The Conquest of the Ocean: The Illustrated History of Seafaring

Sam Willis has mixed feelings about a volume that comes up short in its aim to tell the global history of seafaring

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Reviewed by: Sam Willis
Author: Brian Lavery
Publisher: Dorling Kindersley
Price (RRP): £19.99

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Writing a history of seafaring, with no geographical or chronological boundaries, is some challenge. Perhaps it is impossible. Perhaps the best that you can offer is an interpretation of particular themes, such as exploration, migration, war, trade, fishing, yachting, navigation, smuggling, piracy… but even then, the list just goes on.

This book, which does not purport to be an illustrated history of seafaring, but no less than the illustrated history of seafaring, inevitably falls short. What it does, however, is provide the most general introduction to the most obvious – but by no means the most interesting – maritime themes. Do you want to read how a sextant works, who invented the first submarines, how life-saving at sea came about, how clipper ships worked, or an introduction to the history of circumnavigation? If so, this is for you.

Lavery ticks all of the obvious boxes. There is a brief section on Trafalgar for the British, John Paul Jones for the Americans, Zheng He for the Chinese, and Arab seafaring. The Vikings, Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans and Polynesians all get a mention, but there is a heavy bias towards seafaring post-1450. In fact, five-sixths of the book is dedicated to the years following this date – when we know that the first voyages were undertaken around 10,000 BC. This means that almost all of the work concentrates on – in chronological terms – only about 5 per cent of the history of human seafaring. Obviously, and as this book demonstrates, a great deal happened between 1450 and 2013, but from a world-history perspective, that bias is disorientating.

One would also expect an account of global seafaring to touch on the most important themes of global history. Consider, for instance, revolutions. Few would dispute that the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions were key moments in the development of the modern world, and that all affected – and were affected by – the use of the sea. How many of these have a dedicated section in this book? None. There is, however – perhaps to appease a British, traditional audience of a certain age – a chapter on the Falklands War, a brief struggle over barren rocks that affected a tiny handful of people.

Nonetheless, Lavery, an experienced scholar and seafarer, carries the book’s theme – that “the oceans were explored and exploited, but never tamed” – well, and readers are certainly left with a bewildering sense of the scope of human interaction with the sea.

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Sam Willis is the author of In the Hour of Victory: The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson (Atlantic Books, 2013)