A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks by David Gibbins - review by Peter Moore

Peter Moore

Mysteries of the Deep

A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 304pp £25

History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks is a book of great range. It is possible, however, to identify its geographical heart. This is the Lizard peninsula at the western tip of Cornwall. Here, granite reefs lie in the coastal shallows, treacherous currents surge and capricious winds blow. It was off the Lizard in November 1721 that the Royal Anne Galley was ‘split to pieces on the Stag Rocks’ with the loss of all but three of the 210 aboard. It was there, during the most terrifying phase of the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941, that Richard Ayres, the second mate of the torpedoed SS Gairsoppa, scrambled ashore after a nightmarish fortnight at sea. And it was snorkelling in the shallows off the Lizard, in the summer of 2018, that the author and underwater archaeologist David Gibbins found himself gazing down in astonishment at a seabed ‘sparkling with gold’. Beneath him, he realised with a pang of delight, was the Mullion Pin Wreck.

The Lizard is a place Gibbins returns to again and again in this book, and it is worth picturing him at work there, kitted up in his diving gear, drifting on a current, his eyes darting across an archaeological site. This is very much the perspective of A History of the World in Twelve Shipwrecks, a book that takes readers beneath the waterline so they can experience the joy of discovery for themselves. The excitement of the pursuit is a sensation that has propelled Gibbins through a rich and adventurous career, during which he has worked on a series of shipwrecks. In his prologue, he is eager to stress that this book is a personal one. It is ‘a history’ rather than ‘the history’. The stories of the Royal Anne Galley, SS Gairsoppa and the Santo Cristo di Castello (or the Mullion Pin Wreck), along with the nine others that comprise Gibbins’s dozen, are ones with which he has personal connections.

This approach, of combining case studies to make a grand historical narrative, is not new. Several other books have used similar structural devices, among them Jerry Brotton’s cartographic history of the world, which was published with a near-identical title a decade ago. The form, however, is one that suits Gibbins’s

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