Friday, April 29, 2011

"Atlantic" by Simon Winchester

There are so many books written about the sea, and for the most part, they are very entertaining. However, they usually confine themselves to one topic; either a ship's voyage, a discovery, a wreck, a storm, and even the occasional mutiny. But this book has it all.

The author, Simon Winchester, author of about 20 books, ranging from travel to history, has outdone himself with this all encompassing tome to the world's most well traveled ocean. His love of the sea began in earnest at age 18, in 1963, when he booked passage from Liverpool aboard the Empress of Britain, bound for Montreal.

From the formation of the oceans and the first voyages upon them, the author carefully delves into all the major aspects of the history of the Atlantic. The Vikings conquest of Northern Europe, and the battle for control of the continent during the Crusades is well documented and lively. The interplay between the politics of the Mediterranean Sea, with it's marauding pirates on the ocean, and bandits on the land trade routes, blocked access to the Far East, and lent a new urgency to explore the vast Atlantic Ocean as an alternative.

Further exploring the history of European expansion, the author takes us on the voyages to the New World, the conquests of South America, and the attendant decimation of the native popoulation. The first slave ships of the 16th Century, were mostly comprised of native prisoners taken from South America by the Spanish. Later, the French and English, and even the newly founded American colonies, would occupy themselves with the importation of slaves from Africa to work the plantations of the South. The last slave to have come over on an American slave ship was Cudjoe Lewis, who died at age 94 in 1935, living just outside Mobile, Alabama. He had been taken from his native Benin in about 1858.

One of the most unusual slave stories involves James Riley, a farmer's son from Connecticut, who set out on the brig Commerce from Hartford in 1815. They were off to North Africa, looking for slaves. But, as luck would have it, the shearers became the shorn. The Commerce ran aground in a fog, and Mr. Riley was captured, along with his crew and, you guessed it, they were enslaved by a group of Sahara nomads. His ordeal lasted 2 years and came to an end only after he managed to slip a note to the British Consul in Essaouira. Ransom was arranged in the amount of $920 and two double barreled shotguns in order to secure the release of Mr. Riley and his crew. Upon his return home Mr. Riley penned "An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce", which sold over a million copies. The book is back in print today under the title "Sufferings in Africa." Abraham Lincoln described it as having more influence upon him than any other book, save for the Bible and "Pilgrim's Progress."

The author also explores the ocean currents and their effects upon trade and travel. The progress made by technology is also addressed in this sweeping history of the Atlantic Ocean. The triumphs and tragedies, the joys and sorrrows, the mysteries of forgotten ships; are all gathered in this one remarkable collection that will keep you reading past bedtime. And even then, when you do fall asleep, you will probably dream of the sea.

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