A sprawling, readable history of the world from the sailor’s point of view—and not just on the oceans of the world, but also its lakes and rivers.
Maine-based maritime historian Paine (Down East: A Maritime History of Maine, 2000, etc.) takes a broad view of his subject, beginning in deepest antiquity: “It is impossible to know who first set themselves adrift in saltwater or fresh and for what reason, but once launched our ancestors never looked back.” Indeed, the Americas might have been first peopled by migrants traveling not via a land bridge but by boat, while the shipbuilding industry as such is at least 4,000 years old, represented by a site on the Strait of Hormuz at which ship hulls were found made of reeds, mats and animal skins “coated with a bitumen amalgam.” Many of the great historical maritime episodes figure in Paine’s pages, from Salamis to the Columbian crossings—including the fourth, after which, to Columbus’ shame, he was stripped of titles and land, “bitter that licenses were now being issued to others to sail to Hispaniola.” The author does a fine job of educing a-ha moments from his material, as when he notes the importance of river and sea travel in America’s westward expansion and accounts for the lopsided British victory at Trafalgar by noting that the Royal Navy “had cultivated a psychological advantage based on a belief that the point of battle was to attack.” Fittingly, recurrent themes include the sea as a medium for spreading not just trade, but also ideology, as with the Muslim conquest of much of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and subsequent spread of Islam. With so large and diffuse a book, Paine skips over a few things and heavily condenses others; his account of the rise of containerization, which has had so profound an effect on international trade, merits far more than the few pages allowed for it.
A lucid, well-written survey that covers a lot of ground—well, of fathoms.