Contemporary wars bring mankind's rich maritime history into focus

Sea freight still accounts for the vast majority of world trade. More than 90% of goods are transported by ships.

As the world’s attention turns to the safety of maritime trade routes, it is important to recall that civilisations have transported goods and people across the seas for thousands of years.
Michelle Thompson
As the world’s attention turns to the safety of maritime trade routes, it is important to recall that civilisations have transported goods and people across the seas for thousands of years.

Contemporary wars bring mankind's rich maritime history into focus

You can tell a lot about a place based on the boats and ships that sail to and from it. How large are they? How narrow? What do they carry? What are they doing? From where are they coming, and where are they going next?

From the mega oil tankers and container ships to the smaller cargo ships to the roll-on/roll-off ferries to the merchant ships carrying grain, cattle, or crops, there is no doubt that watery transport still makes the world go round.

While cargo flights have added another option, sea freight still accounts for the vast majority of world trade. More than 90% of goods are transported by ships.

For millennia, the relationship between man and sea was only a working one. Today, man often sets sail for leisure, seeking speed or serenity, vistas and sunsets. Yet the open ocean still frequently provides the best route.

It has been so for hundreds of years. Our ancestors would have used maritime transport to bypass surface obstacles, such as hostile tribes. Sailing is often easier, too — surface transport is much more labour-intensive, for instance.

First fishing forays

No one knows where or when the first boats were used, nor their purpose. We can guess it may have been food-related – sea fishing, perhaps, or searching for food in the lands on the horizon.

Some think maritime transport began in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) for reasons of passenger transport and that it grew out of river transport at the mouths of the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates.

Others point to self-sufficient ancient civilisations elsewhere, including Ancient Egypt and those along the Indus River in South Asia or the Yangtze River in China. Boats likely played a vital role in the commerce between these civilisations.

Our ancestors used maritime transport to bypass hostile tribes. Sailing is often easier, as surface transport is much more labour-intensive.

Ancient Egypt featured boats, including the solar barque, Pharaonic warships, and agricultural crop boats, but these rarely set sail beyond the Nile.

Early examples of boats were rafts made of tree trunks or reeds fastened together with plant fibres used for fishing. A 7,000-year-old sea-going reed boat was found in Kuwait.

Even older boats have been found, dating back 8,200 years, and archaeologists suspect that our forebears – Homo Erectus – began using boats 800,000 years ago.

The next step was to use sails, and we began experimenting with different shapes to catch the wind and change direction. Oars were once a core propulsion component, but rowing is now confined to leisure and exercise.

Austronesians and Phoenicians

Maritime transport has been integral to man's development.

Witness the stunning journeys of the Austronesian people 3,500 years ago, sailing from Taiwan to Madagascar in the west, Easter Island in the south, and New Zealand in the south.

Paraw sailboats from the Philippines. Such outrigger canoes and crab claw sails are the hallmarks of Austronesian maritime culture.

They may also have reached the Americas, yet trade was not their purpose. Rather, it was migration i.e. to disperse and settle in foreign lands. Impressively, they navigated the Indo-Pacific on wooden boats using the stars.

Phoenicians from the east coast of the Mediterranean were known for their seafaring prowess. They dominated commerce and maritime trade and developed a network that lasted almost 1,000 years.

This network linked the civilised hubs of Greece, Egypt, and Mesopotamia and allowed the Phoenicians to establish colonies and trading posts. Carthage, located in modern-day Tunisia, was among the more prominent.

The Phoenicians reconnected trade routes as a mercantile power concentrated in a narrow coastal strip. Still, they were not a major military power, so they fell into the orbit of those that were – namely, the Assyrians and Babylonians.  

Necho II, a Pharaonic king, is thought to have set Phoenician sailors on the mission of circumnavigating Africa, but no evidence suggests they did. Still, the myth alone illustrates their mastery of the high seas.

The Phoenicians dominated commerce and maritime trade, developing a network that lasted almost 1,000 years.

Navigating the Romans

Through its naval dominance of the western and central Mediterranean, the Phoenician city-state of Carthage expanded to become an independent empire, with Carthaginian commander Hannibal crossing the Alps to invade mainland Italy.

At one point, its territory included northwest Africa, southern and eastern Spain, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, and the Balearics. The sea routes it established brought in goods from all over the world.

Eventually, it came under the pressure of a rising power: Rome. After a series of three wars over several decades, with devastating losses on both sides, Rome emerged victorious, leaving Carthage all but destroyed.

Archaeological site of Carthage, Tunisia

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, a Roman commander, even ploughed its soil with salt to deny Carthage any potential recovery.

With its gains, Rome gained trade routes and wealth. With boats bringing goods such as ivory, gold, and slaves, the Mediterranean thus became a Roman lake.

The famous Silk Road between China and Europe brought products overland. At sea, there were several maritime Silk Roads.

Carrying rare and valuable goods, ships would set off from south China, cross the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait down to the Arabian Gulf, then continue overland to Baghdad, Mosul, or Aleppo, or by sea to Egypt and Europe.

Baghdad and Aleppo, two Silk Road hubs, would harbour traders bound for Europe either overland on Byzantine soil or by sea from Tripoli.

At one point, Carthage included north-west Africa, southern and eastern Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, and the Balearics.

An Arabian dhow's secrets

In 1998, fishermen discovered an ancient Arabian dhow nestled in sediment in about 17 metres of water, a mile off the coast of Belitung, an Indonesian island.

The dhow, 18 metres in length and dating from around 830AD, carried a cargo of gold and ceramics from the Tang Dynasty that later sold for $32m. It likely transported products such as myrrh, scents, and leather.

The boat itself was incredibly well preserved, thanks to the sediment. Its preservation informs us about the construction methods of the time. For instance, its planks were sewn together using a thin rope made from coconut fibres.

Of equal interest has been its location. It completed its outward journey from China to Oman and was on its way back when it sank. What is puzzling, however, is that Belitung is almost 400 miles off its route.

While some questions remain, the discovery helps us understand the social backgrounds of those served in this sea trade, which continued without much interruption until the 18th century.

The age of discovery

Europe experienced major change in the 18th century, with social, political, economic, and military disruption.

This led Europe's rulers to press their merchants and sailors to chart new maritime routes in the quest for advantage. The period became known as the Age of Discovery.

Sir Francis Drake's West Indian Voyage

The Ottoman Empire's Rumelia region in southeast Europe managed to occupy a large chunk of the continent.

Headed by Hayreddin Barbarossa and his brother, Oruç Reis, the Ottoman Navy hindered the movement of conventional cargo across the Mediterranean.

Before its annihilation by the Ottomans, the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and the Levant also imposed heavy taxes on such movements.

Meanwhile in Persia, conditions were chaotic, owing to war. The meant that the Europeans became convinced that alternatives to the long-used overland and maritime routes had to be found.

The maritime route between west India and Hadhramaut (the southern end of Arabia, comprising Yemen and Oman) is one of the oldest routes. Indian iron was brought to be forged into the renowned Yemeni and Hadhrami swords.

Major changes in Europe in the 18th century saw merchants and sailors chart new maritime routes in the quest for advantage.

Fineries from the east

When Europe was at the start of its Renaissance, a new class of merchants, industrialists, and craftsmen developed. They sought power and social status. They wanted to emulate the aristocrats in terms of clothing, lifestyle, food, and belongings.

Most of these fineries were supplied from the east via unstable and expensive routes. Christopher Columbus had wanted to reach India from the West to avoid these issues.

Seven years after Columbus's voyage, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama set off for India through the Cape of Good Hope. He was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic with the Indian Ocean.

Another Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, led the 1519 Spanish expedition to the East Indies across the Pacific to open up a new trade route.

Getty Images
Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan led the first circumnavigation of the world.

During a mammoth three-year effort to circumnavigate the world, he was killed in a battle with a local tribe in the Philippines. His assistant, Juan Sebastián Elcano, succeeded him.

The mission continued.

Finally, in 1522, after sailing 43,400 miles (69,900km), Elcano made it back to Seville with just two of the five ships they left with and only around 15% of the original crew. The rest had died en route.

These explorers aimed to lay the foundations of new maritime routes for international trade since most European countries were trading nations and needed to both import and export goods.

The sea is a route taken not just by people but by faiths, cultures, languages, and politics. It is also a route to the takeover of resources. Indeed, the Age of Discovery is not seen as golden by some.

It is seen as a period in which the world's more powerful nations sought to colonise others for the prosperity and advancement of the West.

Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama set off for India through the Cape of Good Hope. He was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic with the Indian Ocean.

Era of colonisation

Food lovers love their spices, and those spices, by and large, came from the Indian subcontinent. Westerners with money demanded they be brought by sea. Later, they would also demand cocoa, potatoes, and corn from Central America.

These crops revolutionised eating with their ability to meet the nutritional needs of a growing population, providing Europeans with a cheap source of calories and overtaking the previous staple crops from India and China, such as fruit.

The trade station in the south of India created by Vasco da Gama was soon joined by several others established by the French, English, Dutch, and Danish, who all set up and protected exclusive economic zones.

Meanwhile, the Mughal Empire was falling. Vicious wars between the Maratha and Durrani Empires to the north foiled the emergence of a strong Indian state, which let traders scale up their influence.

Struggling states sought support. The Europeans offered this to the warring kings in return for trade revenues and political gains. This led to several colonial wars that culminated in India being brought under the complete control of the British crown.

There were similar situations across Africa and South America. New marine routes came with scientific achievements, tragedy, and, in some cases, unspeakable genocide.

Getty Images
A ship crossing the Panama Canal in the first decade of the last century

Japan self-isolated during the 17th century to ward off the Spanish and Portuguese with their Christianity. This isolation ended in 1845 at the hands of US Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry.

It sparked a new era of trade, political, and cultural conflicts in Japan, only for it to adopt some Western attitudes under Emperor Meiji.

An eternal urge

Man's willingness to board a series of dilapidated wooden planks tied together with coconut fibre and set sail for hundreds of miles through rough seas with no specific destination seems odd and eccentric today.

Yet that is how we humans strung the world together, made links, and brought new things back, having exchanged them for things we had or could make.

Sailing is a calculated risk, but one that our ancestors' ancestors took and one that we are always likely to take in the future.

It is no coincidence that many of the names used for space exploration and observation can be traced back to the seas and their histories.

Walk through any state-of-the-art mega port today, and you will see various commodities and goods being handled, shifted, loaded, unloaded, inspected, filled, and emptied.

It is symbolic of how the human journey is still in full swing, that change is the only immutable law of this world, and that — despite all the on-land competition — the lure of the seas and oceans will continue to appeal to mankind.

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