The New Maine Times Book Review: The Sea and Civilization

Posted Thursday, June 5, 2014 in Culture

The New Maine Times Book Review: The Sea and Civilization

 

THE SEA & CIVILIZATION:  A MARITIME HISTORY OF THE WORLD
By Lincoln Paine.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.
744 pages, $40.00.
ISBN 978-1-4000-4409-2.
 
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
 
In 1860 American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote:  “The sea, washing the equator and the poles, offers its perilous aid and the power and empire that follow it.  ‘Beware of me,’ it says, ‘but if you can hold me, I am the key to all civilizations.”
 
And as Maine maritime historian Lincoln Paine smartly shows, the world’s seas and oceans are not only the keys to all the lands, they are the keys to all civilizations.
 
THE SEA & CIVILIZATION is Paine’s fifth non-fiction book, preceded most notably by his DOWN EAST:  A MARITIME HISTORY OF MAINE and SHIPS OF DISCOVERY AND EXPLORATION.  Paine lives in Portland, Maine, and is noted for his comprehensive explanations of maritime history.  Here he presents an excellent view of the “consciousness of the sea and the growing realization that maritime history offers an invaluable perspective on the history of the world and ourselves.”  As an added bonus, this book just won the prestigious 2014 Maine Literary Award for Non-fiction, presented by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.
 
Paine’s effort here is to graphically show how world history, from antiquity to today, has been shaped by the world’s seas and oceans and by societies driven by maritime commerce, exploration, and naval activity.  This is a global history told within a maritime theme as he expertly reveals the direct interrelationships  between maritime geography, human migration, empire creation and expansion, as well as coastal and trans-oceanic trade, and the development of navigation aids and ship design through the centuries.
 
With colorful examples, Paine relates how ancient civilizations quickly realized the potential for sea and ocean travel as seafaring opened commercial markets for imports and exports, and allowed for the creation of wealth and the expansion of power.  He describes the Bronze Age of Seafaring (Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans), the Silk Road of the Seas (China, India), and why the Mediterranean Sea was viewed bas the center of the world.
 
He tells how the Phoenicians were the first civilization to establish a sea-based colonial empire, how they were the first to sail out of the Mediterranean, and how the Greeks expanded their reach into the Black Sea.
 
Much of Paine’s narrative focuses on maritime trade, but he also explores the uses of naval forces to protect commerce and advance civilizations’ territoriality and power, controlling sea lines of communication, and creating the early concepts of sea denial and sea control.  The Portuguese were the first to claim the seas as their sole domain in 1488, and although that political tactic has been unsuccessfully attempted countless times, nations even today still try to control the seas to the exclusion of others.
 
He does on to tell of the development of the clipper ships and steamships, the establishment of prescribed shipping lanes to control maritime traffic, safety at sea, naval warfare (ironclads, rifled guns, radios), how container ships were created, how “flags of convenience” now govern maritime shipping companies, how the greatest migration of humans was made possible by maritime shipping, and how massive engineering projects were built to facilitate maritime commerce, naval forces, and empire protection (the Suez and Panama Canals).
 
Best of all, Paine convincingly argues that humans are creative and resourceful, responsible through the ages for the remarkable positive uses of the seas and oceans.  He properly summarizes his maritime history of the world with a quote from Byzantine philosopher  George Pachymeres (1242-1310):
 
 “Sailing is a noble thing, useful beyond all others to mankind.  It exports what is superfluous, it provides what is lacking, it makes the impossible possible, it joins together men from different lands, and makes every inhospitable island part of the mainland, it brings fresh knowledge to those who sail, it refines manners, it brings concord and civilization to men, it consolidates their nature by bringing together all that is most human in them.”
 
So, it seems that Emerson, Pachymeres, and Paine are right.   

 

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