Treading the (Ship)boards: Lincoln Paine’s The Sea & Civilization

Paine, Lincoln. The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

While it’s never approached the level of my fascination with antiquity or the medieval period, I have always had an interest in naval history, especially in the age of sail. Some of this might stem from the centrality of such history to my chosen specialization, but it also comes from such childhood pursuits as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, associated model games, and even catching reruns of Horatio Hornblower. In fact, before I was accepted to Oxford, I very nearly studied under noted British naval historian Andrew Lambert for grad school. When I heard of Lincoln Paine’s ambitious maritime history of the world, then, I couldn’t help but check it out. 

Calling The Sea & Civilization ambitious is nearly an understatement. In over 600 pages, Paine covers all of humanity’s interactions with and history on water (fresh and salt) across more than six millennia, from prehistory to the 20th century. Such an effort must necessarily maintain a more general, birds-eye view of history, focusing more on the development and evolution of systems more than the details of particular events, and even then picking and choosing between more- and less-important currents (no pun intended). Paine admits this himself in his introduction, noting that it has often been remarked that writing a satisfactory maritime history of the world may be impossible. His humility in the attempt, however, pays dividends, not least in his ability to synthesize all the different possible foci of a maritime history into a work that does not ignore any thematic or geographical facet of its scope. I could have easily seen myself writing a review along the lines of “This is called a maritime history, but is really a [naval/commercial/technical] history,’ but Paine deftly discusses all these elements, painting a holistic picture of the development of maritime technology (including shipbuilding and navigation), trade, politics, and naval tactics across all eras. While some geographical regions like East Asia may receive less early discussion than the ancient Mediterranean, I suspect this is due to a dearth of sources, as Paine certainly does them justice in later chapters.

For all its strengths, however, Paine is prescient when he admits he may not have written a model history. While The Sea & Civilization succeeds as a macro-history, it falters in its details–or rather, the details Paine does and does not choose to discuss. It is a tall order to fit so much history into even 600 pages, and two strategies would seem to suggest themselves: focus only on maritime history, relying on readers to already be familiar with all other relevant events; and restrain oneself to only general trends and patterns, only using specific wars, battles, or voyages as examples of larger topics. Paine admirably stays true to the former while only spottily employing the latter, a choice that makes one wonder at his internal logic. Why include such minutiae as Benedict Arnold’s 1776 lake fleet, de Grasse’s maneuvers at Yorktown, and the accuracy of American gunners at Manila while not discussing Nelson’s visionary tactics at Trafalgar or the role of impressment in causing the War of 1812 (a conflict never even mentioned by Paine, alongside the equally-ignored Barbary War). Once you decide to discuss some details in their own right in a history like this, all details become fair game, and unless a clear framework resolves itself, readers are left pondering the arbitrary nature of what seems the author’s sense of whimsy.

This history Paine does cover, however, never fails to fascinate, and I would strongly recommend The Sea & Civilization to any interested in the ways humanity has interacted with Earth’s aquatic highways throughout the ages–interactions which are all too often lacking from many other histories of such scope. Any work of history that leaves its reader with a greater understanding of the foundational structures of the modern world is one worth reading, and The Sea & Civilization certainly fills this role admirably.

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