Oceans of blood, the sea of gold

Everyone has heard about the process of transferring native Africans to work in American plantations and mines. Less known is the role Medieval Venice played in bringing enslaved Christians to the Muslim Middle East. And only 18 out of 237 sailors returned back home after the first known voyage around the world.

From a raft and a boat hollowed out of a tree trunk to computer-controlled gigantic container carriers and cruise ships. Indeed, it is hard to find more convincing proof of the technological leap we have made over several centuries. A world without scurvy, dingy taverns and the mass killing of whales has certainly gained charm. The only thing is, the romantic legend is missing a bit.

Rat stew

Although water covers two-thirds of our globe, sailing has not always been in vogue. On the contrary, in the past, sensible people preferred to feel the ground under their feet, even if it meant spending their entire lives where they were born. Cruises to distant places tempted people with the hope of improving their fate, but their participants very rarely collected a bonus for bravery. For most of them, simply surviving the journey was a success.

The sea deprived sailors of health, illusions and remnants of decency. It is not without reason that in antiquity, they had the opinion of outcasts from whom it was better to stay away. Plato claimed that it was better to die than to accept the customs of sailors and postulated that - to avoid contact with those demoralised individuals - cities should be founded at least 15 kilometres away from the seashore.

The ships’ crews that had been away from the land for a long time were tormented by hunger and thirst. "We ate only old biscuits, already dried to a powder, full of worms and smelly urine of rats feeding on them" - recalled the chronicler of Magellan's expedition, Antonio Pigafetta. The menu of sea wolves also included shavings from boards, pieces of leather, which were used to protect ropes from chafing, as well as the aforementioned rats (if someone could afford a thaler a piece).

As a result, only 18 out of 237 sailors returned back home from the first round-the-world voyage. Others were even less fortunate. Two centuries before the Portuguese, the Vivaldi brothers from Genoa tried to circumnavigate Africa and reach the Indian Ocean, but already at the height of the Canary Islands, the expedition disappeared, and nobody heard from them ever again.

Still, there were new daredevils because importing desirable goods to Europe could have made a fortune. Not for the last time, greed has become the flywheel of progress. Unscrupulous merchants and ruthless captains casually opened a new chapter in the history of the seas and oceans. In pursuit of profit, they ventured into more and more exotic waters.

Whole countries were stakeholders in these expeditions, but most of the profits ended up in private pockets. The church gave blessings, and corrupt officials provided protection. The maritime history of humankind abounds in criminal episodes. No shortage of people was willing to snatch something from the flowing wealth. Entire families, villages and ports lived off smuggling, racketeering (called tariffs) and robbery.

The shameful human trafficking also flourished. Everyone has heard of the procedure of transferring native Africans to work in American plantations and mines. Less known is the role that Medieval Venice played in supplying enslaved people to the Muslim Middle East. In business, the contractor's religion had always been of secondary importance. Still, the fact that the "Bride of the Adriatic" built its prosperity on the harm of fellow believers outraged the Popes and not only them.

Cannons of globalism

The maritime bandits fell into two categories. Some plundered ships on their own account and others gave part of the loot to monarchs, expecting impunity in return. The golden age of piracy came to an end only when European powers became able to enforce a monopoly on violence. The royal fleets clashed on the seas, but not many sailors died in such battles. They were more often killed by malaria, typhus, typhoid fever, yellow fever or dysentery, against which the medicine of the time was helpless. The recruiters did what they could to make up for the losses, but the new crew members, after sobering up, usually took the first opportunity to desert.

Investing in the fleet had many opponents. Insensitive to reasons of prestige, they claimed that the costs of maintaining it outweighed the profits. A lot of water still had to flow in the Rhine, Danube and Seine before the heavily armed cruiser became the object of national pride. However, the waters were getting increasingly crowded: the colonisation of overseas territories had begun. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the British and French authorities eliminated the country’s paupers, troublemakers, sectarians, scum, criminals and prostitutes.

Adventures in the tropics contributed to the creation of international law. At the beginning of the 17th century, Hugo Grotius - having the shrewd and cunning genius of an attorney - was the first to call for "freedom of the seas". In fact, he wanted to justify the looting by the Dutch of a Portuguese ship, which laden with valuable goods was sailing from Macau to Malacca. The natives did not count in this game, which clearly confirmed the thesis of Europe's maritime dominance over the rest of the world.

Lincoln Paine, author of “The Sea and Civilization. A Maritime History of the World,” claims that Asians had no trump card from the very beginning. Huge distances, scarcity of islands and natural harbours slowed down the development of their fleet. Of course, there were moments in history when India or China were raging at their height on the seas (the famous "Silk Route" also had the water variant). Still, the option of isolating themselves from the world finally won out. The Arabs made a similar mistake. The Crusades would not have happened, had Allah’s followers not turned their backs on the sea. Indeed, there were many more reasons for stagnation and defeat in the civilisational race, but the aversion to salty waters did its job.
The cruise ship "Sky Princess" sailing under the Bermuda flag in the port of Gdynia in 2022. The 19-deck cruiser, 329 meters long, can accommodate over 3,500 passengers and 1,400 crew members in 1,200 cabins. Photo. Lukasz Dejnarowicz / Forum
The ingenuity of European boatbuilders decided about the hegemony of the Old Continent. They learned how to build ships that were fast, manoeuvrable and - last but not least - equipped with deadly guns. This was enough to force favourable deals and concessions on the Eastern rulers. "Gunboat diplomacy" existed long before the term was coined. Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan could be considered the godfathers of the globalism era, which benefited only the stronger and smarter ones.

The new system treated Africa as a reservoir of cheap labour. South and Central America supplied gold and silver, Asia spices and textiles. For a long time, North America was considered a land rich only in fish, game and forests that could be cut down en masse. Let us remember that this was happening when many places could not be reached by land. The sea spread everything good and bad: religions, languages, inventions, political and philosophical systems, conflicts and epidemics, works of art, books and tools to help inflict pain and death.

Requiem for the boatswain

Humans learned to sail 40,000 years before they started farming and taming dogs. Many nations should owe their significance to their sea voyages. It wasn’t just about Greeks, Phoenicians, Vikings or Dutch. The first sailing ship appeared in Mesopotamia. The American historian was also keen to find out more about rivers and canals that raised the importance of Egypt, which would be a barren desert without the river Nile. The custom of placing boats or their models in burial chambers and tombs speaks out for itself. The Romans suffered from hydrophobia for a long time. Still, they realised that keeping control over the Mediterranean Sea was required as a condition for creating and maintaining an empire. After all, Pompey is the author of the famous bon mot: navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse .

     Alexandria, Constantinople, Venice, Genoa, Sevilla, Barcelona, Marseille, London, Amsterdam, Lübeck, Gdańsk, Stockholm, Gdynia. The old port cities cherish their legends and identity, though it doesn’t rhyme well with the official, national version of history. Paine's work is a real mine of thought-provoking information; Sicily was the grain trade centre for most of its history. We learn about rivers that played a decisive role in the conquest of Siberia; about the 14th-century, cosmopolitan Crimea - a meeting place for Italian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Arab, Slavic and Mongolian merchants; about the Hanseatic League and the sailors from Flanders who were the key partners in the economic advancement of northern Europe.

The conquering of the oceans was one of the greatest mankind's adventures. If the captains and navigators of Spanish caravels, Portuguese galleons, and British and French frigates didn't deserve a place in the Heroes Hall of Fame, who would? The era of great discoveries essentially came to an end with the twilight of sailing ships. New technologies have radically changed the style and pace of life. Travelling in conditions insulting the hygiene and human dignity is a thing of the past. Millions of Europeans boarding ships bound to come to America and Australia had the right to expect to arrive at their destination. The regulation of rivers and the construction of canals had a very positive effect on inland transport.

The total metamorphosis of the world of sailors also manifested itself in the militarisation of the seas. The first-ever arms race (British-German) took place on water. Sailors stopped getting sick, and the number of accidents decreased, but the clashes between armoured units often ended in slaughter. There was a doctrine that gaining superiority at sea determined the course of war. The submarines hunted the merchant ships, leaving the rescue of the survivors to their adversaries.

There will be plenty of rum

Paine seems immune to romantic myths, but he describes subsequent revolutions with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. In the 21st century, sea transport has retained its importance but has become trivial. Due to the mechanisation and computerisation of the industry, seventeen people are enough to operate a seagoing vessel, and you wait and see when completely crewless ships will appear. In ports, moved to the outskirts of cities, it's also dull as hell. After all, only authorised persons have access there. These days, the passenger services usually take place in the air. Moreover, sea travel is associated with large cruisers - a symbol of pathology, like the excessive tourism or pontoons that bring Africans to Lampedusa.

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The American historian does not try to play the all-knowing role but prefers to concentrate on economics, politics and military issues. And he barely fit his lecture into 700 pages. The book dealing with the culture-forming role of water reservoirs could be even thicker, but the narrative would follow a similar track. From Homer, through “The Lusiads” - the phenomenon of Italian cities which invested in art and architecture all the wealth gained at sea - to Conrad's novels, shanties and charmingly tacky paintings by Ajwazowski.

Today, maritime literature and art inevitably drift away towards a niche. Patrick O'Brian, the best-selling author of the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey, died on the threshold of the new century. His Polish publisher folded after throwing the thirteenth novel to the market (the cycle consists of 21 volumes). Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" received good reviews, but the producer, expecting a profit comparable to "Pirates of the Caribbean", dropped out of the sequel.

James Cameron remained on the battlefield, fascinated by the depths of the sea from the beginning of his career. He managed to bring the legend of the "Titanic" to life, so his ambition led him towards utopia. In the second part of "Avatar", he refreshed the myth of the good savage, showing a community of humanoids living in symbiosis with the ocean fauna. The spectacle was great, but the message was somewhat naive.

The world is constantly changing, but sailing traditions, even without the support of Hollywood, will not die out so quickly. Tattoos - for centuries associated with sailor folklore - have found their way to the thatches, and rum is still selling well.

– Wieslaw Chełminiak

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– translated by Katarzyna Chocian
Main photo: Ferdinand Magellan enters the Pacific, engraving from the 19th century. Photo. Sarin Images / Granger History Collection / Forum
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