The Naval History Blog: No. 6

The tide creeps in: why maritime history matters

Can we even imagine a world without the sea and its influence? Trying to define maritime history in his introduction to ‘The Sea and Civilization’, Lincoln Paine asks the opposite question: what exactly is ‘terrestrial history’? He tries to re-imagine the story of mankind as a land-bound species, only to surrender to the inevitable – that removing the sea effectively leaves modern history as a blank piece of paper.[1] Mankind’s interaction with the sea – whether in pursuit of subsistence, exploration, migration, trade or conquest – is one of the great driving forces of history.

Pick any of the themes of historical study, as described by John Tosh in Mapping the Field – politics, economics, society, culture, biography, world and local history – and it’s striking how effortlessly maritime history fits in.[2] For what is a navy but a projection of political power? What are oceanic trading networks, if not the engines of the world economy? Social and cultural histories abound in the diverse lives of mariners, from commissioned officers to the foremast hands, from smugglers or merchants to those who were taken across the oceans against their will. And the maritime communities found in bays, coves and estuaries across the world are the perfect interconnect between local and global history – simultaneously isolated and yet profoundly connected.

The fact that Paine can even attempt such an ambitious work, taking in the sea’s role in the whole of world history, is testament to the changes that have given maritime history a new relevance to both scholars and general audiences since the 1990s.[3] The creeping tide has brought treasures through the emergence of forgotten voices and the integration of other disciplines, transforming the field into a dizzying kaleidoscope of unexpected connections.

Maritime history has developed into more than just a discipline: it’s a perspective, a prism through which we can view the past. Framing the themes of history in maritime terms throws new light on how we think about ourselves. Whether in migrations, trade, politics or climate change, the maritime sphere will remain central to the human experience. Perhaps all history, then, is maritime history.

But why does history matter? It’s the medium through which we inherit our cultural identities, communities, languages, politics, societies, technologies and progress. And it’s certainly better than the alternative: living in a continual present with no notion of the forces that brought us here, or where the future may take us. How can we hope to place ourselves as individuals, bond as communities, cohere as nations or act through global institutions in such a world?

Some days it feels like we’re finding out, as populism crosses continents like a rogue wave across an ocean. Recriminations about inequality have become so fierce that global trade has become a toxic issue, with even benign deals held hostage by narrow interest groups.[4] There are now 63 international borders where walls or fences separate neighbouring countries. We live in a new age of barriers, and they’re not just physical.[5]

Meanwhile votes in the United States and the UK have upended the apparent political consensus about the globalised modern world. Will the new leadership in the United States actually share the same goals as the governments of other developed nations, like the forging of trade and other international agreements? Could the US alter its security guarantees to its allies in Europe and Asia, or tear up free trade agreements in favour of protectionist policies, as suggested on the campaign trail?[6]

For over 40 years the UK’s foreign policy has been framed by the so-called special relationship with an outward-looking United States and as an active member of the European Union. Has there been a moment when both have looked so fragile? In 2009 Glen O’Hara invited maritime historians ‘to tell a richer and more complex story about Britons’ engagement with the world than politicians’ musings on ‘Britishness’ allow’.[7] Today, as politicians contend that a vast trading empire requires nothing more than a buccaneering spirit and a royal yacht, that’s a story in dire need of telling.[8]

It’s no coincidence that maritime history has enjoyed a renaissance during a period of rapid globalisation, and the reactions that have followed. It’s an imprecise term, but if we take it to mean ongoing economic and political integration, it’s clear that globalisation has been completely entwined with the maritime world since the earliest days of the global economy.

The first period of high globalisation, which began in the late nineteenth century, was based almost entirely around maritime exchanges of goods, capital, labour and culture. Tosh makes the argument that it was, at least in some respects, more globally integrated than today’s world, until the fundamental tension between globalisation and nationalism became too great for governments to ignore.[9]

It’s also striking that this took place in a relatively stable era of dominance by a single world power, and went into reverse as political and economic interests of the participants diverged and the global order fragmented. In ‘The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression’, Harold James likens periods of international integration to a pendulum: ‘in every case the momentum was lost; the pendulum swung back’.[10]

The parallels with today are inexact; globalisation has been slowing for many reasons that pre-date the recent populist backlashes. But if the pendulum is now swinging back, can history help us avoid the disorderly and destructive phase of deglobalisation of the early twentieth century?

Armed with our new approaches to the subject, maritime history is important precisely because the present is so contested. But can we make it matter? Different perspectives and approaches will be required to respond to the challenges of the twenty-first century. This requires studying the past with a new sense of urgency. Maritime history may not provide all the answers, either on its own or in conjunction with other disciplines. But it might help us to understand the questions.



[1] Lincoln Paine, “The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World”, (New York: Knopf, 2013), 1-3.

[2] John Tosh, “Mapping the Field” in The Pursuit of History, (Taylor & Francis, 2010), 58-87.

[3] Glen O’Hara, “‘The Sea Is Swinging Into View’: Modern British Maritime History in a Globalised World”, English Historical Review, Vol. CXXIV, No. 510, (2009), 1130.

[4] Peter S. Goodman and James Kanter, “With Europe-Canada Deal Near Collapse, Globalization’s Latest Chapter is History”, The New York Times, October 21, 2016,

[5] Samuel Granados, Zoeann Murphy, Kevin Schaul and Anthony Faiola, “Raising Barriers: a New Age of Walls”, The Washington Post, October 12, 2016,

[6] Donald Trump, speech on Foreign Policy, delivered at the Center for National Interest, Washington DC, April 27 2016.

[7] O’Hara, “‘The Sea Is Swinging Into View’”, 1134.

[8] Historical spoiler alert: when Britain signed trade deals with the rest of the world, there was usually a different kind of royal yacht in the offing.

[9] Tosh, “The Pursuit of History”, 80-81.

[10] Harold James, “The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression”  (Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press, 2002), 1-2.

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