Magazine article The Spectator

Main Currents of History

Magazine article The Spectator

Main Currents of History

Article excerpt

The Sea and Civilization by Lincoln Paine

Atlantic Books, £30, pp. 744,

ISBN 9781400044092

Spectator Bookshop, £25

The clue is in the title: this is not about the blue-grey-green wet stuff that covers 70 per cent of our planet's surface. Rather, it's about how the sea and our use of it have influenced us economically, culturally, religiously and politically:

Much of human history has been shaped by people's access, or lack of it, to navigable water . . . . Life on the water - whether for commerce, warfare, exploration or migration - has been a driving force in human history.

Admitting that he wants to 'change the way you see the world', Lincoln Paine also claims that 'The past century has witnessed a sea change in how we approach maritime history.'

He adduces a deal of evidence from times ancient and modern to show how the sea has at once protected and exposed, enabled and frustrated, attracted and repelled us. Nowadays, with more sea cruises annually than before the jet age and with the proliferation of leisure sailing, we have made a pleasure out of what was once a peril, yet 90 per cent of the world's freight is still sea-borne.

For some civilisations the sea was formative. Five thousand years ago the Nile and the Mediterranean brought to the early Egyptians their vision of the afterlife, a conception of the state, political stability, a degree of domestic tranquillity, and economic and cultural intercourse with distant peoples. It also enabled them to perform useful tricks, such as moving 330-ton stone obelisks hundreds of miles. (They would bring the stone to the water's edge on rollers, dig a channel beneath it to let the water in, load a barge with smaller stones, float it in beneath the obelisk, then unload the smaller stones until the barge had risen sufficiently in the water to bear the obelisk. ) The sea could also work against you, of course. Not only by drowning, flooding or isolating, but in exposing you to danger even while protecting you. We often think of our own sceptred isle as having been saved by the sea from Spanish, French and German invasion, as indeed it was. But between the fifthcentury departure of the Romans and 1066 it was our long undefended coastline with its many estuaries that facilitated surprise attack and easy penetration by waves of Saxon and Viking invaders. Surprise would have been harder if they'd had to tramp across the area of the North Sea rather than materialise out of the dawn mists.

But the main drift of this learned and deeply researched book is that many human societies evolved as they did largely because of sea-contact with other societies.

The birth, expansion and longevity of pharaonic Egypt depended on harnessing the Nile . . . while the seas were a filter through which its people absorbed foreign goods and influences, a buffer against invasion and a thoroughfare for projecting political and military power.

Perhaps most significant for us and for the deve lopment of the western world was the seaborne diffusion of the Greek alphabet - 'the last word in lowvolume, high-value cargo and the most transformative agent of change in the ancient Greek world'. Along with the Phoenician original on which it was modelled, examples of the earliest Greek writing have been found not only in Greece but along the trade routes. …

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