In The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, maritime historian Paine eschews a traditional land-centric approach to studying human cultures by examining how water-based trade and travel affected the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history.
Your latest work spans centuries while crisscrossing the globe via the ocean. How do you begin to approach such a monumental work as this?
The genesis for this maritime history of the world was my first book, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia, and its two spin-offs. They are skewed toward societies that wrote about ships. Once past the artifact of the ship, though, you have to throw yourself into a wide range of temporally and geographically specific histories—documents, secondary sources, and, for many cultures, as much literature as possible.
The book covers a vast array of subjects—how do you avoid being overwhelmed by the material?
The problem with doing world history is that while what you learn grows arithmetically, what you realize you don’t know grows geometrically. But the magic of writing history of any kind is to arrange what you do know in a way that tells an interesting, coherent, and fundamentally honest story.
What is your favorite area of maritime history?
My interest in maritime history began with ships, but now I’m not sure whether I am a maritime historian or a world historian. I will always be interested in the maritime orientation of human society, but I can’t say that I have a favorite area. Two subjects in which I’ve become very interested are non-Anglophone maritime literature and rivers.
What do you hope the reader takes away from this work?
As I write at the outset, I want to change the way we see the world. I initially had two sorts of readers in mind. The first were people with an interest in maritime history who, like me, were brought up in a Eurocentric maritime universe that begins with the battle of Salamis, skips to Columbus, Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, clipper ships ’round Cape Horn, pirates, ocean liners, and the naval campaigns of WWII. The second group included people interested in history but whose readings have essentially ignored maritime affairs. I want both types to understand that maritime endeavors are essential to most of our cultural groupings. I also think that everyone needs some grasp of world history—an appreciation of the simmering cultural stew from which we’ve all been ladled into the present.