Lincoln Paine launches this major new maritime history with a bold mission statement: ‘I want to change the way you see the world.’ His thesis is that the contribution of seafaring to world history has largely vanished from our field of vision, as the ships themselves have. He chides other big-picture historians, such as Jared Diamond and J M Roberts, for having missed a vital dimension. A hundred years ago it would have been otherwise: merchant fleets and navies were at the heart of many national identities. Now the stacked containers that carry 90 per cent of the world’s goods are transported in ghost ships manned by international skeleton crews and flying flags of convenience. The seafaring life has been industrialised to the point where it is now invisible to the vast majority of people; the cosmopolitan bustle of ports has been replaced by the automation of warehouses. In the process we have lost sight of a huge tranche of human history. To correct this imbalance Paine does not offer a traditional account of ships and ship design – though these do have a place in his book. Instead his approach is multidisciplinary. He focuses on what ships carried and facilitated – trade, ideas, peoples, religions, languages, legal systems – and how these contributed to the development of societies and civilisations. If there is one overarching theme, it is that of convergence: ships are the engines of globalisation.
In twenty neatly parcelled chapters he takes us from the first known images of ships – Norwegian rock carvings of hunters in boats chasing swimming reindeer, dating from around 4200 BC – to the trucking magnate Malcom McLean, whose invention of containerisation in the 1950s revolutionised the maritime world and