The Naval History Blog: No. 4

Going with the Flow: How Maritime History Informs Civilisation

In an increasingly globalized society, where much of the world’s goods travel to market along a few principal trade routes, the study of maritime history is essential to understanding various social, economic, and political trends and dynamics. For example, the pursuit of new trade routes to acquire spices from India and other regions of South Asia enriched those states which already possessed maritime capabilities, such as the Republic of Venice, and encouraged others to pursue such capabilities as well. The search for these routes at sea also facilitated the interactions of disparate cultures and societies, though this was often characterized by the colonization of one society by another. Understanding these voyages and the people that undertook them reveals much about how society developed and in which direction that development might continue.

For example, the growing commercial importance of the Strait of Malacca – a passage barely 2.5 nautical miles between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra – and the South China Sea drives to some degree the increasingly tense territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries in the region.[1] 15.2 million barrels of oil per day and more than one-third of the world’s commercial goods pass through the Strait of Malacca, underscoring its geopolitical importance.[2] But maritime history informs the trends which precipitated the Strait of Malacca’s rise to such global prominence.

Admiral Zheng He, an explorer during China’s Ming Dynasty, conducted seven expeditions throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region between 1405 and 1433, establishing trade networks that relied heavily upon the Strait of Malacca. The early emphasis placed on this route, and in particular Singapore, secured its long-term role as a hub for economic and cultural exchange.[3] However, maritime history is also increasingly politicized, as demonstrated by China’s position in the recent Permanent Court of Arbitration between China and the Philippines regarding conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, citing navigational charts from Admiral Zheng He’s expedition as evidence of historical use of certain islands and reefs in the region.[4]

This effort to politicize maritime history makes its study all the more important. The use of navigational charts and other historical documents of a maritime character to pursue political objectives narrows the study of how humanity has interacted with the seas and other waterways, which cover roughly 71% of the Earth’s surface. The study of maritime history for its own sake, though, offers insight into a diverse array of social developments and their lasting impact on humanity, such as the practice of pickling or salt-curing meats in order for sailors to have adequate provisions on extended voyages. The transition from dry-salting meat to welt-salting or brining by the Royal Navy in the 1850s, for example, can offer insight into how that military learned and adopted practices from the cultures with which it interacted, such as in India.[5]

Maritime history can also tell us much about the changing role of the state. Where once the American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan spoke of a ‘grand alliance’ between the United Kingdom and the United States to secure international waterways, countries and multinational corporations increasingly turn to private military contractors to protect seafaring cargo from pirates in the Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Hormuz, and elsewhere. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) operates its own fleet of vessels, which have frequently rammed fishing vessels engaging in controversial or illegal operations, such as drift-netting, seal hunting, and whaling. These activities have prompted the Japanese government and the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) to label the Sea Shepherds as “vigilantes”, “pirates”, and even “eco-terrorists”.[6]

Beyond these non-state actors, quasi-state actors also play an increasingly prominent and disruptive role in international maritime affairs. Illustrative of this, “little blue men” or maritime militias representing themselves as Chinese fishermen have been ramming fishing vessels from other countries in the South China Sea region and otherwise acting in tandem with the Chinese Coast Guard in disputed waters. One such example highlighted by researchers is Sanya Fugang Fisheries Co., Ltd., which is nominally a fishing company based in Hainan, but whose trawlers have frequently harassed vessels from the United States, the Philippines, and Vietnam since 2001.[7]

The current role of non-state and quasi-state actors in international maritime affairs is a reminder of how state influence on the seas has ebbed and flowed. Understanding whether this influence will continue to be reduced or will be re-exerted in the future requires revisiting maritime history and how relations developed between state and non-state maritime actors in different periods. The interaction between the Dutch East India Company and the naval forces of the Dutch Republic could be instructive as to how the state might re-integrate itself, though the study of that previous case may also not.

Finally, maritime history matters because it provides a valuable perspective on how physical geography is changing. The wrecks of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus – two vessels which participated in Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to force the Northwest Passage in 1845 – were recently discovered and closer study of the artifacts will doubtless show the especially challenging conditions the crews faced in the Arctic waters of what is now Nunavut, Canada. Yet, in September 2016, the cruise liner Crystal Serenity passed through the Northwest Passage without issue and its passengers visited a series of communities in the Canadian Arctic.[8] Though changes in technology certainly helped make the Arctic voyage of Crystal Serenity possible, changes in climate likely played an even more important role.

In short, the study of maritime history is necessary for those wishing to comprehend how different cultures have interacted with each other and with the planet across time. This pertains not only to the evolving role of the state, but also to how diets have changed over time as new international shipping routes make routinely available foods once thought exotic. These relationships will continue to change, but reflecting on where we have been offers an idea of which way the winds are blowing. But there is also an imperative to study and document maritime history in order to depoliticize it; much as the seas are shared, maritime history is part of a shared human heritage.




[1] Sam Bateman, “Freedom of Navigation and Indian Ocean Security: A Geopolitical Analysis,” in Geopolitical Orientations, Regionalism, and Security in the Indian Ocean, ed. Dennis Rumley and Sanjay Chatuverdi (New York: Routledge, 2015), 282-299, 290.

[2] Thomas Hirst, “The World’s Most Important Trade Route?” World Economic Forum, accessed October 29, 2016,

[3] Tan Ta Sen, “Did Zheng He Set Out to Colonize Southeast Asia?” in Admiral Zheng He and Southeast Asia, ed. Leo Suryadinata (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), 42–57.

[4] Yu Linato, “A Way through the South China Sea,” Beijing Review (July 21, 2016), accessed October 29, 2016,

[5] Alexy Simmons, “’Salty as Sailors Boots’: Salt-Cured Meat, the Blessing and Bane of the Soldier and the Archaeologist,” in Cured, Smoked, and Fermented: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2010, ed. Helen Saberi (Devon: Prospect Books, 2011), 288-301, 289–290.

[6] Robert Beckman, “Whaling Dispute at the Crossroads,” Straits Times, accessed October 31, 2016,

[7] Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy, “China’s Daring Vanguard: Introducing Sanya City’s Maritime Militia,” Center for International Maritime Security, accessed October 31, 2016,

[8] Chris Brown, “Massive Cruise Ship Brings New Era of Arctic Tourism to Cambridge Bay,” CBC, accessed October 31, 2016,

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