The Sea and Civilization
At a time when popular history books seem to be competing for the title of most ludicrously niche subject matter – see Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, etc – it is refreshing to find a book as broad and energetic in scope as Lincoln Paine’s The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World.
This is Paine’s fifth book of maritime history and his most ambitious. Here, Paine wants to change the way we view world history, to uproot the reader from their familiar, terrestrial understanding of global events and instead cast them into the vast theatre of human activity that is the planet’s oceans, seas, rivers and lakes.
It’s an admirable project, especially as Paine goes to great lengths to correct the prevalent Eurocentric bias in maritime history, and to highlight the great feats of navigation and shipbuilding undertaken, particularly by central and south-east Asian peoples, many millennia before Europeans “discovered” these regions in the 15th century.
The downside of such an ambitious project is the frenetic pace it demands. Even the book’s 784 pages don’t provide enough space to give every person, place or event their due, and fascinating characters – such as sisters Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who led a revolt against Chinese rule in Jiaozhi (now part of modern-day Vietnam) in the late AD30s – are often introduced, rise and fall, in the space of a few sentences.
Nor does The Sea and Civilization quite know who its audience is. Is it aimed at the newcomer with a burgeoning interest in maritime history, or at the nautical nerd who can name every ship present at the battle of Trafalgar? The intricate descriptions of vessels will probably be impenetrable to the former, while the latter will likely be frustrated by the book’s manic pace.
Worse, Paine seems to lack the storyteller’s instinct crucial to all good historians. There is no sense of a guiding narrative to the book, other than brute linear time, and many sections feel like nothing more than an avalanche of historical data.
But despite the shortcomings, there are many moments of wonder and surprise to be found in this comprehensive overview of maritime history – even if its greatest achievement might be in sparking interest, rather than in satisfying it. DV
Atlantic, 784pp, $59.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "The Sea and Civilization, Lincoln Paine ". Subscribe here.