Putting the "Sea" in Civilization

This post is about a book I finished reading recently. Compared to many of the book reviews I've written, this one took longer to read but the review is maybe a bit shorter.

The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine is an ambitious overview of the history of human activity at sea. The introduction explains the paradigm of the book:

[A] shift in emphasis from land to water makes many trends and patterns of world history stand out in ways they simply cannot otherwise. ...

maritime historians looking past nationalist paradigms have embraced the validity of treating seas and ocean basins as coherent units of study. ...

This book is less about ships per se than about the things 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.

Each chapter looks at a part of the ocean during a historical era. The Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, North Sea and Baltic, and East Asia (South China Sea, etc.) are featured multiple times each, while later chapters consider the Atlantic and Pacific or the globe as a whole as distances sailed increased.

The author seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of ships and marine history. For example, he frequently lists dimensions (e.g. length, beam, and draft in metres) or tonnage when discussing historic ships. The level of detail made it a long read, although certainly interesting. I think it would actually work well to read it as a reference book—to consult a single chapter (i.e. for an ocean and historical era) at a time, or to search through the book for sections on a particular country or other topic/theme of interest (i.e. follow a single thread rather than read the whole thing).

The book is really too comprehensive to easily summarize, so instead I've decided to pick around a dozen interesting things that I learned to share.

  • One of the earliest chapters discussed Polynesian navigation and exploration techniques. They knew how to detect islands from beyond visual range by patterns in the swell, birds and wildlife, reflection of light, etc. They also made sure they would be able to find their way home by exploring downwind when the winds changed with the reliance that they would eventually return to the prevailing direction to assist with the homeward journey. 'Their approach to celestial navigation requires memorizing "the direction of every known island from every other one"' in terms of stars that rise/set along that bearing; they used reference "etak" islands to know how those bearings would change as the journey progressed (if I understand correctly). (Links: 1, 2, 3, 4).

  • Many people are familiar with war elephants used by Hannibal, but in Sea & Civilization, I read about the Ptolemies importing elephants to Egypt over 300 nautical miles by ship from the 260s BCE. Apparently shipwrecks were not unknown on this trade.

  • Reading about the Indian Ocean (the Monsoon sea) was quite interesting, as I was far less aware of its history than that of the Mediterranean. Due to the Monsoon (with Winter prevailing winds from northeast and summer from south or southwest), "Sailors did not hesitate to sail across two thousand miles of open ocean between Aden and southern India or Sri Lanka, but they did so only when the winds were in their favor." Southern India was a perennial meeting point between the east and west, and the Tamils that live there have a long history of trade. After reading this book I also have a better understanding of Indian geography, such as the Konkan, Malabar, and Coromandel coasts (in counterclockwise order).

  • Between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean is the Red Sea, which is risky to transit due to its treacherous shallow reefs and lack of spots to replenish food or fresh water along its shores. Still, there was trade between these seas more than I think most people realize. The port of Alexandria in Egypt was important as a transshipment hub.

Mediterranean traders became directly involved in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the fourth century BCE and their contacts intensified following Rome's annexation of Egypt three hundred years later.

  • Sea & Civilization has much to say about the evolution of international maritime law and finance. Notable sources include the Byzantine Rhodian Sea Laws, the Islamic qirad and Italian commenda, and Dutch scholar Hugo Grotius.

  • In some of the chapters about the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, I read things that I had included on my timelines of cities in the Middle East. I also learned about some things that I didn't include, such as the Zanj slave rebellion in Baghdad in the 870s and setbacks for the Byzantines in the 600s (invasions of the Visigoths in Spain and the Sassanians in the Levant).

  • A work on marine history obviously has to include the Vikings, and this one has a lot of interesting information about them. The author points out that Scandinavians are "not an undifferentiated mass" and that in their seafaring generally Danes went west and south (England and France), the Norse went west (Iceland, Greenland, Ireland, Scotland), and the Swedes went east (Russia). Dublin was a key Viking (Norse) city, as were Novgorod and Kiev, which lay on a important North-South trade route to the Byzantines.

  • Around the same time period (i.e. the ninth century ±) as the peak of Viking activity, seafaring was also prominent in Indonesia. Srivijaya and East Java received traffic from the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia and China; the pattern of the monsoon winds and the Strait of Malacca made them logical hubs for trade in spices* and other commodities.

Srivijaya's prosperity depended on its ability to generate the surplus food, mostly rice, to sustain large communities, especially during the interlude between the monsoons.


but the nature of the monsoon meant that buyers and sellers of spices rarely encountered one another. The winter monsoon that brought western traders to East Java to purchase spices and exotic woods sent the purveyors of those goods homeward to the east.

*cloves and nutmeg come from very specific islands (Ternate & Tidore and Banda islands, respectively) in eastern Indonesia—they were not transplanted elsewhere until the sixteenth century

  • Chinese naval history gets a few chapters of coverage. Quanzhou was a very significant port at one time; the Hokkien people of Fujian province were well-represented among merchant communities in South East Asia. Zheng He was a famous Chinese explorer. At other times in Chinese history, however, overseas trade was tightly restricted.

  • The Spanish Manila galleon was a long range trade route between the Philippines and Mexico. Due to the pattern of winds in the Pacific, the crossing from West to East ran at 39°N.

  • Outside of western Europe, some interesting figures in naval history included Admiral Yi of Korea and Tsar Peter the Great. The latter was so dedicated to developing Russia's navy that he worked incognito at a shipyard in the Netherlands to learn the state-of-the-art techniques.

  • Sea & Civilization mentions many historically notable maps and charts, such as Piri Reis' and the Atlantic Neptune.

  • The pace of development in naval technology over the past 300 years has been remarkable. In the 18th and 19th century, elegant sailboats like schooners were developed as people applied "theoretically sound refinements to hull design and route selection" (compared to the 16th century when warships still used oars). This was followed by successful transatlantic steamships by the end of the 1830s—the first two crossings arrived in New York City a day apart in 1838. Steamships reigned for a century (they were still 80 percent of world fleet in 1935) but sailing ships remained competitive for many applications as owners could save money on fuel and crews. Many advances in routes, navigation, and safety during this period benefitted ships of all kinds. In the past 60 years containerization (among other factors) has made shipping so efficient that it is more significant but less visible than in most previous eras. The author calls maritime trade the "midwife and mirror" of globalization.

This book has lots of pictures of primary sources (paintings and carvings of historical ships) and a section of maps at the start. I think it could use more diagrams (e.g. of types of rigging, or ship construction—or at least a glossary of these things) and more detailed/higher resolution maps.