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Book Review


Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Pp. xxxv + 744. $25.80 (hardcover).


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     This is a book of sweeping grandeur, fine writing, and extraordinary research. Paine's goal is no less than "to change the way [we] see the world." Twenty chapters, 744 pages, and more than 1500 source notes later, he has, to a fair degree, succeeded. Arranged chronologically and then by geography, Paine takes the reader on a grand tour of maritime history. The voyage begins in the Mediterranean world with ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Romans. From the age of Mare Nostrum western historians would most likely forge ahead to the medieval world and trade as a prelude to Atlantic exploration. Instead Paine heads east to the world of the monsoon, East Asian Archipelagoes and China. He notes contemporary links to the west, but in truth they are few and weak. It is difficult to see how in a maritime world they impacted each other to any great degree. Nonetheless, these chapters are among the most interesting since they draw the reader to a topic rarely dealt with by Western oriented maritime historians. With so many unfamiliar names and places these chapters can be a bit like sailing to windward (better maps would have been useful), but well worth the effort. Paine returns to the East a few chapters later at a moment when the West awakens to the lucrative promise of trade to the East via ocean routes. The floating forts of the Portuguese and Dutch overpowered native peoples and began a European hegemony that would endure for centuries.

     As Paine moves forward in time the story becomes more familiar – New World exploration, rise of empires, and interminable conflicts among European powers. The chapter, "Annihilation of Space and Time," however, draws special attention. No change in the entire history of seafaring was more "staggering" than the application of steam to ocean transport. Steam opened continents and connected them, "it gave rise to an era of canal digging and other improvements to inland navigation that transformed landscapes, created opportunities for industrial and economic development in continental interiors, facilitated the movement of goods and people across the land, and thereby changed the tempo of life for people worldwide" (508). Since the days of Columbus sailing time across the Atlantic had not changed until 1838 when Sirius and Great Western steamed into New York harbor eighteen and fifteen days respectively. While American clippers and Down Easters would perpetuate the romance of sail, steam would triumph. At first costly and inefficient engines hampered growth, but the adoption of the compound engine, coupled with the use of iron steel for hull construction, revolutionized the maritime world. Steam made possible the greatest mass migration of people in history. Tens of millions of people braved the ocean voyage from the old world to the new and to Australia. In previous generations when few people ventured across oceans little attention was paid to their condition. The transport of millions, however, was a public spectacle that drew attention, particularly to the horrid conditions aboard these vessels. For the first time, "safety at sea" became a concern.

     By the late nineteenth century "Ships" had become "a manifestation of a country's industrial and engineering prowess"(532). More than half of the world's tonnage flew the flag of Great Britain, but as Paine notes she faced increasing competition from Germany. He also suggests that the United States posed a challenge, an assertion this reviewer finds doubtful. Unfortunately, the Germany versus Great Britain contest for civilian traffic spilled over to a naval building contest which helped to set the stage for World War I.

Paine moves quickly, and appropriately, through "Naval Power in Steam and Steel," and concludes with a chapter that is all too brief, "The Maritime World Since the 1950s." In less than twenty pages this chapter provides us with a brilliant summary of the major changes and challenges facing the modern maritime world. At least three of Paine's observations deserve careful consideration:

that "the world maritime industry increasingly operates without reference to specific national interests" (582)

"the unintended consequences of industrial fishing" (594)

The "stunning" ineffectiveness of the United States Navy 'in exercising the sort of force historically associated with navies" (597).

William M. Fowler Jr. is Distinguished Professor of History at Northeastern University. He is the author of a number of books dealing with American history including: Under Two Flags: The Navy in the Civil War; Silas Talbot Captain of the Old Ironsides; co author America and The Sea; William Ellery: A Rhode Island Politico and Lord of Admiralty; Rebels Under Sail: The Navy in the Revolution; Jack Tars and Commodores: The American Navy, 1783-1815; Samuel Adams: Radical Puritan; Empires at War: The French and Indian War and The Struggle for North America, 1754-1763.He can be reached at


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