A Circumnaviagion through Maritime History, by Rick Harsch
390 pages, illustrated, 10€
In A Circumnavigation through Maritime History, novelist Rick Harsch makes use of his knowledge of history, maritime and otherwise, along with his storytelling abilities and novelist’s eye for oddities and new angles to create a rambling, at times subversive, history of seafaring. He begins the history in India, which is already a break from convention, as most maritime histories begin in the Mediterranean. A great deal of ground is covered in his second chapter, ‘Encounters’, which reminds the reader that Magellan didn’t come close to circumnavigating the globe, and that many encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples were fraught with difficulties. ‘Naval Battles’ and ‘Piracy’ follow, providing many wild stories and interesting details, such as the weight of the armor of the Knights of Malta. ‘Accidents at Sea’ is funnier than it should be, includes song lyrics and bad ideas, while the them best summarized as ‘the folly of man’ emerges in full stride. The next chapters, ‘Are the Phoenicians Worth a Chapter’, ‘Kazamata: Etymology, Terminology, and Relatively,’ ‘Navigation’, and ‘The Business of Maritime Trade’, allow the free range of Harsch’s humor and eclectic interests, and include a lengthy evaluation of Captain Bligh’s journey post-mutiny to Timor. ‘San Giovanni e Paolo Piazza: Dead Doges and a Horseman’ is a tour de force of history writing, using one square in today’s Venice to encapsulate their history. Finally, ‘Teredo Navalis’ presents the flotsam left for a fuller history, including a story from the Arabian Nights, the story of the biggest vessel ever built, the quality of food at sea, and various further minutiae, ending with a long list of pretty much every type of boat or ship that was ever given a name, along with a generous supply of illustration (the book provides plenty of maps, photos, and drawings). Luckily, the bibliography is annotated, if loosely organized, for it allows the author to continue to write freely and provides further entertainment.