In 1903, from a windswept Cape Cod cliff, a Marconi station sent out the first radio message from one head of state to another as President Roosevelt and Edward VII congratulated one another on this remarkable advance.
That day, as Simon Winchester says: 'all the other present-day miracles of long-distance communication began their fantastic and improbably swift spasm of evolution’ (although he does not mention the fact that Guglielmo Marconi also believed his technology could pick up the voices of long-dead men who had drowned in the Atlantic).
Only 50 years before, America and Europe were irrevocably tethered by the first underwater telegraph cable, laid with great difficulty from Ireland to Newfoundland.
Within a century, the Atlantic would be reduced to a six-hour flight and instantaneous communication via satellites circling miles above.
It is such illuminating scenes that Winchester evokes in his wonderful, encyclopedic book, pinpointing key moments in the narrative of an entire ocean and our relationship to it.
We all have our own Atlantics, especially in this island nation whose very identity is shaped by the sea.
Growing up in the port city of Southampton, I was ever aware of the proximity and importance of the Atlantic, from the foghorns I heard from my bedroom and the crates of bananas unloaded in the docks (complete with Caribbean spiders), to my father’s job, testing those same underwater telephone cables.
The Atlantic’s sense of mystery and adventure is perennial, and Winchester charts it in an enthralling manner: from its Permian formation out of the tectonic shifts of Pangaea, to its first encounter with human beings who ventured out on to the beaches of southern Africa at Cape Agulhas, a place where, symbolically, the compass needle swings from magnetic to true north.
Fittingly, it was only when Homo sapiens moved northwards that the ocean asserted its true importance, and even we took our time.
To the classical world, the inland sea of the Mediterranean was an all-encompassing arena; anything beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) represented the fearful, monster-filled unknown.
It was the Vikings and the Basques who opened up the Atlantic to western influence, a process that would lead ultimately to a modern monster of power, Nato.
Following those routes of exploration and exploitation, Winchester’s highly readable prose roves to the extremes of north and south, east and west.
He moves deftly from 18th-century terraces in St Helena, 'a Georgian sanctuary-in-miniature for passing merchants’, via the terrible triangle of the slave trade – from England to Africa and the West Indies and back again, holds filled successively with iron, human beings and sugar – and then to the coeval commerce in whales, through whose 'profound’ legacy America made its first mark on a global economy.
Yet another trade in the ocean’s denizens was as important: that of cod, whose 'white, motherly, nourishing flesh’ not only prompted the Basques’ first epic journeys to the rich fishing grounds of the Grand Banks but also, in its salted form, provided the personal fuel for those voyages.
Winchester excels in such nice detail.
He describes the first packet ships plying the Atlantic from New York to Liverpool, and how their habit of sailing 'in line’ created the notion of ocean 'liner’. In its mid-Victorian heyday, Manhattan’s East River was lined with 500 ships 'like so many waiting stallions’, their forests of masts pointing to the coming American domination of Atlantic trade.
More violent are accounts of the sea as a battlefield, from the Armada and Trafalgar to Scapa Floe and the Falklands. As the ocean swallowed up its dead, it drew a veil over the horror of thousands of men burned, blown up and drowned. Travelling over an unusually calm Bay of Biscay as I did recently, it was hard to imagine that its innocent waters could contain such tragedies.
For a writer, as much as any 'water-gazer’ (to quote Melville), the sense of an invisible past is a potent stimulus to the imagination. Nowadays our only experience of the ocean is a casual glimpse through clouds from a pressurised cabin.
Winchester brings us down to sea level and makes us realise what we owe to the Atlantic.
He also sees storms ahead: 'A great ocean is not a thing to regard with casual disdain. The consequences are myriad, and they are invariably malign.’
In the 20th century, the cod of the Grand Banks fell victim to greed: eight million tons were taken in the first 15 years of factory fishing, as many as were taken in the entire previous century.
We replaced them with our rubbish, including 29,000 tons of radioactive waste dumped by Britain into the sea in the Seventies.
Top-heavy container ships, lacking their predecessors’ charm, create as much carbon as airliners. In a final, chilling chapter, Winchester describes the effects of climate change which he has witnessed first hand.
He concludes that the Atlantic will abide, 'always just minding its business, always just going on’. Whether we will be there to witness it is another matter.
- TheGuardian : Atlantic, a vast ocean of a million stories by Simon Winchester – review