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216 × 138 × 20 mm
272 pages
20 illustrations
01 Aug 2013
  • £19.95

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The Sea A Cultural History John Mack

‘There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea,’ wrote Joseph Conrad. And there is perhaps nothing more integral to the development of the modern world. The Sea: A Cultural History, considers those great expanses that both unite and divide us, and the ways in which human beings interact because of the sea, from navigation to colonization to trade.

Much of the world’s population lives on or near the coast, and people inhabit and engage with the sea in a variety of ways. The Sea explores the diversity of seas themselves, maritime technologies (especially the practice of navigation), and different cultures surrounding the sea. Seafarers have characteristic social and technical practices, as well as having distinctive language and customs. Many cultures have created a society of the sea, which is usually all-male, often cosmopolitan and always hierarchical. The separation of sea and land is evident in the use of different vocabularies on land and on sea for the same things, the change in a mariner’s behavior when on land and in the liminal status of points uniting the two realms, like beaches and ports. Ships are also deployed in symbolic contexts on land, from ship burials to ecclesiastical and public architecture. The two realms – land and sea – are never completely separate.

Casting a wide net, The Sea uses histories, maritime archaeology, anthropology, art history, biography and literature to provide an innovative and experiential account of the waters that surround us.

‘[John Macks] scholarly but very readable exploration of the sea includes a fascinating chapter on ships as societies, in which he argues ships are the first truly cosmopolitan spaces . . . From skin-covered currachs and the voyages of the Phoenicians, to the liminal terrain of beaches and the way accurate maps changed the mariners relationship to the oceans, Mack takes the reader on a captivating journey through the sea and its multiple meanings.’ — The Guardian

‘The ambition of this book is admirable, and Mack manages to achieve an astonishing amount in just a couple of hundred pages . . . If theres an ounce of salt in your veins, please read The Sea: A Cultural History. Its learned, fluent and, just like its subject, suitably unpredictable.’ — Geographical Magazine

‘An inventive look at the oceans and their influence as barriers, as sources of commerce, life and cultural inspiration on human civilization and the relations among nations.’ — Los Angeles Times

‘John Macks fascinating The Sea: A Cultural History brings an anthropologists intellect to our engagement with the sea.’ — Condé Nast Traveller

‘This thoughtful book explores the multitude of ways in which humans have interacted with the sea and why it has both united and divided us . . . a stimulating and scholarly work, rich in original ideas, and is a major contribution to contemporary historiography. No serious student of maritime or economic history can afford to overlook this book.’ — The Northern Mariner

‘a comprehensive survey of the ways in which human societies have interacted with the sea, that vast expanse which has both united and divided the human race . . . I was intrigued by the chapter dealing with navigation and I learned so much from it about the fascinating history of the art and science of guiding a ship across the sea . . . I defy any reader not to find this book interesting and informative.’ — Canberra Times

‘John Mack has looked at the sea through the prisms of culture, literature, art and anthropology . . . This is a wonderfully erudite study of the artistic and mythological influences of the sea, with references ranging from the usual suspects Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, J.M.W. Turner to such unseaworthy writers as diverse as Victor Hugo, Bruce Chatwin and Dr Samuel Johnson.’ — Sydney Morning Herald

‘This is a deeply learned book, looking at the oceans and the way sailors interact with them . . . adds another dimension to the history of humanity on a part of the planet easily ignored.’ — The Australian

‘Macks dry wonderment about the watery part of the globe smacks of learned curiosity of the eighteenth-century naturalist, enthralled by his subject but unlike his twenty-first-century counterparts, Mack is too rigorous a thinker to universalize his curiosity ad absurdum . . . his teasing out of how the sea is viewed in literature and the arts, from the prints of Hokusai to the writings of Jonathan Raban, are the finest points of this book.’ — The New Republic

‘The book is truly intelligent and international in its scope and a thorough engagement with it would benefit any serious scholar of the maritime world.’ — Sea History Magazine

‘less a historical or geographic overview than a series of elegant miniature studies that find the expanse of the sea in localized maritime practices and contexts . . . What scholars will appreciate in all of this is that Mack is not content simply revisiting great tales of oceanic mastery, but tries to embody the experience of the maritime universe.’ — International Journal of Maritime History

‘With any luck, most of us will be at sea by now. Anyone who is not may like to put their noses into The Sea: A Cultural History which sets out to tell the story of seas as places in their own right rather than expanses of meaningless water separating chunks of useful land . . . There is a lot to think about here, much of it expressed in new ways.’ — Marine Quarterly

‘Studded with arresting facts and figures and drawing from a deep range of sources, [The Sea] is a thought-provoking work that asks readers to question the way in which they see the sea.’ — Nautilus International Telegraph

‘[Mack] interprets a great variety of observations with the insights of a confident anthropologist . . . Macks account is full of fascinating details and intriguing general speculations . . . Having learned more about the sea, readers will find, oddly enough, that they know more about the land and even about themselves.’ — Eastern Daily Press

‘an erudite work that has us thinking about the sea and how our history has been bound up with it . . . those who do sail or have an affinity with the sea will find it essential reading.’ — Yorkshire Gazette and Herald

‘This is the book that I have been waiting for an anthropologists exploration of mans engagement with the sea. In this brilliant analysis John Mack shows us that innate inquisitiveness has driven humans to challenge the sea, creating one of the great dynamics energizing the human story. The Sea is essential reading for all with an interest in the remarkable story of humankind.’ — Barry Cunliffe, University of Oxford

‘I am a part of the sea and the sea is part of me, muses a Torres Straits elder, and John Mack brings readers to just such recognition of their own places in the world. In his able hands, seas become places and not merely The Great Between. They have their own histories, and demand sophisticated technologies of exploration, exploitation, and intellectual fathoming. Through many years of museum scholarship, Mack has perfected a grand, sweeping vision matched by delight in deepest detail, and here he tells compelling stories about ships as societies, sea gypsies, and the hundred named seamarks in open water known to residents of Mabuiag Island. Welcome aboard!’ — Allen F. Roberts, Professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles

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John Mack is Professor of World Art Studies in the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and a specialist in African arts and cultures. His many books include The Museum of the Mind: Art and Memory in World Cultures (2003), The Art of Small Things (2007) and The Sea: A Cultural History (Reaktion, 2011).


1. Different Seas?
2. Concepts of the Sea
3. Navigation and the Arts of Performance
4. Ships as Societies
5. Beaches
6. The Sea on the Land

Photo Acknowledgements