Maritime History Research Paper

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Maritime history is the study of the role mariners play in creating and maintaining commercial and cultural relationships between different parts of the world—in peace and in war. Commerce at sea and naval warfare are central to the development, structure, and expansion of local, regional, and international relationships.

Mariners have played a formative and often determining role in shaping the world as we know it, not just among people dependent daily on the sea for their livelihood, but for those who live deep in continental interiors well away from the tang of salt air. The study of maritime history is crucial to a proper understanding of the rise and fall of civilizations, human migration, and the resulting spread of language, religion, technology, religions and political systems, and flora and fauna across the world. It is equally important for understanding interactions over relatively short distances, both in enclosed seas like the Mediterranean and in continental interiors accessible by rivers and lakes.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, about 90 percent of world trade travels by water. Carrying goods by ship is in most instances more energy efficient than transporting goods overland. The energy required to move a ton of freight one kilometer by ship is about one-fifth that required to move it by train and as little as one-tenth that required to move it by truck. Ground transport has been an attractive alternative for shippers only since the development of railways, the internal combustion engine, and hardtop roads in the past two centuries. Until well into the twentieth century it could take as long for a ship’s cargo to cross a pier as it did to cross the ocean.

The Start of Maritime Endeavor

Because of the diverse environments in which maritime endeavor takes place, the erratic diffusion of technology, and differences in approach to commerce, few generalizations about the course of maritime history are possible. People have been going to sea for tens of thousands of years: Australia was settled by sea from Indonesia fifty millennia ago, there are stone carvings of Scandinavian vessels from ten thousand years ago, and Scotland’s Outer Hebrides were settled about 4000 BCE. Broadly speaking, before 1500 BCE, there was considerable regional interaction across Eurasia, but several maritime cultures evolved in relative isolation.

In terms of oceanic seafaring, the most impressive achievement occurred in Oceania, where between 1500 BCE and 1500 CE people settled virtually all the habitable islands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia from the Solomon Islands to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and New Zealand to Hawaii. To do this, they developed a diverse repertoire of vessels unlike anything found in Eurasia or elsewhere. Although they developed virtually no navigational instruments or written instructions, they navigated by a combination of celestial observation, reading winds and swells, and observing the habits of fish, sea mammals, and birds, a body of information transmitted by oral tradition.

Sails were apparently unknown in the Americas before 1500—except perhaps to mariners who traded between Ecuador and the Pacific coast of Mexico. But traders paddled dugouts and canoes on sea routes from New York to Newfoundland and inland to the Great Lakes and Mississippi. Less well documented are the achievements of the Arawak and Carib of the Caribbean, and the coastal people of the Pacific Northwest, southern Alaska, and the Aleutians. Farther north, Arctic and sub-Arctic mariners traveled, fished, and whaled from skin boats along the northern coasts of Eurasia and North America.

The Ancient World

The first civilizations whose use of ships and boats can be said to have contributed to or reflected the advanced states of their technology and political organization are found from the eastern Mediterranean to the western Indian Ocean in the third millennium BCE. On the Nile, the mastery of shipbuilding and navigation was crucial to the political, economic, and social unification of Egypt. The earliest depiction of a sail is on a late-fourth-millennium vase found in Upper Egypt. By the reign of Sneferu (c. 2600 BCE), the Egyptians were sailing regularly to the Levant for cedar wood. They also traded on the Red Sea to Punt (Somalia, perhaps) for myrrh, gold, electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), incense, and cosmetics. Egyptian records also include the first accounts of fighting between ships, in twelfth- and thirteenth-century BCE accounts of the invasion of the Sea People. The Egyptians also used the Nile to transport thousand-ton blocks of stone hundreds of kilometers from their quarries to the building sites of the pyramids.

Comparable activities advanced domestic and foreign commerce, as well as state formation and expansion, among Egypt’s Bronze Age (third to second millennia BCE) contemporaries, notably Minoan Crete (and later Mycenaean Greece) and the Levantine port cities of Ugarit, Byblos, and Tyre. Mesopotamians used boats on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the network of canals they built for flood control, irrigation, and transportation, and in the third millennium BCE there was long-distance trade under sail between the Persian Gulf and the Indus Valley civilizations. Shipping laws in the Code of Hammurabi anticipate later Mediterranean law and custom, and the third-millennium Epic of Gilgamesh includes the archetypal stories of the ark and flood, and of the sea-wandering hero. The former are best known from the later Hebrew Bible, while Homer’s Odysseus (early first millennium BCE) is the best-known model for the latter. Neither Gilgamesh nor Odysseus can be identified with specific historical figures, but the geography of the stories is grounded in the experience of the authors’ respective contemporaries.

The first examples of maritime expansion on a scale that allowed for sustained two-way transmissions of culture, as distinct from one-way migrations or low-volume trade, come from the Mediterranean world of the early first millennium BCE. In the ninth century BCE, the Phoenicians established colonies at Carthage, in the western Mediterranean, and on the Atlantic coasts of the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco, and the Greeks began to colonize the Black Sea and northern Mediterranean. The Persian invasions of Greece in the early 400s BCE were defeated in part by the Athenian victory at the naval battle of Salamis, which helped foster the concept of a dichotomy between maritime powers and land-based powers, although such distinctions are rarely clear-cut.

Maritime matters assumed ever greater importance in the following centuries, and the Pharos (lighthouse) at Alexandria—the city that Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) founded and which remains a major port 2,300 years later—and the Colossus marking the entrance to Rhodes harbor were among the wonders of the ancient world. During the Hellenistic period, Alexander’s successors embarked on the world’s first naval arms race, a major source of friction being the control of eastern Mediterranean timber supplies, a competition for naval resources not unlike that which made Baltic forests a focus of attention in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries CE, or Persian Gulf oil in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Rome wrested control of the western Mediterranean from the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE. Although Roman authors disdained the sea, the empire’s survival depended on secure shipping lanes. Pompey the Great eradicated Mediterranean piracy in the first century BCE, Octavian’s victory at Actium was the defining battle of the Civil War, Rome fed on grain imported from Sicily, Spain, and Egypt, and the empire’s northern borders held only so long as the Romans controlled navigation on the Rhine and Danube rivers and the English Channel. When Germanic and Slavic tribes reached the Mediterranean in the fifth century CE, the different fortunes of the Roman West and Byzantine East were due partly to the fact that the Byzantines had an effective navy.

A coherent picture of maritime activities in Asian waters between India and China emerges only around 1000 BCE, and does not come into sharp relief for another five centuries. There are glimpses of Indian maritime life in Hindu writings like the Rig Veda and the Upanishads (late second millennium BCE) and Buddhist scriptures, as well as decrees from the reign of India’s Asoka (third century BCE). Alexander had renewed the Mediterranean world’s interest in the Indian Ocean, and the most detailed accounts of trade are from Greek and Roman geographies— Ptolemy described the world as far east as the Malay Peninsula—and merchants’ handbooks from the second century BCE to the second century CE. Despite western participation in Asian sea trade, indigenous traders were of far greater consequence. In addition to their traffic in material goods, maritime merchants carried Buddhism and Hinduism from India to Southeast Asia. The importance of Indian merchants in mainland Southeast Asia is illustrated in two foundation stories for the kingdom of Funan, a productive rice-growing region that dominated east–west trade from Oc Eo, a port on the Gulf of Thailand near the Mekong River.

As was true in Egypt and Mesopotamia, Chinese maritime endeavor began on the rivers that they tamed by building canals for irrigation and transportation. Although the Chinese traded with Korea and Japan from an early date, they were more attracted to the southern trade, which began with the absorption of the southern Yue people in the fourth century BCE, and with their first forays against Vietnam, some of which were carried out by sea. By the time Funan declined in the fifth century CE, Chinese monks and traders were regularly sailing through Southeast Asia as far as Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and other lands within the Buddhist world.

The Medieval Period

The rise of Islam in the seventh century led to a reorientation of Mediterranean trade, signaled especially by the Muslim capture of Alexandria and the rerouting of Egypt’s grain trade from Byzantium to Jidda, Mecca’s port on the Red Sea. The Muslim caliphs relied on indigenous maritime communities in the eastern Mediterranean to man their fleets. Despite several naval assaults, the Muslims did not take Byzantium; but they did capture a large portion of the east–west trade in a Mediterranean world divided between a Christian north and Muslim south. The balance of power began to shift again around the year 1000, when Italian merchants penetrated the Mediterranean and Black Sea trading networks of the Byzantine Empire. The Venetians were well placed to capitalize on the Crusades at the end of the century. Although the First Crusade reached the Levant overland, the coastal Crusader states required reinforcement by sea, and Venetian, Genoese, Pisan, and other merchants secured favorable privileges for the flourishing Asian trades in exchange for their services.

One reason for the decline of Roman rule in the British Isles in the fourth and fifth centuries had been pressure from Germanic raiders from northwest Europe. The maritime expansion of northern peoples accelerated under the Vikings, whose rapid and far-flung expansion was facilitated by the adoption of the sail, which reached the Baltic in about the seventh century. The Vikings raided the British Isles and the fringe of Europe as far as Muslim Spain. They crossed the North Atlantic to Iceland (in the wake of Irish monks), Greenland, and Newfoundland. The rivers of eastern Europe carried them from the modern Baltic states, Poland, and Russia to the Caspian and Black Seas. Between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, many Vikings served in the Byzantine emperor’s elite Varangian Guard. The most celebrated of these was Harald Hardradi, who in 1066, as king of Norway, invaded England with a fleet of three hundred ships. He was defeated by the Anglo-Danish king Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York. Two weeks later, Harold Godwinson was killed at Hastings in battle with the army of William (the Conqueror), Duke of Normandy. A descendant of the first Viking raider/ settlers of northern France, William had crossed the English Channel with some nine hundred ships to claim the English throne.

In many respects, William’s victory marks the end of the Viking Age. Over the following century, the Baltic and North Sea trades passed to Germanic merchants who sailed under a loose confederation known as the Hanseatic League and specialized in bulky commodities such as grain, timber, fish, and wool, carried in capacious ships known as cogs. The prosperity of northern Europe would depend on such trade for centuries to come.

Of greater moment in this period was the Islamic expansion, via Arab and Persian sea traders, down the coast of East Africa as far as Mozambique and eastward to China. During the nearly seven centuries spanned by the Tang and Song dynasties (618–1279), China’s overseas trade flourished. The expatriate Arab, Persian, Armenian, Jewish, Christian, Malay, and Japanese traders who thronged the ports of Guangzhou, Quanzhou, and Yangzhou numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Periodic bouts of violent xenophobia, in which tens of thousands of foreigners were killed, compelled these foreigners to withdraw temporarily to northern Vietnam.

Increased traffic between the China seas and the Indian Ocean affected the politics of Southeast Asia. By the seventh century, ships had abandoned the Southeast Asian coastal route to sail directly across the South China Sea, and the Srivijayan states straddling the Strait of Malacca dominated the route between the Far East and the Indian Ocean. East–west trade also enriched southern India and the Maldive Islands. In the eleventh century, the expansionist Chola kingdom of southern India invaded Srivijaya, 2,400 kilometers east across the Bay of Bengal. The Cholas could not capitalize on their victory at such a distance, but the emerging state of East Java was able to supersede its weakened neighbor. In their ascendancy, the Javanese inaugurated the first large-scale exploitation of the Spice Islands (Melaku) in eastern Indonesia. Thanks to the prosperity at either end of maritime Asia, cloves, nutmeg, and mace became staples of trade from Song China to Fatimid Egypt and the Mediterranean.

The Early Modern Period

Merchant states jockeying for control of Mediterranean and European trade routes spread a common commercial culture across Christian Europe. Their success depended on the outcome of this period’s two major struggles: the Christian advance against Muslim Spain, and the Muslim expulsion of Crusaders from the Levant in 1291. While the latter forced Venetian, Genoese, and other Christian merchants to seek their fortunes elsewhere, the loosening of Muslim control in the Strait of Gibraltar literally opened a new outlet for their commercial aspirations. The start of direct sea trade between the Mediterranean and Northern Europe in the 1270s was a catalyst for economic growth in northwest Europe, which gradually came to rival the Mediterranean in commercial prosperity.

As a result of increased maritime commerce between northern Europe and the Mediterranean, shipbuilding underwent several crucial changes that resulted in the development of the first generation of full-rigged ships in the fifteenth century. These large, strongly built carracks, or naos, were built around a skeletal framework, rigged with a combination of square sails (set perpendicular to the centerline of the hull) and fore-and-aft lateen sails, and carried centerline rudders instead of side-mounted steering oars. In addition to having increased carrying capacity and operational endurance, these carracks could mount heavy ships’ guns, the use of which altered the nature of commerce and naval warfare.

Important though developments in the European and Mediterranean world were in facilitating Europe’s overseas expansion, the lure of Asia’s wealth was no less significant. Indian merchants from Gujarat (northwest India) and modern Bangladesh had long composed the major foreign trading community in Southeast Asia. When these states were converted to Islam in the 1200s, the religion and its associated cultural norms—including language and law—spread easily through the networks of trade to the east. By the end of the fifteenth century, Islam was firmly established in maritime Southeast Asia—the first western monotheistic religion to take root east of India.

At the start of China’s Yuan dynasty, Khubilai Khan launched four overseas invasions: of Japan (1274 and 1281), Vietnam (1283), and East Java (1291). None was successful, but the expedition against Java helped pave the way for the emergence there of the Majapahit Empire that dominated the trade of Island Southeast Asia for two centuries. Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming dynasty exercised more immediate influence on the region. During this periods, seven Chinese fleets under the Muslim eunuch Zheng He passed through the region en route to Indian Ocean ports from Ceylon to East Africa, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. With crews numbering in the tens of thousands, these fleets suppressed piracy, introduced coinage as a medium of exchange in Southeast Asia, and bolstered the importance of the Muslim communities there. Although Chinese overseas commerce was officially banned in the mid-1400s, the twin movements of Muslim and Chinese merchants through Southeast Asia were the two most significant factors behind the emerging prosperity that attracted European interest at the end of the fifteenth century.

Europe’s conquest of the Atlantic began with the start of direct maritime trade between the Mediterranean and northern Europe in the thirteenth century. Within two hundred years, Europeans had settled Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary and Cape Verde Islands. Motivated by a combination of ideology and profit characteristic of much subsequent European expansion, in the mid-1400s Portugal’s Prince Henry (“the Navigator”) promoted the exploration of the coast of West Africa, a source of gold, slaves, and cheap pepper. These efforts led to the search for a sea route to the Indies, which culminated in the epochal voyages of Christopher Columbus’s transatlantic crossing (1492), Vasco da Gama’s opening of a sea route between Europe and the Indian Ocean via southern Africa (1497–1499), Ferdinand Magellan’s and Juan Sebastian del Cano’s east–west circumnavigation of the globe (1519–1521), and Andres de Urdaneta’s discovery of a west–east route across the Pacific (1565). The age of Columbus and his contemporaries (including shipwrights, bankers, cartographers, and gun-founders) is a defining point in world history. But the achievements of the age were the result of collective and cumulative experience, not of individual inspiration. Moreover, progress was hard won; mortality rates for sailors were high and there were many failures, notably the search for the Northwest and Northeast Passages to the Orient.

The Birth of Global Trade

Approaches to maritime trade differed according to a variety of factors. When the Spanish reached the Americas, they encountered no preexisting maritime commercial system, which helps account for the explosive if haphazard way their American Empire grew. In Asia, the Portuguese sailed into a mature commercial network the keys to which they learned early on. Although the Portuguese crown monopolized the spice trade and issued passes for indigenous traders, the Portuguese never dominated all regional trades and many found it more lucrative to participate in the so-called country trades within Asia rather than on the long-distance routes between Asia, Africa, Portugal, and Brazil. There were comparable differences of approach to trade between the Dutch and English in the seventeenth century. No sooner had the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius articulated a philosophy of free trade in Mare Liberum, to counter the Portuguese monopoly, than he helped justify Dutch monopolies in Asia directed specifically against the English, who fell back on trade in high-volume, low-value Indian goods. Both the Dutch and English East India companies would lay the groundwork for their respective governments’ nineteenth-century colonial policies.

The movement of people on a scale sufficient to create social transformation through the transmission of language, religion, and material culture, as well as crops and flocks, accelerated after 1500. The most important vectors for cultural change were the mass movement of African slaves (between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries), European transatlantic and Australian emigrants (through the twentieth century), and Chinese and Indian coolie laborers transported to Africa and Latin America (nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

In purely commercial terms, intraregional trades remained more important than long-distance ones. Chinese shipping carried the bulk of Asian trade until the nineteenth century, while the maritime integration of northern and southern Europe that began only two centuries before Columbus continued vigorously throughout this period. The bulk of Dutch wealth derived not from the Indies, but from European trades and fisheries. Europeans also dominated the Atlantic world, a rapidly evolving commercial and cultural space bounded by Europe, West Africa, and the Americas, where their influence was indelible.

Starting in the eighteenth century, Europeans undertook a wave of exploratory voyages animated by a spirit of scientific inquiry, though their objectives remained practical: safe navigation, new markets, and the desire to make allies or conquests to forestall the advance of rivals. In the 1760s, a French expedition under Louis-Antoine de Bougainville included ethnographers, zoologists, and botanists, an approach emulated by England’s James Cook and his successors. Britain and France sustained active programs of exploration in the Pacific that continued through the Napoleonic Wars, after which the Russians and Americans were active in the business of maritime exploration. Russian efforts were ancillary to the country’s eastward expansion across Siberia and Alaska, while the Americans were motivated by rivalry with the British in the Pacific Northwest and Pacific whaling grounds. Efforts to find the Northwest and Northeast Passages also resumed in the nineteenth century; the latter was transited in 1878–1879, the former in 1903–1906. The coastal exploration of Antarctica began around the turn of the twentieth century. At the same time, prompted by the need to lay submarine cables and to study the health and potential of commercial fisheries, and later by the need for submarine mining and environmental monitoring and atmospheric research, scientists turned to the exploration of the oceans themselves.

The Steam Age

The advent of commercially viable steam navigation— signaled by the launch of Robert Fulton’s North River Steam Boat in 1807—followed by the development of iron and steel shipbuilding, transformed the world. It would take thirty years for steam to be adapted to ocean shipping, but in the meantime steam vessels capable of stemming powerful river currents did as much to open continents as they would to connect them.

The development of the steamship coincided with the Pax Britannica, which was guaranteed by Britain’s overwhelming maritime superiority. The Royal Navy was functionally equal to that of the next two largest navies combined, and by 1900 Britain’s merchant fleet accounted for more than half the world’s shipping. The rapid growth of industrial capitalism in Europe and North America helped ensure the colonial aspirations of nations with long histories of overseas commerce like France and the Netherlands, and gave rise to new maritime powers such as the United States, Germany, Japan, and to a lesser extent Russia. The need for coaling stations contributed to the burst of European colonialism at the end of the nineteenth century. The cost of fuel (a new element in shipping costs) led to the construction of the Suez and Panama Canals, among others, and dramatic redirections of ocean commerce. Almost overnight, age-old harbors astride sailing ship routes became backwaters while others such as Singapore, on more direct routes favored by steamers, became major trading hubs.

Maritime rivalry was among the factors that led to the outbreak of World War I, and at the start of the twentieth century citizens in maritime countries took a keen interest in both their navies and their merchant fleets, especially North Atlantic passenger ships. The United States merchant marine emerged from World War I as a major maritime power, second only to Britain. Thanks to an aggressive shipbuilding program in World War II, the U.S. merchant marine and navy were the world’s largest by 1946.

Since 1950, the world’s merchant fleet has grown enormously, nearly threefold in the numbers of ships and more than fivefold in total tonnage. At the same time, industry consolidation and huge gains in efficiency due to containerization and computerization since 1960 have reduced the numbers of people employed in maritime industries and forced port facilities away from traditional urban centers such as London and New York. This transition has gone all but unnoticed in the West because in the last century European and American ship operators began transferring their ships to “flags of convenience”—foreign registries with more lax labor, safety, and environmental standards. In Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and China, however, merchant shipping and shipbuilding is an integral part of the national economy, a fact that suggests an imminent reorientation in the balance of world power.


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