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Review-The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine

Alfred Thayer Mahan, a United States Navy flag officer and historian, has been called “the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century.” He wrote a book in 1890, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660 – 1783, which set the world on its ear by advocating naval power as the most important element in a nation’s military arsenal. Citing the seventeenth century conflicts between Holland, England, France and Spain, and the nineteenth century naval wars between France and Britain, where British naval superiority
eventually defeated France, Mahan pointed to a strong navy as the key determinant in any nation’s ability to control worldwide events. His views helped set off an arms race among the Great Powers’ navies at the end of the 19th Century, an important element in the run-up to
World War I. Mahan’s ideas are still reflected in the U. S. naval canon.

Mahan came to mind upon encountering a momentous new history, The Sea and Civilization, by Lincoln Paine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1913), in which the author recounts the history of the world since prehistoric times as shaped by mankind’s continuing efforts struggles and triumphs on the 70% of the earth’s surface covered by water. The book is a monster, over 700 pages, with many color and black and white photographs and drawings. Prepare yourselves, readers, for a serious
lesson in history.

Paine begins his impressive study with an examination of the evidence from mankind’s earliest forays on the sea. Whether to find food or relieve over-population, to establish trading routes or flee from climactic conditions or enemies, men went to sea many millennia ago, at first hugging the shore, then later venturing out of the sight of land. By studying extensive archaeological records, Paine is able to demonstrate the fundamental role of early water travel in mankind’s long journey from his origins in East Africa to his command of most of the planet ninety thousand years later.

First on rafts and dug-out canoes, then on kayaks, log-boats and–in North America–the ubiquitous birch bark canoe–various tribes learned to navigate by celestial means, by reading the wind and water, and by tracing the behavior of birds, fish, and whales. An early example of
putting these skills to use occurred in the South Pacific. After reaching the southern coast of China twenty-five thousand years ago, men faced the challenge of finding and inhabiting the islands of Oceania, sprinkled across thirty-nine million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. Theirs represents one of the great feats of man’s exploration, dependent absolutely on mastering the sea. Paine shows us the slow progress of this magnificent diaspora, interrupted by the last great Ice Age 100,000 to 9,000 years ago, incredible climactic changes, cataclysmic explosions, and God knows what other dangers.

Readers of The Sea and Civilization can luxuriate in wonderful, comprehensive analyses by Paine of the part water played across a fantastic historical and geographical range. The Egyptians, for
instance, “depended on harnessing the Nile as a highway of internal navigation.” But they also used the Mediterranean and Red Sea for four thousand years as buffers against invasion and as a medium for trade and the means for projecting political and military influence across the Middle East. As an example, a favorite port was Byblos (near modern Beirut) where for two thousand years, Egyptians traded for cedar logs, badly needed in their arid and treeless land. Without ships, no wood. Without wood, no civilization.

Further east and roughly contiguous in pre-historic time, the Sumerians (3200 BCE) and subsequent Mesopotamian civilizations built ocean-going ships made of reed bundles lashed together and made water-resistant with bitumen. They sailed down the Euphrates River,
thence East to the Indian Ocean and on to the Indus River Valley. Or they turned west toward the Mediterranean or north toward Asia Minor. They traded wool, timber, and fish, or sesame oil, garments, and hides, for a crucial mineral: copper. Combined with tin, copper became the durable alloy bronze, so significant that it became the namesake for The Bronze Age, which existed in this part of the world from 3000 BCE to 1000 BCE. Hammurabi’s Code of Law, the first we know about, included many items directly addressed to shipping and the rules for merchants trading goods in Mesopotamia.

A Dark Age engulfed the Bronze Age around 1200 BCE, thanks to the emergence of the mysterious Sea People, who stultified trade. But increased communications resumed with the rise of the Phoenician city-states and, shortly thereafter, around the ninth century BCE, Greek city-states. Longer sea routes and increasingly complex trade networks began to crisscross the Mediterranean. For the next five hundred years, many new ports were established which are still with us today, Byzantium (now Istanbul) and Marseille being two notable
examples. The author covers in some detail the rise and fall of many seafaring civilizations as the Iron Age got underway. This book provides a vivid and comprehensible narrative of the many sea-faring ventures of those days, which resulted in broad movements of, say, slaves from Ionia, horses from Armenia, ivory and ebony from Rhodes, embroidered cloths, coral and rubies from the Negev Desert, and countless other transfers.


A principal purpose of this book is to demonstrate the necessity of using the world’s waters to achieve one’s ends–and the disasters that befell men when winds and weather thwart their desires for conquest. The rise of the Athenian Empire, which depended on its fleets, and the
defeat of the Persians, was assisted by Greek armies, as at Marathon. But it was the ships that carried the day at Salamis (480 BCE) and put Athens on its way to becoming the great sea power of the Eastern Mediterranean in the fifth century BCE. Paine’s mastery of this subject makes for exciting reading.

This is a long book and there is no way the many twists and turns of civilizations learning to cope with the sea can be covered here. It is worth the reader’s time, however, to travel with the author as he explores the development of sea power by the Romans over five centuries. Carthage, the other great Mediterranean force on the sea during the centuries leading up to the Christian Era, provided the standards for ship building and sea warfare which the Romans adopted and eventually used to destroy the Carthaginian civilization. Elephants could not save them. In this era, galleys became the principal war ships and gained significant technological improvements. The largest galleys in the period could hold as many as 4,000 rowers, although smaller configurations proved superior for battle.

The author focuses on the development of trade in the Indian Ocean and then segues into a discussion of the growth of Chinese shipping which supplemented, and then sometimes surpassed, the movement of goods along the Silk Road, such a crucial land route in world trade for so many centuries. Attention is paid to the development of riverine travel across the major rivers of China, including the Yellow and Yangzi, supplemented by ambitious canal building to extend internal travel.

It is very possible that some readers are not going to want to travel the author’s entire route as he covers in detail the influence of the expansion of sea power and trade across all the countries of Asia in sometimes excruciating detail. But one aspect of sea commerce in the Indian Ocean and East and Southern Asia which I found interesting was the way sailors and merchants took advantage of the shift in prevailing winds due to the Monsoons. They traveled east in the summer on the prevailing western winds, dropped off their goods, and sailed back west in the winter as the Monsoon redirected wind in the opposite direction.

The decline of Rome and the advent of the Barbaric Migrations in the fourth and fifth centuries were notable events in the Mediterranean, along with the rise of the Byzantine Empire and, in the seventh century, the emergence of Mohammed and his followers. Paine notes the subsequent decline of sea traffic. Smaller and faster sailing vessels appeared as government backing of large fleets declined. This was when the Italian city states became active traders and
colonizers–Venice, Genoa, Amalfi and Pisa.

Paine’s monumental history ends around the time of the Korean War, so there is a lot of water to cover in the remaining pages. What is slightly astonishing is the variety of experiences different peoples managed as they ventured from the familiar shore to the unknown sea. Technology and different sailing conditions fostered major change in naval warfare, for instance. The use of rams as offensive weapons gave way in the medieval period to such long-distance destructive methods as catapults for hurling stones, javelins, and ceramic pots filled
with quicklime or poisonous snakes and insects. Paine devotes an interesting section to the invention of “Greek Fire,” too. Sailing ships’ cannon, and the big guns of subsequent battleships pay their dues, too.

In rapid order, we encounter the Barbarians crossing the Rhine, Frisians establish extensive trade routes around Northern Europe, and the Franks–the most powerful Germanic tribe–defeating the last Romans and establishing the outlines of modern France, the Low Countries, Switzerland, and southern Germany. You can read about it in Beowulf. The greatest leader, of course, was Charlemagne, who depended on military skills on such rivers as the Elbe, the Weser and the Danube to defeat all the warring tribes in sight. A Medieval environmental Warming Period allowed the Vikings to extend their sailing seasons by several months in the north. They took advantage of it by terrorizing England, France, and the lands further south. The pattern was always the same: control river mouths, attack inland river towns and their hinterlands, and rely on speed at sea and ashore. Of special note was the rapid colonization of Iceland by the Norse men–900 miles from Norway to Reykjavik–starting in 874.

The scope of Paine’s further development of his theme can be seen by the Chapter headings which follow: The Golden Age of Maritime Asia, The Birth of Global Trade, Northern Europe Ascendent, Naval Power in Steam and Steel, and, finally, The Maritime World since the 1950’s.
There is an extensive set of notes, a slightly amazing bibliography, and a detailed index. Whew!

In short, the author has given the interested reader about all he will ever want to know about this subject in a well-written and interesting narrative.

John Doyle owns Crawford Doyle Booksellers with his wife, Judy Crawford.

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