Cinnamon, Porcelain, & Sacrifice

I spent the past two weeks at sea. The ship I sailed on patiently meandered all the way around the island of Britain and called at various ports in England, Ireland, Scotland, and France. It proved to be a valuable education in that vast and elegant mystery known as the sea. I felt in some childish way as if I were in the company of Melville and Conrad. I had entered a world that, as their stories so often reveal, contained many enchantments as well as an overriding indifference to the affairs of man. There were mists that seemed to hang ominously over the horizon; sea swells that could make the giant ship I was on bob like a cork in a bathtub; strange currents where the ocean felt as still and as silent as the grave; dolphins that leapt beside the bow in the moonlight.

With these wonders in mind, while staring one evening at the gray smudges of the Isle of Skye, I imagined how peculiar the sea must have seemed to our ancestors. These were men who sailed the earth with only the sun and stars to guide them; the luckier ones of later eras had compasses and sextants but nothing half as convenient as a modern satellite positioning system. The bulk of Western civilization was built on the courage of men who were willing to brave the mysteries of the sea. They brought cinnamon from India and delicate blue and white porcelain from the Ming. They introduced Europe to the luxuries of pepper, silk, rice, turquoise, tea, coffee, furs, jade, indigo, diamonds, and a thousand other things that today we enjoy in abundance.

It is a shame that so few wish to understand the sea and its stories. We should not forget the sacrifices of our sailors: the thousands of drowned men, the malnourished deckhands fed for months on hardtack, the legless, one-eyed naval officers left destitute once they retired. We should not forget these things because to do so would be to forget who we are. The story of Western dominance is a story of the sea.


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