By Mike Gold, A retired entrepreneur living the dream in the Pacific Northwest.
I’ve just completed reading a remarkable book called “Sea Power – the History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans,” by Admiral James Stavridis. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in how our modern world came to look as it is.
The main point in this non-fiction book is that ancient civilizations evolved primarily through voyages taken on the seas. The point being that if one had a small civilization no matter where on land it might have been, it was only through exploration of other lands that any of these societies evolved. Otherwise, other than an accidental “wandering” by some small tribe onto the land of a neighboring tribe, these civilizations would not have advanced.
See, back in early man’s existence on earth, those humans didn’t have horse power, air power or any other mechanical way to journey from place to place other than on the sea. So man was severely limited in ability to travel other than via the sea.
Initially, those journeys were powered by rowing. Then humans discovered two additional ways to go fairly great distances by boat. One was sail power, the second being seasonal wind and current patterns – such as the Monsoons in the Indian Ocean. Certain times of the year, those monsoons would blow a ship in a westerly direction, and those trade winds and storms would reverse themselves in other seasons. Mankind observed these patterns and learned to take advantage of them.
A relatively recent movie, "Castaway," a great film starring Tom Hanks, is about a Federal Express employee who gets marooned on a Pacific Island. He survives for two years all the time trying to figure out how to be rescued. Finally, upon observing the trade winds and their direction during different times of the year, he figures out he can escape via a raft he builds.
That is very similar to what I’ve described above about much more ancient civilizations. As Stavridis outlines in this book, tens of thousands of early mariners died in their early attempts to figure out how to travel by sea.
In fact, the book covers each of the world’s major oceans, The Pacific (the world’s largest body of water and so called “Mother of All Oceans”), the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the Caribbean Ocean, and the Arctic Ocean.
The book is really a great history book. I can now say that throughout my academic career, history was one of my lease desirable courses. I now often think of the Spanish but U.S. educated academic George Santayana. Perhaps his most famous saying is, “Those that don’t study history are condemned to repeat it.”
As you read through this book, Admiral Stavridis outlines many of the ancient conflicts fought primarily via sea voyages – the only way back then humans could cover great distances.
One of the seminal points in the book is that use of the world’s seas creates national power through three key things: One, production (which requires international trade and commerce), shipping (both merchant and naval shipping), and colonies and alliances – across the globe.
It is from these worldwide alliances that allowed the creation of naval bases (and commercial ones as well) from which sea power could emanate.
As an aside to this, having lots of coastline and temperate weather is a very key requirement to accomplish this. The U.S., it turns out, has the second largest amount of coastline in the world behind Canada.
Unlike Canada, almost all of our seacoast is useable all year round. Furthermore, our coastlines are on the Pacific and the Atlantic, the two historically most important and largest oceans.
What I also found very fascinating was the brutality of these civilizations as they evolved. Also how indigenous to early trade was slavery. Going back even B.C., the slave trade was one of the key economic foundations of world trade. Warring ships would often capture the crews of the ships they were fighting and enslave the crew selling them into slavery.
Only by reading this book (or other similar ones) can you get a feeling for how brutal these societies were and the millions of mostly men who died fighting these battles for “ownership” of key ports around the world – to support their military and commercial needs.
Woody Allen made a movie called “Hannah and her Sisters.” In it a character played by Max von Sydow, who plays an older man and his young protégé played by Barbara Hershey, are discussing Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Hershey asked Sydow how could such a thing could happen. Sydow replied, “Given the nature of man, it is remarkable that it doesn’t happen more often.”
I constantly thought of this scene in this movie as I read through all the atrocities described in this book. I heartily recommend it for all.