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The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the Worldby Lincoln Paine
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.
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