‘The history of the world’, wrote Thomas Carlyle, ‘is but the biography of great men’, and the same can be said of the history of ships and the sea. It is through the biographies and literature of the men who have lived and fought on the sea, and who have undertaken great voyages of exploration by sea, that we are able to chart the growth of the world as we know it today.
Although the Phoenicians and the Egyptians were among the earliest known users of the sea, the Greeks were the first to write about it. Homer's heroic epics provide some of the earliest examples of sea literature we possess. The Romans, less romantic and more practical mariners, wrote comparatively little about it. Virgil (70–19 bc), who studied Greek, appears to have borrowed some of Homer's nautical genius for expression when writing about ships and the sea, but the inspiration which led Catullus (c.84–54 bc) to write in such moving terms about the laying up of an old ship is exceptional.
Though doughty seamen, the Norsemen were men of action rather than of literature, and the eddas and sagas which they have left us are more in the nature of mythological stories of war and adventure than historical records, though the adventures of Erik the Red and his son have been proved correct. The Welsh and the Irish had their sagas, too. The voyage of Maelduin, and certainly that of Madoc, are just fiction, but Navigatio Brendani, which describes the voyages of St Brendan, is probably based on fact. That greatest of English writers, Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1342–1400), was familiar with the sea. He translated a treatise on the astrolabe and ‘knew all about English merchant shipping in the 14th century’ (R. Hope, A New History of British Shipping (1990), 46), portraying the merchant in his Merchant's Tale as someone anxious to make sure the sea between East Anglia and the Low Countries was cleared of pirates.
Literature in the Age of Exploration.
In 1516 Sir Thomas More (1478–1535) published Utopia which, for all its limited scope, managed to include the drama of seafaring. The early seamen knew little of the art of writing and their accounts of their voyages deal less with the hardships of their passages across the ocean than with the wonders they discovered at their journey's end. The first records of such discoveries come from Portuguese and Spanish sources and these accounts provoked the English seamen to emulate them. Such were De Orbe Novo (c.1511) by Peter Martyr d'Anghiera (1457–1526) and the collection of voyages by Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485–1557) which began to appear in 1550. The doyen of English sea literature is Richard Eden (c.1512–76). In 1553 he translated Munster's Cosmography and in 1555 Peter Martyr's Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India, but he is chiefly remembered for his translation from the Spanish of Martin Cortes's Breve compendio de la sphera y de la arte de navegar (1551), which was published in English in 1561. As the practice of navigation in England at that time was almost non-existent, this book gave a tremendous fillip to English explorers.
Subjects: Maritime History.