Simon Winchester, Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 495 pages, maps and a few black and white photos.
In August, I began the final leg of my round-the-world trip, crossing the North Atlantic on Holland America’s Eurodam. I boarded the ship with two books; this was one of them and a wonderful companion. I can’t think of a better place to read about the Atlantic Ocean than upon its waters. Winchester has compiled stories from the sea, its history as well as scientific knowledge, to provide a biography of the ocean’s past and even a look into its future. He explores the ocean’s beginning, as the American continents split from the Eurasian and African plates. This process is still going ongoing and can be witnessed firsthand in Iceland, one of our stops on the North Atlantic tour. There, in a brisk 15 minute walk that gained 100 feet or so in elevation, I walked from what is geologically Europe to what is geologically North America. The movement of the earth plates means that at some time in the future, if the earth lasts that long, the Atlantic as we know it will no longer exist.
Although there is a significant amount of science in Winchester’s book, it is woven into the stories about the ocean. It is Winchester’s belief that the Atlantic helped defined Western Civilization. In the beginning when such a civilization was concentrated along the Mediterranean Sea (a much calmer body of water), the Atlantic represented the western boundary. Moving out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic was an act of bravery. But slowly, with coastal groups within the Mediterranean exploring the coastlines of Europe and Africa, with the Norse sailing the North Atlantic at the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, and a few hundred years later with the Spanish followed by other Europeans exploring the Americas, Western Civilization expanded its boundaries. Interestingly, the democratic parliament a millennium ago was at that site in Iceland that I walked between continental plates. In time, the idea of democratic governments would flourish on both sides of the ocean. Of course, along the way, wars ensued, many of which were fought on the Atlantic. Winchester spends a lot of time talking about naval warfare, from wooden ships to German U-boats. Trade across the Atlantic brought and exchange of exchange of knowledge and resources and allowed some to profit richly. Some of the trade was for the good of society and some of the profits were made from exploitation, slavery and even piracy. Later, the Atlantic became the barrier to cross, first with telegraph wires, then by radio and by airplane. Winchester weaves into his book such stories in a way that it reads like a good biography.
Toward the end of the book, Winchester speculates on the future of the Ocean. Climate change is going to have a greater impact on the Atlantic than on other oceans because there is more ice in the Atlantic than in the Pacific or Indian. He also discusses the decline in the fishery industry as the ocean that once produced fish in such abundance was exploited to the point that fisheries like the Grand Banks produce only a fraction of what they once did. As the seafood industry had to find new sources of fish, Winchester humorously recalls their marketing process and how the “Patagonian toothfish” was remarketed as the “Chilean sea bass.” Which would you want to eat?
This is a wonderful read for anyone who has “smelled the sea” and felt the longing. By the way, as Winchester notes, sailors only smell the sea near the coastline (429). This was the third of Winchester’s books that I read this summer. The first was Outposts, which was researched and written in the 1980s as he explored the remnant of the British Empire around the world. The second book, which I read in Indonesia, was Krakotoa about the volcanic eruption in Indonesia in the late 19th century. I doubt I get back to writing reviews of those books, but I also recommend them. The other book that I took on the ship with me was John Mactone-Graham, The Only Way to Cross, which is a history of the great ocean liners on the North Atlantic. A review will be forthcoming.