Book review: The Sea & Civilization, by Lincoln Paine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 5:28pm

The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World
by Lincoln Paine
3.5 stars

Jim Landers

Here's a story told with assurance and a refreshing perspective: "I want to change the way you see the world," Lincoln Paine begins, "by focusing your attention on the blues that shade 70 per cent of the image before you, and letting the earth tones fade."

The Mediterranean becomes the setting for war and empire over four millennia. Athens destroys the Persian fleet at Salamis. Julius Caesar is captured by pirates. Rome relies on merchant ships loaded with Egyptian grain. The Red Sea leads traders to exotic goods such as myrrh and pepper. As nutmeg, clove and mace reach civilisations of the East and West, the Spice Islands of Indonesia make the Indian Ocean the Silk Road of the Seas.

Saltwater voyages offer pathways to riches and glory, but bring back terror as well. Vikings sack ancient London. Genoese sailors return from China with the Black Death, collapsing Europe's population by more than 25 million. Genoa's Christopher Columbus discovers the riches of a new hemisphere's lands for Spain, but brings in his wake diseases that devastate the New World.

Religions travelled the waves as well, as persecuted minorities sought freedom and evangelists sought converts. Buddhism and Islam met in Southeast Asia. Protestants of many churches met in America.

It's a bracing journey. But I wish Paine had set sail with less of the ancient blueprint and more of the modern action. He is 56 pages in before sailors shift from rivers to seas, and his retelling of the naval battles of the second world war takes a mere 10 pages.

What goes before is certainly important in understanding why, for example, Japan became ambitious for a Pacific empire. Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin, outnumbered but fighting with toughly armoured "turtle ships", dealt Japan two decisive defeats in 1592 and 1598. The Japanese withdrew from marine ambitions for 250 years.

Once the US Navy had pried open the doors, however, Japan went back to sea with a vengeance. Japan became one of the world's premier shipbuilders by the late 19th century, and its navy seized Taiwan and Korea plus key ports in northeast China.

Japan next dealt Russia two devastating naval defeats in 1904 and 1905. American president Theodore Roosevelt, who negotiated a peace between the two powers, was keen to take the measure of the Japanese as rivals in the Pacific. Paine suggests that the 1898 Spanish-American war was waged in part to establish a firmer American Pacific presence to counter the rise of Japan.

By the time the two powers go to war, however, Paine seems more intent on finishing his book than dwelling on an epochal struggle for the Pacific.