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Colourful stories in historical context,
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This review is from: Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories (Hardcover)
Simon Winchester is a story teller and a romantic - historical context, detail and colour brings this book to life. He dedicates the book to Able Seaman Angus Campbell McIntyre who was shipwrecked in 1942 on the notorious coast of Namibia in the South Atlantic in a failed attempt to rescue survivors from the SS Dunedin who had been similarly shipwrecked. Stories like this abound.
But he paints on a wider canvas to describe the importance of the Atlantic over the years - an ocean that with today's air travel does not have a high profile. For example parliamentary democracy as it is understood today was very much an Atlantic creation. No such institutions arose in Russia or China or Greece. The Icelandic Rock of Laws set the pattern for governance of the rest of the world, mimicked by the Faroe Islands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Britain.
He approaches the Atlantic from all angles, from its early exploration to pirates and the slave trade; from sea battles through the ages to commerce; from the laying of the transatlantic cable and air routes across the ocean to climate change, ocean currents and receding ice cap.
The question of what motivated men to make the dangerous voyage into the Atlantic before America was "discovered" is answered by fish and whales. He makes a convincing case that the Norsemen created settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador between 975 and 1020 AD. The allure of fish, and specifically cod, drew the Vikings and the Basques as well as John Cabot who named Newfoundland before the imperial claims made by Christopher Colombus in 1492.
The technical tribulations of the USS Niagra and HMS Agamemnon in laying 2,500 miles of transatlantic cable in 1857 is ascribed as the most ambitious construction project ever envisaged in the world. The visionary and financier behind the project was Cyrus Field. After only 15 days the cable succumbed to some unknown submarine malady and no further cable was laid until Brunel's Great Eastern in 1866. By 1900 there were 15 cables but then in 1901 Marconi successfully sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic. The "distance in time" across the Atlantic rapidly diminished.
The immense research and colourful stories makes it another of Winchester's compelling books.