A wide-ranging account of the history of seafaring that incorporates economic, political, and sociological commentary.
Traversing the sea was once a formidable undertaking only done out of necessity. Now, ocean liners function as floating hotels. Author Layton (The New Arcadia, 2015, etc.) considers this quantum leap not only as a matter of technological and economic transformation, but also as a shift in our relationship with the sea. For a variety of reasons, there was an explosion of sea travel between the 15th and 18th centuries, a trend that led to three key technological innovations that changed the face of maritime travel: the introduction of iron as a principal building material, the design of more efficient instruments of propulsion, and superior navigation. However, there were sociological reasons as well, particularly for the introduction of seafaring as a form of holiday—a burgeoning appetite for cultural enrichment, leisure provided by the Industrial Revolution, and air conditioning. Layton’s analysis is both eclectic and a touch scattered. She assesses everything from dining on cruise ships to the threats of scurvy and seasickness. The author’s cultural meanderings are both impressively astute and a bit cheeky—she follows a discussion of onboard romance with a note about the Royal Navy’s 18th-century prohibition of sodomy at sea. Sometimes the scope here is too broad; it isn’t necessary to provide a general disquisition on the nature of travel itself. Also, the prose, while often sharp, can be overwrought. Lamenting the fate of ships lost at sea, she writes: “Swept on a wave of anthropomorphism, few things sadden me more than imagining the great creaking groans of agony emitted by the carcasses of those enormous beasts of burden as they are swallowed by the sea.” Overall, this is simply a delight to read, though, well-researched and refreshingly quirky as well as thoughtful.
An eccentric but enthralling look at the human conquest of the sea.