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The Turbulent Giant

Fox Photos/Getty Images
A British sailor signaling a merchant ship as it passes the naval control base in the Thames estuary, November 1939

Simon Winchester has often written of great events that have been largely forgotten, of remarkable human beings who have quietly changed the world, and of places the rest of us wish we had seen. He is an adventurous and indefatigable traveler as well as a brilliant explorer of arcane problems and archives.

His last book, The Man Who Loved China,1 was a masterly portrait of the life and times of Joseph Needham, a protean British academic and biochemist who wrote a twenty-six-volume encyclopedia, Science and Civilisation in China, which showed in great practical detail that China, far from being the backward country that Westerners liked to patronize, had actually preceded the Western world by centuries in a vast range of scientific discoveries, inventions, and ideas. Winchester’s present book, Atlantic, is a portrait of the ocean that has been the theater of a dramatic and essential part of human history.

To read Winchester is to share the excitement of his travels and adventures. In Atlantic we first find him in the far north sailing a small boat in “a lumpy and capricious sea” among the great black basalt slivers of the Faroe Islands. More than four hundred pages later we leave him on the deserted and treacherous shore of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, where he has gone in search of the memorial to Angus Campbell Macintyre, the lost first mate of the tug Sir Charles Elliott, which, in 1942, on the way to assist the stranded British Motor Vessel Dunedin Star, was itself wrecked on a reef. (Winchester left a message on the memorial and has dedicated Atlantic to Macintyre’s memory.)

In between we have approached Cape Town at dawn on a Greek freighter, shared Winchester’s delight at his first view of Jamestown, the tiny eighteenth-century capital of St. Helena, and nearly got stuck for the winter on an inaccessible, prematurely ice-bound beach in Greenland. We have sympathized with his frustration at being jailed in Patagonia as a suspected spy during the Falklands War, been stopped while on a former Russian research ship in the South Atlantic by a British warship on fishery patrol (“by chance the captain of the navy ship was an old acquaintance of mine”), and gone through a score of other adventures. Winchester’s travels recall C.P. Cavafy’s wish in his poem “Ithaka”:

May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time.

Winchester has chosen as a frame for his gigantic subject Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, but Atlantic is really on a different scale from that famous passage. It is about the relationship of human beings to the might and mystery of nature and the contrast between our puny efforts and ephemeral presence here on earth and the vast majesty of our planet as part of the universe. In this unequal confrontation, the Atlantic is a turbulent giant, first a mystery to be shunned and feared, then a challenge for explorers and settlers, and finally a supposedly infinite resource that is being plundered and recklessly abused.


The Atlantic covers thirty-three million square miles. It is now roughly in the middle of its estimated four- hundred-million-year lifespan as an ocean. Eventually “tectonic gymnastics” will probably transform earth’s geography into one continent surrounded by one sea. So far human involvement in this cosmic history covers less than 200,000 years. Winchester reconstructs what may well have been our ancestors’ first encounter with the ocean 164,000 years ago, in a cave at Pinnacle Point on South Africa’s Western Cape where, tasting their first seafood, they realized the advantages of a food supply constantly renewed by the tides, and settled down to a new form of oceanside life. The cave that supplied the detailed evidence of this historic event is still there and now abuts the ninth tee of the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort, a place advertised as “a new Garden of Eden.”

For a long period, the Atlantic defied human exploration and was a place of myths and monsters. Homer created the idea of Oceanus, a “vast globe- encircling river.” To Mediterranean sailors it was the “Great Outer Sea,” whose terrifying waters surged menacingly beyond the Pillars of Hercules. In the seventh century BC Phoenicians from the port of Tyre ventured beyond the Pillars, first northward and then southward down the West African coast in search of the murex sea-snail, first used by the Minoans as the source of the imperial purple dye of the ancient world, a substance as much as twenty times more valuable than gold. Although the Phoenicians clung to the shoreline, the experience greatly advanced both their knowledge of the sea and the design of their ships. The Romans tended to dislike the ocean, and Winchester describes the dismay of a group of legionaries posted to Britain on discovering that the last twenty-one miles would be by ship across what is now the English Channel.

As in other important matters during the Dark Ages of Europe, the Irish seem to have kept the uncertain flame of Atlantic sailing alight with the missionary voyages of Saint Brendan, in legend at least, to the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, and even Newfoundland, and, in 563 AD, of Saint Columba from Ireland to Iona on the west coast of Scotland. It was the Vikings, however, who took to the ocean in their square-sailed longships and for three centuries not only pillaged and sacked the European coastline—the “scourge of all northern Christendom”—but also made the first definitive transatlantic voyages.

Winchester gives a rousing account of how Leif Eriksson beat out Columbus (by nearly five centuries) as discoverer, although he was unaware of the fact, of America. In the summer of 1960 the Norwegian scholar Helge Ingstad went to northern Newfoundland in search of Leif Eriksson’s Vinland. Ingstad arrived with his daughter in a small sailboat at the tiny northernmost settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows2 and asked a local fisherman, George Decker, whether there were any ruins nearby. Decker replied, “Yeah, I know where there are some old ruins. Follow me.” They soon came upon almost a dozen very large grass-covered mounds, which, excavated over the next seven years, turned out to be the base for further westward voyages by the Norsemen, and quite probably of Leif Eriksson himself, since the carbon dating of the settlement, between 975 and 1020 AD, coincides with the date of 1001 AD given by the sagas for the Vinland settlement.

Columbus believed he had reached Asia, possibly Japan, and did not, in fact, set foot on the American continent. It was Amerigo Vespucci, whom Winchester describes as a Florentine “explorer,” “sorcerer,” and “pimp,” who stated in his flamboyant 1503 best-seller Mundus Novus that there was a new continent and that the Atlantic was a discrete body of water. In 1507, mapmakers in Freiburg produced a new world map on which they called the southern part of the new continent America. A globe published in Paris in 1515 gave the name to both parts of the continent, and in 1538 Mercator called the two parts “North America” and “South America.” The newly defined ocean was called the Atlantic, which is what Herodotus had called it in the fifth century BC.

In the mid-fifteenth century, Portugal—of which it used to be said “such a tiny land to live in, but the whole world to die in“—under its visionary king, Henry the Navigator, led an astonishing burst of global exploration. While the eastern Mediterranean was more or less blocked by Islamic power, vast possibilities for trade and colonization opened up to the west through the Atlantic. Vasco de Gama went to India; Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Storms; Pedro Cabral was the first to land in Brazil; and in 1519-1521 an expedition commanded by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese employed by Spain, circumnavigated the globe. Others sometimes made accidental discoveries. Ponce de Léon found the Gulf Stream in 1513 during “his quest for the fountain of youth—a search that eventually won him the ironic substitute of being the first European to find Florida.” The immense importance of the Gulf Stream in accelerating the eastward voyage back to Europe was quickly understood. Later on, as first postmaster of the United States, Benjamin Franklin produced a Gulf Stream map.


Winchester’s Atlantic history proceeds from the age of exploration through better-known periods—colonization, commerce, whaling, the slave trade, wars, and naval battles.

The golden age for pirates, both Caribbean buccaneers and state-sponsored privateers, lasted from 1650 to 1725. It was romanticized, brutal, and short. As the world became weary of the pirates’ exploits, Winchester writes, naval patrols swept up more and more of them. In London they were tried in Admiralty courts and, if found guilty, as most were, were hanged on a special gibbet between the high- and low-tide marks at Execution Dock on the Thames at Wapping, their bodies being left in the noose until three tides had passed over them. They were then covered in tar (to ward off seabirds) and hung in chains at the mouth of the Thames at Tilbury. The last pirates were hanged at Execution Dock in 1830.

The other spur to naval efficiency and international regulation was, ironically enough, the slave trade. About eleven million slaves were transported to the New World from Africa between 1500 and 1860. When, in the early nineteenth century, governments began to turn against this measureless atrocity, it was naval units like the vast West Africa Squadron of the British Royal Navy that gained the upper hand over the slave traders. By 1850 the squadron had captured some 1,600 slave ships. The last slave ships—two American vessels—crossed the ocean in 1858 and 1859.

Unfortunately, as navies became better organized and equipped with new navigational aids like the chronometer, they were also in a better position to fight each other, if necessary in deep waters far out of sight of land. Winchester cites the 1639 fight between Dutch and Spanish ships as the first organized Atlantic battle. The Dutch captain deployed his ships in line, and forty-three Spanish ships were lost. The first battle fought in the deep ocean was the “Glorious First of June” in 1794 between British and French warships, which succeeded in protecting an American convoy bringing grain to starving France. The British victory at Trafalgar in 1805 gave Britain mastery of the Atlantic.

In the nineteenth century steel took the place of wood, steam replaced sails, rifled shell-firing guns succeeded cannon, and naval warfare became a “horrible business.” The last wooden British warship, HMS Howe, was launched in 1860; it had three decks, 121 guns, sails, and a 1,000-horsepower steam engine. The immense destructive power of the submarine in two world wars sounded the ultimate death of naval romance, while the allure of ocean trading, in Winchester’s view, vanished with the introduction in the mid-1950s, by Malcolm McLean, an American trucking executive, of container ships. Winchester writes:

  1. 1

    Harper, 2008; reviewed in these pages by Jonathan Spence, August 14, 2008. 

  2. 2

    A “linguistic contortion,” Winchester explains, “of the French for The Bay of the Jellyfish.” 

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