Part 2 of 9
Translated by Simona Draghici, revised by Greg Johnson
In his book, Comparative General Geography (Vergleichende Allgemeine Erdkunde) of 1845, Ernst Kapp, a German thinker and geographer, influenced by Hegel’s world-encompassing ideas, chose water as a criterion for marking the great stages in the evolution of empires. He came out with three evolutionary stages, three acts of a great drama.
For him, world history started with the “potamian” or fluvial culture of the Middle East, in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates, and on the banks of the Nile, in the Eastern empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt.
That culture was followed by the “thalassic” era, that is to say, the culture of closed seas and the Mediterranean basin, represented by the Greek and Roman Antiquity and the Mediterranean Middle Ages.
The discovery of America and the voyages round the world marked the third and highest stage, that of “oceanic” civilization, the carriers of which are the Germanic peoples. In order to render our narrative as clear as possible, we shall stick to his three-category classification: river, closed seas, and ocean. As we go on, we shall see why Venice, a maritime power, came to a halt at the second stage, the thalassic stage.
As a matter of fact, such a festival as the “marriage to the sea” makes it easy to see the difference. The symbolic act of the union with the sea is shared by other sea-oriented nations. Thus, for instance, the Indian tribes of Central America that lived off fishing and navigation would sacrifice rings and other precious jewels, animals, and even human beings to their sea deities.
On the other hand, I do not think that the Vikings and other genuine “roamers of the seas” had ever resorted to such ceremonies. That does not mean that they were less pious or that they felt less the need to appeal to the divine powers. Rather, it might have never occurred to them to stage ceremonial weddings or betrothals to the sea, for the very reason that they were genuine children of the sea. They identified themselves with the sea, their element.
The symbolical weddings or betrothals, on the other hand, presupposed a distinction, nay, a radical opposition between the sacrificer and the divinity to which the sacrifice was offered. Such offerings were meant to conciliate an alien element. In the case of Venice, the ceremony clearly shows that the symbolic gesture did not derive from a basically maritime way of life.
Under the circumstances, a highly developed, coastal and lagoon civilization invented its own kind of ritual and celebratory symbolism. To limit oneself to the practice of maritime navigation and to build up a civilization by exploiting a favorable coastal position is altogether different from turning the entire historical and collective existence of a people from land towards the sea, another element altogether.
Venice’s coastal empire made its debut round the year 1000 by a “naval promenade” to Dalmatia. On the other hand, the control of the back country, of Croatia or Hungary, remained problematic at all times, as it always happens whenever one tries to exert one’s domination over a continent merely by means of a fleet. Even with regard to the technique of navigation, the Republic of Venice did not advance beyond the Mediterranean and the Middle Ages, which in her case extended to 1797 and her demise.
Like other Mediterranean nations, Venice used only the oared vessel, the galley. It was from the Atlantic ocean that the big, long-distance, sailing vessels were introduced into the Mediterranean. The Venetian fleet was and remained an oar-propelled fleet of large galleys. As in ancient times, sails had only an ancillary use, whenever a wind became favorable by blowing from behind.
The improvement of the compass, as we know it generally nowadays, was a remarkable achievement. As Kapp remarked, the compass lent the ship a spiritual dimension which enabled man to develop a strong attachment to his ship, a sort of affinity or kinship. From then on, the remotest oceanic lands could come into contact with each other, and the planet opened itself to man. Nonetheless, the modern compass, which traditionally is held to have seen the light of day in the Mediterranean basin earlier, is not of Venetian origin. It was in 1302, in the Italian coastal town of Amalfi that the modern compass was born. It would have never occurred to the Venetians to make use of the new contrivance to cross the oceans.
As I have already said, the glory and the fame of Venice are beyond dispute, and I repeat that I have no intention to belittle her. But we must make clear what it means when a people decides to turn all its historical existence towards the sea, as en altogether different element. The way naval battles were given at the time makes obvious the stakes involved. With regard to the Mediterranean basin as it was then, one cannot talk of an elemental displacement of the entire human existence seaward.
In the ancient naval battles, the oar vessels threw themselves upon each other, seeking to ram and board each other. The naval battle was always a hand to hand confrontation: “like pairs of wrestlers, the ships hurled at each other.” It was at the battle of Mylae that for the first time the Romans boarded the enemy vessels by thrusting gang planks at them as bridges and 80 were able to board their enemy’s ships in a way that made the confrontation that followed look like a land battle. Swords were crossed on deck as on a theater stage. It was in that manner that the great naval jousts evolved in the ancient times. The Malay and the Indian tribes waged their naval wars on the same principle, even if their weapons might have been more primitive.
The last naval battle of that kind was also the last feat in Venice’s history: the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the Spanish-Venetian fleet set itself against the Turkish fleet and won the most spectacular victory that the Christians have ever scored against the Moslems. The confrontation took place in the same spot where at Actium, shortly before our era (30 BC), the fleets of the East and of the West, of Anthony and of Octavian, respectively, took each other’s measure. The sea battle at Lepanto was given with the same technical means which by and large had been employed at Actium a millennium and a half before. The Spanish elite footmen, the famous tercios, fought hand to hand the Janissaries, the elite infantrymen of the Ottoman Empire, on their ship decks.
A few years later, in 1588, the defeat of the Armada in the English Channel, between England and the Continent, marked the turning point in the art of naval warfare. The small English sailing ships proved themselves superior to the heavy Spanish galleons. Yet it was not the English but the Dutch that had the edge regarding shipbuilding technology. Between 1450 and 1600 the Dutch alone invented more types of vessels than all the other nations taken together. By itself, the discovery of new continents and oceans would not have explained the domination of the world’s seas and the deliberate option of the sea as the element.
The first heroes of a sea-bound life were not the distinguished doges aboard their state barges but enterprising adventurers, sea-roamers, daring whale-hunters, bold sailors who were criss-crossing the oceans. At the beginning, the Dutch were the undisputed role models in two essential sectors: whale-hunting and ship-building.
Here I have to add a word in praise of the whale and to the credit of its hunters. The history of the seas and of man’s choice of water as his element cannot be retraced properly without mentioning the legend of leviathan end its no less legendary hunters. Indeed, the topic is daunting. My modest hymn of praise would do justice neither to the whale nor to its hunter. How could one be equal to the task when talking of two wonders of the seas: the strongest living animal and the most astute of hunters?
As a matter of fact, if I dare to broach this subject matter, it is because two illustrious heralds of these two marvels of the seas have already done it — the French historian Jules Michelet, a master of the word, and the great American poet, Herman Melville. In 1861, the former published a book about the sea which is a hymn to its beauty and to its world of unexplored marvels, to the riches of entire continents that live off and prosper at the expense of sea beds, which man, “ruthless king of this world,” has not yet conquered or fully exploited. As for Melville, he is to the world of oceans what Homer was to the Eastern Mediterranean. His Moby Dick (1851) is a vivid fresco and the most beautiful epic dedicated to the oceanic element, in which the writer tells the story of Moby Dick, the great whale, and his hunter, captain Ahab.
While talking indiscriminately of the whale-fish and the whale, the whale-fish hunter and the whale hunter, I am fully aware that this inconsistency would be regarded as the ignorance of the layman. I expect to be eagerly given lessons on the zoological nature of the whale, which as all schoolchildren know, is a mammal and not a fish. In his System of Nature (1776), old Linnaeus had already noted that the whale was a warm-blooded animal, breathing through lungs, unlike the fish which breathe through gills, and that the female gave birth to living babies that morphologically were very complex, and for a year or two were breast-fed and lovingly looked after by their mothers.
I have no intention to argue with the cetologists, those experts in the unfathomable science of the whale. I shall explain in brief and without pedantry the reason why I shall not give up the word “fish” altogether. Indeed, the whale is not a fish in the image of a herring or the perch. Still, by calling this strange monster a “fish,” I lay stress upon the astonishing fact that such a warm-blooded giant has been handed over to the element without having been physiologically intended for it. Let us imagine the reverse hypothesis, for an instant: a giant terrestrial animal breathing through gills! The largest and strongest sea animal, criss-crossing the seas of the world from the North Pole to the South Pole, breathes through lungs and brings its young into the world viviparously as a mammal, in this maritime medium! It is not an amphibian but a genuine mammal that is a fish in virtue of its biosphere. And the hunters of this fish were in the times that concern us here, that is, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, genuine hunters in a grand style, and not mere “catchers.” This detail is not lacking in importance for our story.
In his book about the sea, Michelet, the French admirer of the whale, describes the whales’ love- and family-life quite touchingly. The male is the most chivalrous lover, the tenderest spouse, and the most concerned parent that exists. It is also the most humane of all creatures, more humane than man who exterminates it with savage cruelty.
Still how mild were the whale-hunting methods in 1861, when Michelet was writing his book, although the steamboat and the cannon had already reversed the chances, and had turned the poor whale into an easy target. What would Michelet say, he the friend of men and animals, were he to witness the industrial extraction of spermaceti and the processing of the carcasses of the cetaceans?
One can no longer call “hunting” or even “fishing” what has since the world war of 1914–1918 become the “pelagic” catching, with its never ceasing technological improvements; nowadays, boats of 30,000 tons, equipped with electric gadgets, cannons, grenades, planes, sound and radio detectors, true floating kitchens, penetrate the ice seas of the Antarctic. It is there that the whale has taken refuge, and it is there that the dead animals are industrially processed on board the ships.
At that rate, the poor leviathan has almost disappeared from our planet. Not until 1937 and 1938 was an international agreement finally signed in London, in virtue of which the killing of whales was regulated and whaling zones marked out, and so forth, so that what was left should be protected against unrestrained extermination.
By comparison, the whale hunters I am talking about were true hunters and no mere “fishermen” and even less machine-like butchers. Leaving the shores of the North sea or the Atlantic in their sailing ships or their rowing boats, they were trailing their prey across vast sea expanses, and armed with harpoons, they were fighting a giant which knew how to combine astuteness with strength. Dangerous confrontation between two creatures, which without being fishes in the zoological sense of the word, were roaming the sea, their element. In that encounter, all the means brought to it by man were set in motion by the power of his muscles: the oars, the sails, and the deadly thrust of the harpoon. The whale was strong enough to capsize the ships and boats of its enemies by a single stroke of its tail. To man’s astuteness, it knew how to oppose thousands of ruses. Herman Melville, who himself had served as a mate on a whaler, shows how a quasi-personal relationship was established between the hunter and his prey, a subtle tie made up of connivance and hostility. In this struggle, man would be lured ever farther into the elemental lower depths of a maritime existence.
While the whalers were sailing the globe from the north to the south, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, unrelentingly following the mysterious routes of the whales, they were discovering islands and continents on the quiet, so to speak. Melville makes one of these sea-combers say about the book by Captain Cook, the discoverer of Australia: this Cook writes books about such things that a whale hunter would not jot down in his deck book.
In turn, Michelet would ask: who has opened the ocean to people? Who has discovered the oceanic zones and routes? The whale and the whalers! And that without Christopher Columbus and the famed gold-seekers, who with much noise merely rediscover what the fish shoals, coming from the north, from Brittany and the Basque country discovered before them.
And Michelet goes on adding: these whale hunters are the highest expression of human courage. Were it not for the whale, the fishermen would have never abandoned the shores. It was the whale that freed them from the coastline and lured them on to the high seas. In that way the maritime currents were discovered, as well as the northern passages. It was the whale that guided us.
In the sixteenth century, two different types of hunters made their appearance simultaneously on our planet. The two opened up new, endless spaces that were the cradles of great empires. On land, the Russian trappers had been tracking fur animals, and having conquered Siberia, reached by land the shores of the Far East. On water, it was the whale hunters, coming from Northern and Western Europe, that plowed the seas, and, as Michelet justly remarked, opened the world to us. They were the first born of a new, elemental form of existence, the first and the true “children of the sea.”