry, as well as yachting and boating, resulted in part from “shifts in attitudes toward the natural environment of the sea.” What do you mean by this?

For most of human history, most people seem to have viewed going to sea with great trepidation. This began to change in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At this point, people had been regularly sailing long distances—transatlantic and from Europe around Africa to Asia—for two or three hundred years. Even if it didn’t engage huge numbers of people, long-distance voyaging was no longer seen as entirely strange. In England around this time there were two fundamental developments: the embrace of yachting by Charles II and James II and their retinues; and doctors’ discovery of the curative powers of saltwater, which was said to improve ones teeth, to cure asthma, cancer, deafness, and madness, and to revive marriages, among other things.

The subsequent development of mechanical propulsion and greater control over nature, at least at its most benign, made people more comfortable with the idea of going on the water for pleasure. Now, technological developments such as lighter materials, faster rigs, and so on have made ocean cruising and racing, white-water rafting, canoeing and kayaking that much more appealing to people seeking to escape the conformity of our technologically constrained environments ashore.

Q: THE SEA AND CIVILIZATION includes remarkable illustrations and maps throughout, which come from museums and archives all over the world. How did you decide upon these images? Do you have a favorite?

It’s hard to point to a favorite image, because each piece tells its own story in its own way. I hope that the captions do justice to the artists’ vision, even if in some cases we can never know who the artist is or what his or her intent might have been. The image that will most likely confound readers’ assumptions of the way the world works is the Noah’s Ark painted by the Muslim illustrator Miskin in about 1590. Most people steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition will be surprised to learn that the Quran retells a version of Noah and the Flood. Then again, most readers from any of the Abrahamic faiths probably don’t know that the Noah story has its roots in the Mesopotamian story of Gilgamesh and is far older than Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.

While the portolans and engraved maps were fun to track down, one of the distinct pleasures was working with Rosemary Mosher on the seventeen beautiful, hand-drawn maps she made for the book. Even with the benefit of computers, atlases, and gazetteers, it was a real challenge to design maps that were legible, comprehensive, and aesthetically pleasing, and it gives one a real appreciation for the brilliant achievements of the cartographers of the past half millennium and more.

Q: By the end of your book, you’ve brought us up to the present day. What are the modern-day advantages and challenges to navigation? 

Technological advances in ship design and navigation technology, including the ability to disseminate accurate information about the way the world looks and acts, have made going to sea far safer than it ever was. Among the unintended consequences to that is a certain complacency in our approach to the sea. For recreational boaters in particular (but not exclusively), there is a failure to realize that no amount of technology or money will ever tame the sea. Shipping magnates are also cavalier in their insistence on building ships whose capacity pushes shoreside infrastructure (and budgets) to the breaking point and whose loss can threaten financial and environmental ruin—though usually not for them. Another challenge is how we deal with crimes like piracy and human trafficking at sea, the policing of which is based on laws that are hopelessly out of date.

Q: You live in Portland, Maine, and have written a fair amount about the state’s maritime history. What are some of the most fascinating things we should know about the state’s nautical history?

Before Europeans got here, members of the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot nations routinely hunted seals, whales, and fish in the Gulf of Maine, which remains one of the most abundant marine ecosystems in the world, and they also traded between Nova Scotia and Cape Cod. Fish drew Europeans to the Gulf of Maine, but the English were keen on harvesting the native hundred-foot-tall white pine trees, which made excellent masts for warships.

Completion of Portland Head Light, at the entrance to the harbor, was authorized by the ninth piece of legislation passed by Congress, in 1790, and the first dedicated to a public works project. The government’s effort to ensure safe navigation was wildly successful, and between 1787 and 1795, the number of ships owned in Portland grew from maybe one or two to eighty.

During World War II, Bath Iron Works built more destroyers than all Japanese shipyards combined, while 30,000 men, women, and minorities employed in an emergency merchant shipbuilding program in South Portland turned out 30 Ocean-class and 274 Liberty ships between 1941 and 1945.

Q: What’s next for you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivers, so perhaps something along those blue lines.

Erica Hinsley / / 212-572-2018

Other books by Lincoln Paine