Under my byline

Being sea-sure

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 1 August 2009

TriremeOVERLEAF 40

Three things that happened recently are a reminder of how much we still are a land-bound civilisation. The Indian navy floated its first nuclear sub. Lionel Casson, a well-known historian who wrote books on ancient mariners, shipping and sea warfare, died in New York. And I read a not very good adventure novel called The Tiger Warrior, by a Canadian marine archaeologist named David Gibbins.

First things first: owning the new submarine, being one of just six nations which operate nuclear subs, is all very nice. But this super-expensive new piece of defence hardware highlights the persistent underfunding of the navy and coast guard. Which is odd in a global moment when trade is no less important than territory and coastal defences are critical. India conveniently pokes out into the Indian Ocean — we really couldn’t be better located. (Shouldn’t we be developing lots of small ports, for security and profit?) When the army gets Rs 57,000 crore and the navy just Rs 8,300 crore (latest budget), something is amiss.

That something is probably the long view. The timidity of our approach to the sea is not ab origine. Long ago there was a busy trade between the Roman empire and the East, India included. This was the sea version of the Silk Road, and plenty of goods and bullion flowed along it. One ancient merchant composed a handbook in Greek, describing the trading ports between Egypt’s Red Sea coast and India, and how to do the round trip using the two monsoons. It is called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (periplus means “a sailing-around”; full text here). From this source and others, we know that the ships which did these journeys were surprisingly large, carrying a thousand tonnes of goods or more, and their sailors were daring, sailing straight across open ocean rather than nervously hugging the coast all the way.

Some centuries earlier, in the Mediterranean, Lionel Casson’s scholarly stomping ground, the sailors were no less intrepid. Years of shipwrecks found in shallow coastal waters convinced everyone that ancient sailors, who may not have had compasses, played it safe. But more recent finds in two-mile-deep water in the open sea between Cyprus and Africa, as well as elsewhere, show that the problem was really in where the archaeologists were looking. Casson missed this, but he was quite right about something else: merchant ships as well as war galleys were much larger than was thus far imagined. He figured this out partly by reading the ancient texts — and by not dismissing their descriptions as exaggeration.

There is a particular thrill in seeing with one’s own eyes something that one has read about. Literary tourism is inspired by writers from Shakespeare to J K Rowling. There’s also the continuing fascination with historical fiction and the popularity of historical dramatisation on TV channels like Discovery. It’s hard to explain why the physical experience of an imagined site is so powerful — perhaps all the things one loves quietly become part of one’s being, no matter how distant in time or space.

Anyway, this is why David Gibbins’s Tiger Warrior struck me so forcibly. His hero is an improbably well-funded marine archaeologist. Now, archaeology requires patience; a great find is a rarity. But here in Gibbins’s book astounding finds follow one upon the other. The one that impressed me most was the “discovery” of the author of the Periplus, via notes scribbled on discarded pieces of pottery in Berenike, a long-buried Roman port on the Red Sea. I was yet more thrilled to discover that some of the finds in the novel (though not the Periplus one, alas) were legit, and recent!

For the moment, Pakistan and China may be our chief strategic worries; but now that we’re rich enough, we must expect to worry about things further afield. We can surely take courage from our distant ancestors who, despite a deficit of technology, seem to have had a cannier sense of the opportunities the Indian Ocean offered than we do today.

(The Hellenic Navy has a good page on Olympias, the trireme they built in the 1980s. It’s the ship pictured above.)

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