“The Sea & Civilization” impresses as a comprehensive maritime history

The Sea and Civilization
One of the responsibilities we face here at Chine bLog is reviewing books related to traditional boats. We get no less than one request every… how long have we been doing this?… seven years. Even with this taxing set of demands, though, we agreed to accept the publisher Knopf‘s offer of a complimentary copy of a new book called “The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine. The Knopf representative was willing to work with our strict editorial policy of not writing about any subject until we got around to it, and sure enough, Mr. Paine’s work arrived within a few days.

We will confess, from the outset, being a bit unnerved by anything with “History of the World” in the title (and Mel Brooks not in the credits). Two connotations come to mind:

  1. A gigantic tome of numbing dense-ness that is two parts endurance for every one part education, or
  2. A coverage of the world where “the world” means the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and post-Columbus North America.

Happily “The Sea & Civilization” is neither. Mr. Paine packs a broad, well-organized overview into 600 readable, engaging pages (with some illustrations and a set of maps at the beginning.

Mr. Paine allayed our fears regarding the scope of the book right off the bat: chapter 1, “Taking to the Water” begins with its first section, “Oceana,” describing population of the Pacific and the technology that supported it in a fair manner that is consistent with scholarly work on the subject. Boom – you have our attention. He then moves, in his first chapter, to discuss early waterborne trade in South America and the Caribbean before giving due coverage to the traditional boats of North America, both the Arctic skin boats and the birch bark ones of the Northeast. Credit justly given. Next comes ancient Egypt, getting more play for its maritime exploits than we have seen before. From there, Mr. Paine is thankfully careful to balance Western advances with the developments in South, Southeast, and East Asia. The result is a fully credible world history.

Mr. Paine maintains a few interesting themes across all the eras and regions. Trade is of greatest importance to him, and he shows the many cases in which trade relationships led to cultural bridges. Military affairs in the maritime realm gets good attention, though the discussion is more about limitations of naval warfare than about huge changes in tides of battle, at least until he gets to the 20th century. We were pleased to see Mr. Paine try to weave boatbuilding styles and technologies into the work as another theme. It seems, though, that there is not much known about a great deal of the craft he covers, at least not to the level Mr. Paine was inclined to cite. We wished he’d engaged in a little more speculation of possibilities in some cases.

The only weakness of Mr. Paine’s book, in our view, is that he names so many place names around the world in such quick succession that it can be dizzyingly hard to follow. More detailed maps for each chapter might have helped; in general this is a reasonable cost of covering such a large swath of history in one book. We recommend the book highly, but know this is a drawback. Many thanks to Knopf for including Chine bLog in its outreach strategy.

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