Book Review – The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World by Lincoln Paine

Single volume histories of the world are always a toss up in regards to coverage due to the vastness of human history. In the introduction of “The Sea and Civilization,” Lincoln Paine writes that he is attempting to address the realm of maritime history that has been neglected in modern history works such as Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” or J.M. Roberts’ “History of the World.” Admittedly, this must be a very difficult task owing to the fact that much of the archaeological evidence is at the bottom of the sea and that humans, by our very nature, are terrestrial animals and relate most easily to what we can physically see. It is easier to picture a caravan of camels or a busy marketplace than it is to imagine a ship laden with cargo moving over the waves. There are no way-stations or signposts on the oceans. By and large, with vast coverage and well-researched details, Paine succeeds in providing a history of the maritime world.

“The Sea and Civilization” offers readers a sweeping view of world history with regards to boats, ships, and the movement of people and goods. The book is probably more accurately subtitled “A history of the maritime world”. Civilizations, both ancient and modern, are discussed. Kings, Queens, sailors, and landlubbers are involved in trade deals that span thousands of miles and cross all manner of terrain. Other reviews describe the book as encyclopedic or comprehensive. For the most part, the book covers world history both chronologically and by regions. For example, in Chapter 2, Paine discusses trade and boats along the Nile River in ancient Egypt. The next chapter covers seafaring peoples of the Bronze Age. A careful reader will surmise that none of these developments in the world are occurring in a vacuum, but rather concurrently. One of the best things about “The Sea and Civilization” is that Paine devotes a portion of each chapter to discuss the technological developments of boats and ships in order to give the reader a better understanding of the similarities and differences that each part of the world had when it came to marine engineering. This is good for historians who are more interested in the technical developments of shipbuilding.

My main criticisms of “The Sea and Civilization” are the scarcity of maps, and the occasional wordiness of the narrative. Given that this is a world history focused on trade and the movement of people, much of the details of the narrative are devoted to seemingly obscure ports or cities in foreign climes, many of which no longer exist or have changed their names over the centuries. Sadly, all of the maps are concentrated at the front of the book forcing the reader to either flip back and forth or have a historical atlas open in front of them. Secondly, this is perhaps more of a personal issue, but the narrative frequently includes a massive amount of names, places, events, and other details which are sometimes difficult to follow due to the way it is written.

Overall, “The Sea and Civilization” is a decently written single-volume world history that gives the detail-oriented reader a stronger conception of the role of the oceans, boats, ships, and trade in our world.

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