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Book Review


Stewart Gordon, A History of the World in Sixteen Shipwrecks. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England/ForeEdge, 2015. Pp. ix + 264. Index. $29.95 (cloth).


     This book provides an innovative approach to the study of Port Cities Connected, as the author focuses on sixteen selected shipwrecks that are representative of global ports-of-trade, maritime trading networks, maritime technology, and related historical events and societies from c. 6000 B.C.E. to 2012. The author begins with an assertion of the wide significance of dugout canoes among earliest global societies as sources of sustenance and mobility. The chapter initially focuses on a recently recovered ancient dugout canoe in Nigeria and follows with a recreation of Pacific Ocean basin sojourning. Centering on ancient Egypt, chapter two asserts the importance of barge transport on the Nile River as the vital source of movements of people and things, as documented in a 1950s recovery of a sewn Khufu barge and represented in ancient Egyptian art. Focus on the Western world continues in chapter three's study of ancient Mediterranean Sea transport, which links recent underwater archeology recoveries of several c. 1200 B.C.E. shipwrecks off the Turkish coastline.

     Shifting focus to northern Europe, chapter four begins with details of recovered c. 600-1000 C.E. Viking ships, as these are representative of that era's river and oceanic coastline transit from Scandinavia to and from the Mediterranean and allow discussion of Viking transit in that era. The next chapter similarly begins with descriptions of the variety of recovered shipwrecks and cargos off the coastline of modern-day Indonesia, as these offer collective physical details of eastern Indian Ocean trade in the c. 600-1500 era. It concludes citing contemporary literary and transaction records of Middle Eastern dhow transit and trade in the western Indian Ocean as specifically documented by roughly 300,000 Jewish merchant paper documents recovered from the Cairo synagogue's Geniza "depository."

     Chapter five overviews Mongol China naval expeditions and their legacy as documented in recent Mongol-era shipwreck and archeological recoveries in the Straits of Melaka and South China Sea regions. Gordon uses this salvage evidence to argue against prior histories of Mongol China, which depict Yuan dynasty rule as having little lasting impact on Chinese civilization. Instead, historians are now agreeing that Yuan-era maritime expansionism and related commerce continued through the subsequent Ming era. In Gordon's view the Mongol goal of world conquest failed but resulted in the overland route to China traveled by Marco Polo, as well as the Indian Ocean maritime networks from the Middle East to China around India and through Southeast Asia to south China's profitable ports-of-trade.

     Subsequent chapters also cite salvaged shipwrecks that document developing Western oceanic and riverine trade from the Middle Ages. Chapter eight highlights the importance of late Middle Ages and Early Modern northern Europe flat bottom cog cargo ships that carried bulk quantities of agricultural and marketplace commodities. Chapter nine shifts focus to the south, in its overview of continuing galley transport from the Roman age to early modern Europe. The next two chapters discuss late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century global Spanish galleon economics as this contrasted to contemporary and following British naval and service fleets that were dominant international cargo carriers through the eighteenth century.

     Chapter twelve transitions to nineteenth-century side-wheel steamboat transit on the United States' Ohio and Mississippi rivers; the following chapter refocuses on oceanic transit in its evaluation of the nineteenth-century American clipper ships that were faster than British service fleet shipping but carried less overall cargo. This chapter addresses the importance of the California gold rush and alternative transit across Panama (prior to the Panama Canal) as factors in clipper ship profitability. Chapters eleven and twelve collectively discuss nineteenth-century transitions in global trade, with focus on the importance of the maritime transit of settlers and goods to the United States' west coast and Australia – which was beyond the fuel capacity of that era's steamships, and in the Indian and Pacific Ocean.

     The concluding chapters critique twentieth century and contemporary shipping. Chapter fourteen is focal on the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine early on in World War I, as the Lusitania was representative of early twentieth century British multidimensional passenger, cargo, and military ships. Chapter fifteen shifts focus to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker wreck, its environmental consequence, and subsequent new maritime cargo carrier standards. This chapter does not provide follow up discussion of recent cargo carrier and oil tanker piracy risk, most notably off the northeast African coastline. The final chapter highlights the Costa Concordia Carnival tourism wreck off the coast of Italy in 2012, as this ship represents the evolving post-World War II cruise ship industry.

     Moreover, this book provides a unique opportunity for the study of world history with focus on global shipping and maritime transit from earliest times to present. Gordon uses details of shipwreck recoveries and their salvaged cargoes as the basis for his concise discussions of wider period issues, such as technology, environment, and societal change, as his tracks from shipwreck sources offer opportunity for follow up discussion and pair well with world history texts. The book as a whole is an engaging series of single chapter reads, as each chapter differs in its documentation, discussion, and varying approach to global history. In the negative, book chapters are uneven in their content and are too frequently summary overviews derivative of the focal shipwreck evidence rather than based in wider regional documentation. To his credit, Gordon does acknowledge alternative scholarly approaches to the surviving evidence and ultimately leaves final conclusions to the reader.

Kenneth R. Hall is Professor of History at Ball State University and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. Professor Hall is the author of several books and numerous articles on early South and Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean history, the most recent Networks of Trade, Polity, and Societal Integration in Chola-Era South India; A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development, and the edited volumes, Secondary Cities and Urban Networking in the Indian Ocean Realm, and The Growth of Non-Western Cities, Primary and Secondary Urban Networking. He can be reached at


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