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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Sea, the Sea

Phoenicians from modern Lebanon established the great trading city of Carthage, on the North African coast near modern Tunis, around 1,000BC. Britain exported metals and cattle products to the Mediterranean via Phoenician merchants, and sufficient of the goods that they imported into Britain have survived to make it clear that this was a large-scale and long-lived trading relationship. For several millennia before Carthage was founded Britons made boats that were large enough to go to sea, at least in coastal waters; one of the most popular theories as to how the massive stones of Stonehenge were transported to Salisbury Plain suggests that most of the journey was made by ship. It is therefore probable that by 500BC Britons were able to sail their own vessels as far as Carthage, as well as to Ireland and to the Channel ports in what are now France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The emergence of the Roman Republic as a trading power led to a massive war against Carthage that was waged both on land and at sea. Roman victory led to the creation of a marine-trading empire and the progressive military subjugation of cities and their hinterlands all round the Mediterranean. Julius Caesar was a marine commander before he became famous as a general: his extensive conquests in mainland Europe depended heavily on supplies brought by ship, and when his successors added Britannia to their possessions all the major cities that they established could be reached by boat upriver from the sea. The whole history of London, from the legendary pre-Roman King Lud to the nineteenth-century boom in London Docks, derived from the city's location on a strongly tidal estuary. The rising tide pushed ships upriver towards the port and the ebbing tide floated them back to the open sea. Bristol and Southampton, among many other ports, gained their prominence because of fortuitous combinations of location with the strength and consistency of the tide. Eastern Britain and islands all round Great Britain were occupied by Vikings and 'Saxons' after the collapse of the Roman Empire and from the eighth century ships from England carried trade to coastal ports around the continent. Successive emperors in Byzantium [Constantinople, modern Istanbul] employed an English Guard and both pilgrims and traders went regularly to the Holy Land.

William the Conqueror necessarily came to England by ship, and for the next five hundred years [until Calais was lost by Mary Tudor in the fifteen-fifties] English kings had possessions on the continent which were necessarily accessed by ship. The medieval period was an era of almost-constantly expanding trade, with east coast ports including Hull, Boston, King's Lynn and London prominent in shipping goods to and from Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia. Vast quantities of wool were exported to Italy, Belgium and France, and massive quantities of wine were brought back to England. Despite the disastrous loss of his flagship Mary Rose, Henry VIII continued investing in the new concept of a big-ship navy. His daughter Mary I married King Philip of Spain, who ruled the Netherlands and much of Italy as well as Spain and its new colonies in America and around the coasts of Africa. After Mary's early death, her sister Elizabeth I faced exclusion from the polity of European monarchs when she firmly excluded both the concept of marrying Philip and subjecting the English Church to the Pope. England's trade with the continent continued, but the threat of war - with consequential exclusion from European ports - encouraged the government to seek opportunities for trade, for possible colonisation and a prospect of state-sponsored piracy in African, American and further waters. This led to an era of High Seas expansion - of trade and of territory - that lasted until the middle of the twentieth century.

The extent and importance of sea-trade to successive regimes in England [and in Scotland, a separate sovereign entity until 1603] cannot sensibly be underestimated. The past thirty or forty years, of relatively insignificant dependency on the High Seas, is an aberration of recent history. It is also a disaster, as will be shown in the coming days.

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