The cave they first occupied, and the marks they left, are extant. They had never seen the sea, heard it or heard of it. Amongst many passages of fine writing is Winchester’s description of these people, “trekking down the Rift ... after long centuries ... man did reach the terminal cliffs and he did find the sea. He would have been astonished to reach what no doubt seemed to be the edge of his known world, at the sudden sight of a yawning gap between what he knew and what he knew nothing about ... he saw far below him a boiling and seemingly endless expanse of water, thrashing and thundering and roaring an endless assault against the rocks that marked the margin of his habitat. Yet, he didn’t run yelping back to the safety of the savannah.” No, he went on to explore.
The book is a far-reaching exploration. It wears its scholarship lightly. We embark on it and are carried along by its current as surely as if we set ourselves adrift on the Gulf Stream. Its encompass seems as broad as its subject, as full of currents and undercurrents. The voyage is fascinating, with new information at every tack.
Winchester begins with the sea pouring into the newly-opened divide between the land masses that are later to become Europe, Africa and the Americas. He chronicles the start-ups of civilisations, the emergence of the first town (Jericho) and the first tentative interfaces between man and salt water. “It was a brave man who ate the first oyster ...” as Swift said.
Many thousand years later we have pushed off from the land and paddle in dugout logs on the relatively tranquil surface of the Red Sea and then the Mediterranean. However, millennia pass before we risk the waters of the western ocean.
The Minoans do not venture beyond the Pillars of Hercules; it is the Phoenicians who finally dare to sail “around the corner” into the Atlantic, northwards, in search of Spanish tin (essential to bronze smelting) and south to the Isle of Mogador, off the Atlantic coast of Morocco, in quest of the Murex shell, the source of the “royal” purple dye worth four times its weight in gold.
From earliest times, our ancestors were seized with an instinct – indeed, an urge – well expressed in the words of the seafarer, Ulysses, in Tennyson’s poem of that name: “to follow knowledge like a sinking star beyond the utmost bound of human thought”.
While hoary Roman legionnaires were so scared of crossing the waters of the English Channel to besiege Britain that they staged a revolt, the Irish were already “rowing in”, with Brendan and his crew of monks, out of Dingle in their cowhide boat, voyaging to the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland and, finally, west – perhaps even to Newfoundland.
That it could be done was demonstrated by Tim Severin, the west Cork-based explorer and author, who took a replica boat across the Atlantic in 1976/’77.
Winchester is never stinting in recording our island’s role in the great Atlantic sagas. He credits the 8th century Irishman, Rumann, as the first to try to catch its soul in his poem, Storm at Sea, put into English by Frank O’Connor.
As the Icelandic sagas relate, Norsemen also sailed beyond the “baths of all the western stars”. In 1960, it was confirmed beyond doubt that Leif Eriksson and some companions established a colony in Newfoundland between AD975 and AD1020. A child was born there to Gudrid and Thorfin Karlsefni; named Snorri, he was the first European to be born in the New World. In time, its members returned to Iceland, never realising that the landmass they had found was at the western edge of a great ocean and they had settled on the shores of a ‘new’ continent that stretched from pole to pole.
Columbus was similarly unaware of the new continent when he made his various landfalls on Caribbean shores 500 years later. Winchester then poses an interesting question: while Europeans crossed the Atlantic to America, was it “conceivable that ... the original inhabitants of the Americas ever tried to head east across the ocean, to Europe?”
Amongst Columbus’s papers is one suggesting that he encountered “a husband and wife from the Americas in, of all places, Galway, Ireland, in 1477.” However, the details remain “tantalisingly unclear”.
Other voyages in the exploration and exploitation of the Atlantic follow, chapter upon chapter, pages larded with information, story, humour and the rich literature of the sea from the classical writers to Shakespeare and to Masefield.
The era of the Spanish Main unfolds, the privateers and pirates plaguing the treasure ships, the naval expeditions and the sea battles that followed as European powers vied for supremacy of the ocean.
Then, the terrible slave ships; the bullion ships; the fast packet boats; the solitary sailors like Joshua Slocum and Bernard Moitessier.
A chapter relates the awesome plentitude and then the total annihilation of the cod shoals of the Grand Banks, fish that could be sustainably feeding half the world today, then the slaughtering of the whales and the frightening toll industrial fishing technology is taking on the very “life-blood” of the sea, the krill scooped up in millions of tons for human use, the small fish ground into meal to feed the land or to fatten farmed fish in reckless disproportion, the reckless disregard with which the big fish are being harvested beyond sustainability, the desecration of the ocean as detailed in books like Kurlanski’s Cod and Clover’s The End of the Line. We are stripping the rich larder of the ocean and it seems we will not stop until it is bare.
The wars fought on Atlantic waters are related, as are the present-day challenges of pollution, acidification, changes in sea temperatures, melting ice caps, rises in sea level and shifts in ocean currents.
The Atlantic ocean was born 190 million years ago and geologists estimate that it will disappear 170 million years hence when the continents again rejoin. Will it be, by then, a long-dead sea? We are not too late to save it. This book will certainly raise awareness of the great heritage and sustainable resource we stand to lose.