Books in brief: The Sea and Civilization by Lincoln Paine

January 23, 2014
The Sea and Civilization

by Lincoln Paine (Atlantic, £30)

Before you embark on this book I’d advise considering what civilization means to you. Is it a shared way of being (the word derives from civitas—Latin for citizen)? Or is it something deeper; a compulsion that came before the word-idea, a yearning for more; a drive to experience what we do not know, to reach out beyond our immediate horizons? Lincoln Paine’s expansive survey of humanity’s relationship with the sea from 10,000 BC onwards bills itself as an alternative history of the world; it is more evidently a vigorously crafted compendium of the complex, technical ways we achieve our restless, expansionist ambitions.

A true expert, Paine offers up treats: Buddhist ships with Indian sails decorate cave walls in China’s Gansu province; Islamic rulers follow the law of counterbalance and up their maritime game after being raided by Danish Vikings in 844; the shift from shell-built to frame-built boats encourages a more hierarchical structure to boat-building, and therefore to trade, in late antiquity. Paine scorns “the mutable fiction of political borders” and drenches his pages with diverse, immersive detail; he rages against those who deny that tributaries and oceans are critical to the human story. Enjoy his obsessive passion and indulge the (off-putting) summaries at the beginning of each chapter and—inevitably in such an expansive survey—the odd sea-spray of inaccuracy.

Ninety per cent of global trade today is seaborne; in the UK 93 per cent of all supermarket food comes to us from across the waters. Since pre-history we have sung epic tales of the sea; no reason, yet, to stop.