Revolution at Sea


Episode 00: Prelude


Behold the Sea! Words by Walt Whitman, music by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Amazed he said at the power of the music he created.


This seems a fitting beginning of what I want to talk about:  the majesty of the sea and the human response to it.

My name is John Curtis Perry. I am a retired professor of maritime history. If you want to check me out, Wikipedia will tell you more that you probably want to know about me.

This is not a retelling of the expansion of Europe and battles at sea, nor a catalog of inventions relating to maritime technology, but the study of changes serving to inaugurate and speed globalization and to shape cycles of influence in global affairs. It is pelagic history, the history of the World Ocean, a global theater created by oceanic revolution some five hundred years ago. 


Oceanic revolution is a continuing phenomenon that erupted in three bursts of energy: chronologically in early modern, modern, and contemporary times, at the turns of the sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth centuries.  Spatially it has enabled key areas to experience cycles of global influence: political, economic, cultural.


At the turn of the 16th century, Columbus and Magellan launched an intercontinental history that reunited the New World with the Old, the Americas with Eurasia and Africa, and brought Europe and China, the two extremities of the Eurasian landmass into direct and continuing if thin and tenuous contact.  A second burst of energy flowered in the 19th century, following upon and entwined within the industrial revolution. Mastery of steam navigation and the wiring of the world through telegraph and cable brought the North Atlantic to global domination.


The third phase of oceanic revolution occurred after recovery from World War II. Nuclear power made possible the first true submersible, creating new naval strategies. Submarines could sail beneath the polar icecap.  And a generation ago the internet began to magnify and accelerate information flows. The standard size steel container and the bulk carrier caused transport      costs to plummet, which led to

ballooning world trade, an explosive growth in the world economy,

and a corresponding burgeoning of world wealth. The Pacific rim emerged as a new center of global manufacturing and global wealth, the flowering of California and dynamic economic renewal of East Asia.


Each of these phases of usage deeply affected approaches to the ocean as avenue, arena, and source.  The ocean provides an avenue, traditionally a place for the flow of goods, people, and ideas. A watery surface provides less friction than ground, and has always been the cheapest form of transport. Ships now carry at least 90% of international trade by volume and “to ship” is still the universal verb for transporting.   People today travel distances primarily by air, but ideas move through fiber optic cables following old routes, snaking along the ocean floor.


The ocean is also a challenging environment for sailors, and a place for battle, an arena where warships fight and pirates strike.

In a passive role as arena, ocean has traditionally served as moat and strategic buffer. The English Channel even in modern times provided protection for Britain against continental invaders. It formed a barrier both to the ambitions of Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th.


The ninety miles separating Taiwan from the China mainland enabled the disorganized dispirited KMT, the losing side in the 20th century Chinese revolution, to flee to a secure base and make a fresh start after its 1949 debacle. Oceanic space helped Taiwan preserve its autonomy. And as we know, the island subsequently was able to become a rich, highly successful seagoing state even before the neighboring mainland.


Ocean is also a material source, traditionally of salt and fish, assets for seagoing societies, fish offering a protein advantage over those who were landbound. And more recently energy, both non-renewable and renewable.  We derive 30% of our oil and gas from offshore drilling,

 with tidal flows and wave action offering great opportunities for harvesting renewable energy.


In the abstract sense, sea is metaphor, a symbol of the human interaction and continuing struggle with the powers of nature and of the voyage as life’s journey. The pounding of the surf, cries of seabirds, the dingdong of the bell buoy, and the moan of the foghorn have inspired artists in various realms of expression.  Sailors customarily sang at their work and danced hornpipes inspired by the rhythms of the sea.  Composers and painters spoke to a wide audience of the majesty and terror of the sea.


Watery space is largely empty of humanity. Much of the wider ocean is seemingly as barren as the desert.  The coastal fringe is where action arises.  We can call this fringe the ocean edge, edge in the sense of place, alongshore where humankind has mounted its most dramatic events,

and also edge as advantage, providing opportunities springing from tapping the varied resources that the sea offers. Today nearly one-half of the world’s people live within one hundred miles of salt-water and that proportion is growing as people seek out the attractions of the ocean.


Oceanic revolution is one way, although scarcely the only way, to provoke our navigating the complex currents of modern history.  Looking at how humankind has used the sea in the past and how we continue to use it in the present, as well as speculating about its promise for the future, can give us a fresh slant on the human experience.


Salt water forms 71% of the planetary surface, separating continents but itself connecting. It forms an undivided entity, the world ocean.

The continents separate; the ocean unites. The sea is around us; the sea is within us as well. We ourselves are more than one-half watery creatures.  As President John F. Kennedy put it in a speech at Newport in 1962, toasting the Australian winners of the America’s Cup race, “We have salt in our blood, salt in our sweat, salt in our tears.”


We are tied to the sea from which life sprang. It offers us both challenge and opportunity. And we now embark on the great story of this part of the human experience.