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  • The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine
  • Bruce A. Elleman
The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. By lincoln paine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. pp. xxxv + 744. $25.80 (hardcover).

A more fitting subtitle for this book could be “The Silent Service,” a name that is normally applied to the U.S. Navy’s submarine fleet, since Lincoln Paine’s 600-page (not including notes and bibliography) opus “The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World,” proves that this epithet can now equally refer to almost [End Page 306] all sea-faring activities. Unbeknownst to ninety-nine percent of the world, a relatively insignificant number of mariners—far less than one percent—is now in charge of over ninety percent of world trade, mainly conducted by sea.

Written over a period of fifteen years and citing an enormous range of source materials, this book is truly monumental in scope. It is difficult to describe with any accuracy, so perhaps it is better to say what it is not: it is not about pirates, including no mention of everybody’s favorite pirate Blackbeard; it is not about shipwrecks, with barely a word about the Titanic; it is not even about famous sea battles, although there is a passing reference to Admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, and there are of course many references to warfare at sea. Although it discusses ships and shipbuilding, it is in no way a comprehensive history of ships. Neither is it a complete guide to maritime trade. So, what is it? What is left is nothing less than the story of human beings’ interrelationship with the sea, in all its many facets and dimensions over not just centuries but millennia. A maritime specialist cannot help but respect Paine’s wide-ranging bibliographic knowledge and his depth of understanding, while a non-naval reader will be left in awe at how such an important aspect of human existence could have eluded attention and thoughtful discussion for so long.

Beginning with prehistoric times, this book’s twenty chapters examine Egypt, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and Rome, before heading to the east to examine the Indian Ocean and China, and then turning back to Europe and the Age of Exploration. Chapters on global trade, the industrial revolution, and imperialism lead to a final chapter examining sea power since the end of World War II. Paine’s goal is to have the reader focus on the “blues” that make up seventy percent of a world map, and to celebrate the “technological and social adaptation” that has allowed mankind to tame the seas, perhaps the most important driving force “in human history” (p. 8).

We tend to think of globalization as only being a twentieth century phenomenon. In fact, Romans wore Chinese silks, just as Europeans and Asians alike eagerly purchased spices from the Spice Islands, tobacco from the New World, and opium from India. Paine points to an early example of globalization with respect to the Sam Poh Kong Temple in Melaka dedicated to the sixteenth century Chinese Admiral Zheng He: “It is a mark of the truly adaptive nature of Southeast Asian culture that a Chinese Muslim admiral should be commemorated in a Buddhist shrine in a city founded by a Hindu-Buddhist prince whose successors embraced Islam and that quickly became a center of Islamic teaching, and was subsequently ruled by Portuguese Catholics followed [End Page 307] in turn by Dutch and English Protestants, and that is now the fourth largest city in a predominantly Muslim nation” (p. 371).

Even as international shipping has become more important, its footprint has become smaller. Rather than busy urban ports, most loading and unloading of ships is now done far away from towns. Because of automation in the merchant marines, Paine tells us that “the shipping industry as a whole has largely faded from view.” Average crew sizes have plummeted as ship capacity has skyrocketed: one older ship with a crew of thirty has now been replaced by a new ship with two hundred times the capacity and yet only ten extra crewmembers. What...


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pp. 306-309
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