Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

Andrew Lambert finds that a charming ramble through the Atlantic’s past fails to live up to its promise

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Reviewed by: Andrew Lambert
Author: Simon Winchester
Publisher: HarperPress
Price (RRP): £30

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The Atlantic has been the epicentre of world trade and power since Columbus made his first landfall in the New World, giving the ocean its limits.

As the 21st century turns its focus to the east, with an American president raised not in New England or New York, but Hawaii and Indonesia, and the dominant economic axis running from Beijing through Tokyo to Los Angeles, the Atlantic as ocean space, connecting economic resources, has assumed a central role in western history.

How far this reflects an unconscious concession that the high days of the 20th century, when there were ‘Battles of the Atlantic’ and NATO stood between western civilisation and annihilation, are behind us is uncertain. The idea of a biography, by geologist/journalist/author Simon Winchester, certainly implies that the great days of the Atlantic are over.

In keeping with the biographical metaphor, the book is divided into Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, from the first cracks that rent the super-continent of Pangea, to the doom of the Atlantic calmly predicted to occur some 170 millions years hence, when Pangea will reassemble and squeeze out the last drop of the ocean.

The result is a chatty, discursive travelogue, pitted with flinty observations about people and places, accounts of long past travels, at least half of which centre on the author.

Almost untroubled by references, sources or any other opinions than his own, Winchester offers up a jumbled collection of potted histories and location reports, which work perfectly well for two or three pages, before fading off into another opportunity for random word play and recollection.

Unfortunately, close examination reveals errors of fact, raising doubts about much more, and nothing can be checked.

Navies rampage across the ocean without sense or system, the War of 1812 appears as a brief parody of old fashioned American accounts, the First World War is given more space, only for the main event to occur in the North Sea. In neither case is there any point to the vignette – they do not add anything to our understanding of the ocean.

The biography of the title is a purely geological assessment of birth, growth, dotage and ultimate doom. The human history of the Atlantic is missing.

This would not matter if the book had been sold as one man’s reflections on a life crisscrossing the Atlantic margins. Instead the sales pitch is truly heroic, setting up a comparison that few historians would dare to essay.

One can only hope that the author was unaware that the publicity department would claim that he would do for the Atlantic what “Fernand Braudel did for the Mediterranean”. Quite how this canter across space and time relates to Braudel’s The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II, a work distinguished by originality, scholarly rigour and the complete absence of a narrative voice, it is hard to understand. Where Braudel explained and analysed, Winchester recounts.

When he forgets about the big picture, and the historical past, Winchester gets into his stride, writing with insight and feeling about the exotic, unusual and downright bizarre aspects of Atlantic life. The account of Jamestown, capital of Napoleon’s final prison, the tiny, isolated South Atlantic island of St Helena is delightfully evocative, an incitement to curiosity and an inspiration for other travellers.

A place out of time and detached from the world of instant access and easy movement, St Helena assumes an idyllic quality of Regency buildings, ceremonial dress and fresh tuna caught daily.

Full of charming stories and unusual destinations, this extended journalistic travelogue will not be of much service to historians, because it is not going anywhere, merely “frothed with blowing foam”, the spindrift familiar to all who stand by the windy ocean and hear the sounds of sea. 

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Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King’s College London