BOOK REVIEW – The Sea and Civilization. A Maritime History of the World

Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization.  A Maritime History of the World.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 784 pp.

Review by Kenneth J. Blume, PhD
Dept. of Humanities and Communication Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences

Lincoln Paine has given us a volume that any maritime historian and any world historian will savor.  For years, maritime historians have emphasized that “the sea connects all things,” and this book demonstrates those connections.  This is global history seen through a maritime lens, demonstrating that global history is maritime history.  Only a few historians have been able to single-author a world history—for example, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, John M. Roberts, or Peter N. Stearns.  Paine is a rare example of an author willing to attempt a global maritime history.

In twenty chapters and about 600 pages of text, Paine has a daunting task to accomplish.  He lays out his fundamental premise early on—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” (p. 8). A book that begins with an exploration of the very first human encounters with the waters also reminds us, in the Introduction, that even in the twenty-first century “ships and shipping lines are the warp and woof of globalization” (p. 9). We are also warned not to expect a book “about ships per se” (p. 10). If you want minute details about ancient Egyptian ships, or about the first class dining rooms of the great Atlantic liners of the 20th century, you’ll find titles in Payne’s exhaustive bibliography.  Rather, The Sea and Civilization is about the things that ships 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” (p. 10).

Readers looking for specialized details (although there are plenty of details) might say that the book has too much context and not enough ships, or too much civilization and not enough sea.  Such criticism misses the point of the book.  Paine achieves what he sets out to accomplish, with a comprehensive overview that is filled with juicy details.  He begins as far back as we have any human records: 6,000-year-old Norwegian rock carvings of reindeer hunters in boats—“the oldest known pictorial representations of watercraft” (p. 11).  From there, the narrative surveys the world by era and geographical region: the ancient islands of Oceania; the Americas in ancient times; ancient Egypt; the Bronze Age; Mesopotamia.  When Paine gets to the Epic of Gilgamesh, he emphasizes the water-related aspects of that familiar story.  When we reach the Phoenicians, Greeks, and ancient Mediterranean, we are reminded that these are the first civilizations to create “sea-based colonial empires” and the first to “build ships specifically for war and develop strategies for their use; to erect port complexes dedicated to facilitating commerce; and to systematically explore the waters beyond the Mediterranean” (p. 79). The implications of these “firsts” are among Paine’s important insights.

Then, there are chapters on Carthage, Rome, and The Mediterranean; Chasing the Monsoons (with a gem of a glimpse at the elephant trade!); Continent and Archipelagoes in the East; The Christian and Muslim Mediterranean; Northern Europe through the Viking Age; The Silk Road of the Seas; China Looks Seaward; The Medieval Mediterranean and Europe; The Golden Age of Maritime Asia; The World Encompassed; The Birth of Global Trade; State and Sea in the Age of European Expansion; Northern Europe Ascendant.  When we reach the 18th century, we see the full potential of the sailing ship being unleashed—for both good and evil.  Paine provides a remarkable and vivid snapshot of conditions on slave ships, and also the horrifying conditions for “free” travelers to North America.  At the same time, Paine’s narrative provides a good analysis of the 18th century “balance of power” and how it was especially dependent on naval power.

The final three chapters—18, 19, and 20—provide a concise analysis of the remarkable changes of the past 200 years.  Above all, of course, was the advent of steam.  In 1838, when Sirius arrived in New York harbor, just seventeen days after leaving Cork, the New York Herald proclaimed that the event signaled the “Annihilation of Space and Time.”  Paine has zeroed in on the defining (and still changing) characteristic of the Modern World. Curiously, Paine does not mention the role of SS Savannah in this revolutionary annihilation. Then, of course, world navies entered the machine age.  Paine takes us from the American Civil War to World War I, to World War II, and then the Korean War, sketching the changing tactics, technologies, and policies that have shaped global affairs and global life.  Finally, the book’s last chapter surveys major developments since the 1950s, particularly containerization and flags of convenience.

Paine’s The Sea and Civilization takes us on a tour around the world, throughout time, on ships.  It is a remarkable voyage, with excellent illustrations and maps, based on a vast list of sources.  For the maritime historian, the juiciest sections will perhaps be those that discuss the actual ships of the various civilizations.  But for any reader, this book, in the end, is a world history survey that reinforces the centrality of maritime affairs.

(Return to December 2015 Table of Contents)

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