Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories

Nov 17, 2010

Master raconteur Simon Winchester tells a series of gripping and little-known tales of the Atlantic, the ocean he calls "the inland sea of modern civilization."


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and I'm delighted that so many of you have joined us for this morning's voyage.

Our speaker is an inveterate traveler, erudite scholar, and best-selling author, who is here to discuss his account of one of the world's greatest oceans.

Simon Winchester is no stranger to big ideas and big subjects, so when his latest book, Atlantic, turned out to be a biography of the Atlantic Ocean, it was not at all surprising. Still, the use of the word "biography" to describe this new work may have seemed a bit unusual. However, our guest sees the ocean as a living thing, having been born about 190 million years ago, with a life expectancy that is estimated to endure for another 180 million years.

Stories have been compared to magic carpets. The good ones carry you off to other places, other times, and different worlds. But in order to engage us they require not only a special setting and interesting details, but an overarching theme to hold it all together.

Even for a gifted storyteller, writing about this particular subject presented particular challenges, as Mr. Winchester confesses in the preface to his book. But, being the masterful and creative writer that he is, our speaker found a solution that provided the structure he needed to tell this wonderful narrative.

He writes that while reading the monologue "All the world's a stage" from Shakespeare's As You Like It, he realized that the very same seven stages of man referred to in this speech would provide a structure, a proper framework, a stage setting, with seven acts, that he could fashion a coherent narrative out of a vast ocean of a million stories.

As the history of the Atlantic unfolds, it becomes an incredibly navigable and fascinating tale about how mankind for hundreds of years has interacted with and been affected by this ocean that has been central to the ambitions of explorers, scientists, warriors, and artists. In many ways, it has defined the nature of western civilization.

Beginning with a prologue that covers the geologic forces that created this 33-million-square-mile body of water, Mr. Winchester writes about the challenges of defining its boundaries, mapping its currents and depths, to the creative forces that inspired the art of Homer and Turner, to how the ocean served as a stage for wartime battles, and later how trade, communication, air and sea travel all developed and expanded.

Our speaker chronicles these myriad relationships and more as he tells us how the ocean has evolved. He concludes with a forewarning that the Atlantic Ocean as we now know it will in its senescence cease to be as it once was.

In reading Atlantic, you will find not only a wonderful history about this bridge to western civilization, but you will also discover just how central this vast body of water has been in your own lives. As Mr. Winchester says, it has been "the focal point, an axis, a fulcrum, around which the power and influence of the modern world has long been distributed, defined, and determined."

To learn what he means by this, please join me in welcoming a very skilled navigator who will take us on a seafaring adventure of a lifetime, Simon Winchester.


SIMON WINCHESTER: Thank you very much indeed, and good morning to you.

This story about the Atlantic Ocean was essentially born on the Pacific, for one specific reason and for one more general reason. I lived in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s, and everyone in those days would say that the Pacific Ocean is the ocean of the future, and I drank the Kool-Aid. I mean no disrespect to the distinguished New Zealand ambassador today, in saying that unfortunately I somewhat got it wrong.

I spent about 18 months traveling all over the Pacific to write a book about the ocean of the future. I went from Kamchatka to Chile, and from Australia to Alaska, and all the islands in between, and wrote a book, which I have to confess was something of a commercial failure.

And I do know failure. One book I wrote on America in the 1970s sold just 12 copies [Laughter], although I saw on eBay the other day, 13. It was about the American Midwest, so that might be the reason.

When I was reviewing why the Pacific hasn't done terribly well, it struck me that it may be the ocean of the future, but what it clearly isn't is the ocean of the past, at least in human terms. You had, of course, the Polynesian navigations and you had Magellan and so forth, but in terms of its centrality to the human story, it really was not the right ocean to write about.

The thesis that underpins this book is that the Mediterranean is the island sea of classical civilization, and if you accept that, then it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to believe that the Atlantic Ocean compared to the Pacific is the inland sea of modern western civilization.

I had backed the wrong horse, or the wrong ocean, back in the 1980s and 1990s. At some stage, I said to myself, "I've got to get the right horse. I've got to write a book about the Atlantic."

The thing that pushed me over the edge also occurred on the Pacific about five years ago. I was driving northwards from Punta Arenas in the very southern part of Chilean Patagonia to the Torres del Paine National Park. I dare say one or two of you will have driven that road. It's an extremely bad gravel road which drives through a particularly uninhabited part of western Patagonia.

This particular night it was sheeting down with rain. It was miserable. It was 10 o'clock. I was tired and I wanted somewhere to stay. There was effectively nowhere, except I then saw a tiny little wooden sign pointing down an even worse road to the left which said, sort of slightly encouragingly, "Hosteria del Rio de la Penitencia," [laughter] which I thought wasn't necessarily terribly promising, but I turned left anyway.

I bounced down this road in the rainstorm and came to this huge what appeared to be Scottish castle, with one or two rather dim lights. I stopped the car and went up to this enormous oak door. A functionary opened the door and said, "Yes, we are indeed a hotel. We haven't had a guest for about the last six months, but you're more than welcome. Do come in."

He explained that it was indeed built by a Scottish sheep farmer in the 1880s and it had been a prosperous sheep farm. Now it had fallen on slightly hard times. They raised the Chilean equivalent of the llama, which is the guanaco. "The guanaco," he said, "is a very tasty animal, so we'll make a casserole of guanaco for you, and we'll bake some bread, and we'll give you a nice dinner, and we hope you'll be comfortable."

It couldn't have been a more idyllic situation. I had this wonderful, very tasty stew. I was shown after dinner into this enormous library, with a great inglenook and a roaring fire. I was given a bottle of whiskey. One could not be happier. There was this library and every book was in English. I was in heaven.

I selected one book—not at random; I looked carefully through what I wanted, and I brought one book from the shelf, sat down by the fire, opened the bottle of whiskey, and started reading. I was so completely captivated by this book that I read it from beginning to end. When I ended it, dawn was coming up over the Andes and the whiskey bottle was halfway empty. It was magic.

That book, which I'll tell you about in a few moments, was what prompted me to write a book about the ocean that I was not then on, not the Pacific, but about the Atlantic. You'll see why in a moment.

How on earth do you write a book about an ocean? As you very kindly said in the introduction, I decided on a biography because the Atlantic was born 200 million years ago when Pangaea, that enormous uber-continent that dominated the world, split into two, and the Panthalassa, which is the sea that surrounded it, poured into the gap between the two parts.

About 50 million years ago the ocean achieved the shape, the sort of "S" sinuous shape, that it has today. It has remained more or less the same for the last 50 million years, just getting bigger all the time. In fact, since I started the book to when it was published the Atlantic got three-and-a-half inches wider.

There is a group, particularly at the University of Texas, of geological futurists who, using very complex mathematical models, work out how the continents, on the basis of how they have moved in the past, will move in the future.

The current thinking—it sounds rather arcane and bizarre—is Cape Horn will start moving eastwards relatively soon. It will move along the bottom of the map, across the south Atlantic, under the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Agulhas in South Africa, continue moving eastwards under the Indian Ocean, will reach Australia, and then Australia will start to spin anticlockwise.

This will make Cape Horn turn northwards between Australia and New Zealand and head northwards until about 170 million years from now when it collides with Singapore. If you can hold that in your mind, when Cape Horn collides with Singapore, then the last bit of water will be squeezed out of the Atlantic Ocean.

There is a finite amount of water on this planet. It will simply go somewhere else to be configured into other oceans. The Atlantic as we have come to know it will cease to be. Of course we will all be extinct.

I should say in parenthesis here, not everyone gets this notion of geological time. I was talking to a group of "ladies who lunch" in Kansas City a couple of years ago about the likelihood of the volcanoes in Yellowstone National Park erupting, as they surely will. I painted a fairly vivid portrait of what is likely to happen—a titanic series of eruptions which will last for several hundred years. All the great northwest American cities—San Francisco, Seattle, Portland; and over the border, Calgary and Vancouver—will be covered by hundreds of feet of volcanic dust and everything will come to an end.

People looked somewhat nervous at this. "But," I said, "don't worry. This will be in 250,000 years, by which time of course everyone will be extinct."

Everyone sort of sighed with much relief, except of one extremely angry woman sitting in the front row, who stood up, choleric and red-faced, and said, "What, even Americans will be extinct?"[Laughter] Americans, I'm afraid, will be extinct by the time the Atlantic ceases to be.

That then provides me with the prologue and the epilogue for the book. As you mentioned, the seven chapters within are organized according to the seven ages of man from As You Like It: infancy, school child, lover, soldier, justice, old man, and return to childhood. Not all the critiques are in yet, but most people seem to think that the structure more or less works.

What I thought I'd do was to select almost at random from this great sort of gallimaufry of things that are put into this structure just a couple of stories to indicate the way that the Atlantic impinges on us in ways that we may not either know or have thought about for some while. Then I will end this by going back to the book that I read in Chile and tell you why that was particularly important for me.

The first of these stories—they take about five minutes each to tell—is sort of important, if you like something relatively unexpected. The second one is less important, although perhaps in a philosophical sense it is quite important.

The first one: The background scenario is quite simple. It relates to the Battle of the Atlantic in the First World War. There were two Battles of the Atlantic, one in each war. They refer to what are essentially called "tonnage wars," where German submarines would attempt to interdict and sink eastbound cargo convoys to stop Britain getting supplies of grain or munitions or whatever she needed from the very kindly people in North America.

The only technical difference between these two wars was that in the Second World War German submarines were able to fire their torpedoes at cargo ships while they were submerged, but for most of the First World War, they fired their torpedoes at us when they came to the surface.

They would use their periscopes to locate the ships, come to the surface, fire their torpedoes, and with any luck (from their point of view anyway) sink us. The fact that they were on the surface gave the Royal Navy the opportunity to shoot at the submarines and hopefully sink them.

This was happening in 1914, 1915, and most of 1916. In the summer of 1916 we, the Royal Navy, ceased being able, at least with the energy hitherto, to sink German ships, for one very simple, practical reason. We were running short of cordite, the propellant that fires the shell from the seven- or eight-inch guns with which we would try to attack these submarines. The reason that we were short of cordite is that we had run short of a chemical component, acetone. Acetone, most women in the audience will know, is nail polish remover.

Up to this point Britain had imported all of her acetone from Germany. Clearly, the Germans weren't going to sell us acetone if they were at war with us. We had a bit of a problem. That's the background to the story.

What happened in the summer of 1916 is Charles Prestwich Scott, who was the editor of The Guardian, and was best known perhaps for making that famous journalistic mantra that "comment is free but facts are sacred"—used to have lunch every Tuesday at the Northern Liberal Club with someone he found interesting. In July 1916, on a Tuesday, he had lunch with the professor of chemistry of the University of Manchester, who was a White Russian chap called Chaim Weizmann.

During lunch, somewhat startling C.P. Scott, Weizmann got very excited and said, "I've come up with a way of producing in industrial quantities the chemical acetone." C.P. Scott had never heard of acetone in his life and found this a rather boring if startling remark, but nonetheless put it in his brain, where it remained.

It only really had to remain there for a week, because the following week he was in London having lunch with David Lloyd George, who at the time was Minister of Munitions in the wartime cabinet. Lloyd George was going on and on at lunch saying how dreadful the situation was in the north Atlantic because our boys, the Royal Navy, didn't have enough cordite and that was because we didn't have enough acetone. This is the second time in a week that C.P. Scott has heard this strange word.

A light went on in his brain. He said, "I've just had lunch with this fellow up in Manchester last week who claims to have found a way of producing acetone in very large quantities."

This made Lloyd George suddenly come alive. He said, "Really? We must see him. We must have him down to London."

He was brought down to London and interviewed by boffins [scientists], who discovered that he was not a crackpot, and said, "What do you need, Professor Weizmann, to accomplish this?"

He said, "I need something with vats or stills or something like that, large things."

They said, "How about the Nicholson's gin factory, which is in East London where the Bow Bells are? It has just gone bankrupt, so we've taken possession of the site. Would that do?"

He said, "That would be wonderful. A gin factory is just the sort of thing I'm looking for."

"What else?"

He said, "I need a large quantity of something with cellulose in it, like maize."

They said, "Well, you can't have maize because that keeps getting torpedoed on its way over from Canada. That's the sort of problem we're trying to solve. Anything else?"

He said, "Yes. How about chestnuts?"

Children in Britain—I did this as a child, I don't know about children in America—in September-October play a game called conkers. You collect horse chestnuts, you bore a hole through them with a skewer, suspend them like a sort of plumb bob on a string, and another boy tries to hit your conker with his conker. It's a crazy game, but we played it. The result of this was that all children all over Britain in September and October voluntarily collect conkers.

The word went out that autumn that children should continue to collect conkers but not play the game. They should simply put these things into paper bags and people would collect them and bring them to London. That's exactly what happened. Children collected conkers in sacks and put them in lorries, which came down to London.

Thousands of tons of conkers were poured into the vats of the Nicholson's gin factory. Using the magic that Professor Weizmann had devised, first from the spigots at the bottom of the tank would come a trickle, then a gush, then a torrent of pure acetone. It was then put into convoys, and then put on trains, which were taken down to Poole in Dorsett, where the Royal Navy munitions factory was.

After that it was transformed into cordite, loaded onto the ships, taken out into the Atlantic, and, lo and behold, the guns started firing again and German submarines started sinking. The whole calculus of the war effort started to turn back to Britain's favor.

This is what was happening during the autumn and winter of 1916 and early into 1917. Then it became apparent that we were winning the Battle of the Atlantic and no longer were we losing it.

The British government collectively heaved a sigh of relief and said, "Gosh, the person who was responsible for this we ought to honor in some way."

The thing the British do to honor people largely is to give them knighthoods. They looked at his name, Chaim Weizmann, and thought that Sir Chaim Weizmann would sound very agreeable. It was decided that he should be summoned down from Manchester and told that His Majesty's government wished to award him an honor.

It was decided, because he was a foreigner, because he was a White Russian, that this task should be given to the foreign secretary, who was Arthur Balfour.

I'm sure you are now all beginning to understand how this is going to coalesce. Arthur Balfour summoned Weizmann down to London. He knew Weizmann. He said, "We're terribly grateful for you inventing this acetone stuff, which has changed our fortunes in the middle of the Atlantic. I'm here to tell you that we'd like to give you a knighthood. Buckingham Palace is asking whether you would be minded to accept."

Weizmann said, "It's really awfully kind of you, Mr. Balfour, but my answer is no. I do not wish to be honored personally. But what I do want—as you know, I'm secretary of the English Zionist League—is for you to write a declaration saying that His Majesty's government would look with favor upon the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine."

Lord Balfour said, "Possibly. We can talk about that."

Throughout the summer of 1917 they did discuss this. On November 2, 1917, there was a formal letter sent to Lord Rothschild, who was president of the World Zionist Federation, with a copy out of gratitude to the man who started it all, Professor Weizmann. The famous formal Balfour Declaration was made, in which His Majesty's government states that it looks with favor upon the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.

It can fairly be said that the Jewish state, which was founded 31 years later in 1948, came about because of the vagaries of chemistry and was born through a series of events which began in the north Atlantic Ocean, under-spinning the point that this book attempts to make, which is that the Atlantic affects the lives of all of us, even as far away as the Levant.

That is one of the two stories.

The other one is in a way much more trivial, although it is philosophically interesting. It also relates to war, although in the south Atlantic.

In May 1982 I was in prison. I don't know how many convicts you've had addressing you from this podium, but I'm sure I'm not the first, and I'm sure I won't be the last.

I was arrested for spying in Argentina during the Falklands war and was locked away, theoretically for life, although as you can see they let me out on bail on a rather trivial sum. I spent three months in the most southerly town in the world, a place called Ushuaia in southern Tierra del Fuego.

I remember very vividly the day—it was May 10, 1982—there was a tremendous commotion in the cell. A very excited prison governor, Juan Carlos Grieco, came up to the cell and shouted at me, "We've sunk one of your ships."

He was absolutely thrilled to say that the first casualty of the war was that an Argentine airplane, a Super Etendard, had dropped a typically French missile, called an Exocet, and it hit amidships one of the prides of the Royal Navy, the HMS Sheffield, which is a Type 42 destroyer, and set it on fire. Many people were killed, the ship was abandoned, and then six days later it sank.

This was the first marine Royal Navy casualty since World War II. It was something that shocked. It was one of the events which to a Briton was as memorable as many tragedies. You know where you were when you heard of the sinking of the Sheffield. I was in prison.

The war then progressed, and the British eventually succeeded. There was an end to the war. I was released for this insulting amount of bail.

I didn't forget about it, obviously, but the years went past. About 15 years later when I was living in America, I got a letter through a series of intermediaries from Juan Carlos Grieco. He was an Argentine naval officer and he was in charge of the prison. He said he very much wanted to see me, but he was arrested after the war was over. He was put in my cell for the following year.

He then was dismissed from the navy and had to go from house to house in Buenos Aires selling soap powder, but he managed to keep his life and his dignity and his family together. He then took a degree in history and returned to Tierra del Fuego, where he is now professor of history at the University of Patagonia Tierra del Fuego campus. He would love to show me Tierra del Fuego as a free man.

I showed this to an editor at a magazine in New York. Naturally, he said, "This is a rip-roaring story. Go down immediately."

I left that night. I flew down to Buenos Aires, and then flew down to Ushuaia. There was Juan Carlos. It was 15 years later. He was different completely. All the swagger and braggadocio had gone. He was a very different man.

He had something to say to me. He took me out to dinner and we ate very well. We had centolla, which is the king crab that they have in abundance in the waters off Cape Horn, and the Calafate berry, which is a berry that they say if you eat a soufflé of Calafate you will always come back to Patagonia. This was proving the point as it were. And two at least bottles of Malbec. We were well on into the evening.

Then his eyes welled up with tears. He said, "The reason I wanted you to come back is I want to apologize, because I am a professional sailor, and I remember vividly, as I dare say you do, the 10th of May, the sinking of the Sheffield, when I came into your cell and shouted exultantly that we had sunk one of your ships. I just want you to know that I feel desperately sorry. I've always felt sorry about that, because no sailor likes to see another ship sinking. Drowning in the middle of an uncharted ocean is just an unimaginably horrible thing to do." He said, "I wish formally to apologize to you because there is a brotherhood of the sea."

That was terribly nice. It's not a terribly important story, but it's important to me personally.

I just want to round this off with the book by John Marsh [Skeleton Coast] that I was reading back five years ago in Chile. It was the story of a civilian shipwreck, in 1942. The ship was called the MV Dunedin Star. It was coming from Liverpool down the west coast of Africa, with the idea being that it would round Cape Agulhas and go north to deliver cargo in Aden. It had 62 passengers onboard, including two babes in arms.

The ship passed the coast of Angola. South of the Cunene River for about 300 miles there is this stretch of coastline in what is now Namibia, called the Skeleton Coast because it is so dangerous. It is probably the 300 most dangerous miles of coastline anywhere in the world. All mariners fear it. There are onshore winds, vicious reefs, fogs, and a horrible northbound cold current.

If you do have the misfortune of being stranded on the coast, there is no water. You die. The coastline is littered, which is why it is called Skeleton Coast, with the skeletons of ships that from the 15th century that sunk and remained there.

The Dunedin Star did indeed strand on the Clan Alpine Shoal. The 62 people did get onshore through the raging water and built themselves a shelter. In normal circumstances they would have died. But there was a heroic rescue attempt—not initially made by sea—of policemen coming up from the capital. It took them two months, but they got to them. They dropped them water from aircraft. The people clung onto life. They got back eventually. No casualties at all, not of the party.

However, there were rescue attempts made by sea. They all failed. One of them I was particularly moved by was a tug from Cape Town, called the Sir Charles Elliot. It came up to within about ten miles of them, then got caught in the onshore currents and winds, drifted onto a shoal, and was wrecked. Two young men, the first mate was a Scotsman, Angus Campbell McIntyrethe and his assistant was Mathias Korabseb, tried to swim ashore with a rope, but they were swept away and they drowned.

I read this story. The rescue attempt was extraordinary and heroic. The saga of the Sir Charles Elliot was very sad. I decided that I would somehow sooner or later go and find the wreck, probably the loneliest grave site in the world.

When I was researching this book, I managed to get myself to Cape Town and got up to Windhoek. I found someone in a little plane that took me up to the Skeleton Coast, and there I found a local with a Land Rover that was capable of driving over the desert. I had the GPS coordinates of where I thought the wreck was. We drove three days up the coast. It is very bleak, and I can't begin to tell you how lonely it is.

We eventually reached the wreck. The ship is still recognizable after 68 years—funnel, anchor, boilers, and so forth there—and boxes of her cargo, which you would open, and in them hundreds of unbroken light bulbs, which we had been for some reason sending to Aden from Liverpool—I don't know why. The shelter was still there, the canvas obviously ripped away, but the places where these people had lived.

What I wanted to see was the grave site. We turned around and went south a bit, about ten or twelve miles, to a place called Rocky Point, which is where I knew the Sir Charles Elliot had stranded. You see in the troughs between the incoming breakers two tiny stanchions of rusted iron, which is all that remains visible above the sea of this ship, and the rest of it was somewhere under the sea and below the waves.

Onshore, on a sand spit, in what must be the loneliest grave in the world, there is a pile of whale bones and boulders, and a small brass plaque which says, "To the memory of Mathias Korabseb and Angus Campbell McIntyre." I was extremely moved by this.

I had picked up from the wreck a small glass bottle that was something that a woman who had been on the southbound voyage had put smelling salts in. It had been blown smooth by the drifting sands over the half-century. There's a Scottish tradition of whenever you seen a cairn of boulders you add to it to keep it solid. I thought I would put this bottle into the cairn.

I unscrewed it and I tore a page from my notebook and I wrote—it sounds awfully corny I know, but at the time it was the best I could do—"Thanks so much for trying. Now rest in peace." I signed it with my name and address in New York, screwed it up, tucked it into the bottle, screwed it shut—a message in a bottle, which of course all sailors know—and put it among the boulders and the whale bones. That I thought at the time was enough.

Then I got home and was writing the book, and I thought to myself that Angus Campbell McIntyre in a way symbolized so much of at least one aspect of our human relationship with this ocean: he was born on an island in the west coast of Scotland in the Atlantic Ocean; he traveled down the Atlantic Ocean to work in Cape Town, which is one of the great cities on the shores of the Atlantic; he had gotten a job working in the Atlantic on the Sir Charles Elliot; and he died in the Atlantic trying to effect a rescue; and then his body was somehow swept out and lies somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

I decided at the end of the day that I would dedicate the book to him. That's what I did. I dedicated it to my wife, as I always do, but also to the memory of Angus Campbell McIntyre, who symbolizes, at least in my mind, our human relationship with this enormous body, this 33 million square miles of this ocean, which is central to all of our histories.

Thank you very much indeed.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

You are the most marvelous raconteur. Since we don't have the brandy for a lunch or dinner, all we have is sobering coffee, may I dare to ask you about power relations as they are affected by the Atlantic. For example, you speak so well in your Oxonian accent, and we know that Britannia has ruled the waves, and that's how the American Colonies after all became so Anglophone. There was also the time when Portugal went out and conquered the world.

Could you perhaps relate to these questions of power relations and how they have shifted and how the Atlantic has made such a difference?

SIMON WINCHESTER: Yes. That's a very long subject.

One thing I should say on the beginning of power relationships is that this book is making me hugely unpopular in one particular quadrant of American society. I find it increasingly difficult to get reservations in Italian restaurants, because I have tried in this book to dislodge Christopher Columbus from his position of primacy.

Columbus was not the first to cross to North America. North America was first settled by a Norwegian called Leif Ericson 491 years before Columbus—who never got here, didn't know where he was, and all the rest of it.

It's hardly a power relationship, but it is indicative of something. Not only did the Norwegians build this wonderful little settlement at L'Anse Meadows in Newfoundland, which if you haven't seen it, I think you all should—it's a wonderfully moving little clutch of sod-covered houses—they also had a child there. The first European child born in North America was Snorri Karlsefnisson.

The thing about the Norwegians is that they hated the weather. After five or six years, when Snorri was a little boy, they decided to pull up stakes and make it back to Norway, saying, "We don't know why we bothered to come here. It's just as gloomy as it is back in Stavanger."

The big difference was—and this is the beginning of the power shift—that by good fortune Columbus and his crew landed in a part of North America where the weather was wonderful and things grew in abundance. It wasn't all bleak and stunted trees. It was rich in abundance. That's how it all began.

You know very well about the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Treaty of Tordesillas, and all the divisions between Portugal and Spain in the Atlantic. Then the British came in, Cabot being the first, and settled in Newfoundland, which is the oldest of all the British colonies.

We still cling on. We still have in the Atlantic Ocean five Caribbean colonies. We've got the very crucial military base of Ascension Island. We've got Saint Helena, where Napoleon was locked up after Waterloo. We've got Tristan da Cunha, one of the dreariest places in the world, from which I am banned for life—but that's a whole different story.

And of course we've got the Falkland Islands, which one has to remember in power relationships. One of the reasons that the Americans were so kind to us in the 1982 war, giving us Sidewinders and all sorts of basing facilities for our war, is that America did not want a hostile and unstable nation to take control of the approaches to Cape Horn. You would prefer that a moderately friendly government, the British, is in control of the approaches to Cape Horn.

I could go on at great length. Basically the sea is now essentially in the bailiwick of the American Second Fleet, running out of Norfolk, Virginia, and no longer can the British say "we rule the waves," particularly after the cuts that David Cameron announced last week. We are losing the Ark Royal , which is the flagship of our fleet. So it's up to you guys. The new carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, that's in—I saw it in Norfolk last Friday—that's the kind of vessel that is going to do the power projection in the Atlantic Ocean for the next half-century.

QUESTION: Tom Wallace, known to Simon Winchester.

Under full disclosure—you talk about "you guys"—shouldn't you reveal that you've recently become an American? You're probably a dual citizen. But I just wonder why you say "you guys."

SIMON WINCHESTER: No, because it is still technically you guys. I haven't been fully accepted into your country yet. I'm merely a Green Card holder. But it's on the table and I've got one final form to fill in.

I'm glad you brought it up, because I'm very keen to become an American, and I think that will happen next January. We are doing the ceremony on the deck of the USS Constitution. I happen to know the captain. He thought it was very appropriate, because of course the USS Constitution was hugely important during the War of 1812, of which we are coming up to the 200th anniversary. It was a mournful event for most Englishmen. I will walk on the deck as an Englishman and I will walk off as an American. I think it's wonderfully symbolic.

QUESTION: My name is James Starkman. I am a semi-extinct American. I really can't understand why you would want to become one of us since you will be fully extinct very shortly.

I am really most gratified by the story of how young English schoolboys pulled all our chestnuts out of the fire. I thought that was really very illuminating.

I was wondering if in the book you address the Battle of Jutland. I'd like your comments on that.

I do. I am fascinated by Jutland. If you remember from the seven ages of man, the fourth is the soldier, so that chapter is everything to do with warfare and armed conflict of one sort or another in the Atlantic.

It begins with the Vikings and the Romans and then looks at the development of wooden ship warfare, with the classic battle being Trafalgar, and the crossing of the "T" by Nelson. It then looks at the development of metal ship warfare, beginning with the USS Merrimack and the USS Monitor during the American Civil War, and then progressing to the classic of all battles, which is the Battle of Jutland.

The Battle of Jutland was a horrendous exchange of losses between the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet. I became fascinated that after the war was over and the German High Seas Fleet was interned in Scapa Flow, which is this more or less landlocked bay in the Orkney Islands, all these great German battleships and dreadnaughts were there.

Then there was this incredible moment—and I think it was 1919—when on a prearranged signal a radio message was sent to all of the ships by the German officers, who were allowed to remain onboard of course, they were all blown up and scuttled. So the entire fleet sank to the bottom of Scapa Flow. It was incredibly annoying for the Royal Navy, which wanted these ships, and suddenly they disappeared as one.

The coda that I find interesting is that to this day the ships, which you can still see if you fly into the Orkneys and you pass low or the sun is at the right angle—you can see the outlines of these ships all sunk down below. Divers still go down to extract steel from the hulls of some of these ships for use in very sensitive scientific experiments, because it is some of the very rare currencies of high-quality steel which does not have any radioactivity in it.

Ever since the testing of the atom bomb was begun in 1945, all steel has got very tiny amounts of radioactivity in it. But none in steel made before 1945. Occasionally divers go down, and the reason they are going with welding torches is to get small amounts of steel to use in experiments all over the world, because it is the purest steel you can imagine.

QUESTION: In the past controlling the seas was tremendously important. But with the changes in technology—Internet, air travel—how important do you think the seas are going forward?

SIMON WINCHESTER: Hugely important. In the chapter relating to justice, I deal with trade, communications, and the law of the sea.

The statistics still give the Atlantic primacy of position over the Pacific. You've only got to look at the number of flights for a start. Gander Air Traffic Control and Shanwick Air Traffic Control, which are the two ends of the North Atlantic air route, have 414,000 flights a year and 1,350 a day, traveling. It's like a solid highway of air traffic. But that is as nothing compared to ship traffic.

It was in the Atlantic that Malcom McLean, a Kentucky truck-driving company boss, suddenly had this idea in the 1950s of putting things on ships in boxes all of the same size. This man invented the shipping container, which transformed everything and enabled goods from the Far East, let's say, to be brought economically to America.

Stevedoring and everything changes. You remember On the Waterfront and movies like that. Overnight the port charges dropped from $6 a ton to 16 cents a ton, which meant that suddenly ports like Yokohama and Shanghai became connectable with ports like San Francisco and Vancouver, and overnight the Far East as a manufacturing center got its start.

The container-ship revolution is something that really hasn't been written about extensively except in the trade magazines. That was born on the Atlantic. The amount of shipping traffic carrying containers across the Atlantic is prodigious and growing. There's a bit of a hiccup now because of the economic downturn, but all the underlying figures show that the Atlantic is almost a solid pathway of trade. There is no gainsaying that, and that is not going to diminish anytime soon.

But there is a corollary to it, which is that the planes emit a vast amount of carbon particles, which are inimical to the health of the atmosphere, and so do ships. There is a new technology in Germany which shows that just as with contrails—not the California contrail of two days ago, but ones that you see behind an airplane—are emitted by ships as well.

You can see pathways of, as it were, "smoke" in the Atlantic Ocean crisscrossing the Atlantic from Liverpool to Baltimore or Lisbon to St. John's, because ships themselves are very dirty creatures. Both industries are now trying to burn other fuels and make themselves greener, as so they should.

The Internet is making no difference at all. It is a very, very busy ocean.


Can I say in passing that the vision of Australia spinning anticlockwise is one that rather appeals to New Zealanders. [Laughter]

You describe the Atlantic as "the inland sea of western civilization." I'd agree with that. I wonder if you could comment on the suggestion that that has actually resulted in a serious 20th century political error on the part of those who determined particularly American but also European policy.

In other words, it was the Atlantic and the relationships of the Atlantic that essentially drove geopolitical considerations and led to grievous errors in relation to Japan in the 1930s, China in the 1940s and 1950s, Indochina, and so on. It wasn't until the 1970s that people suddenly started to realize there was an Asia and an Asia Pacific that also had to be reckoned in geopolitical terms.

SIMON WINCHESTER: I couldn't agree with you more, except I am simply trying to tell the story of the Atlantic's history and say it is hugely important.

The last book I wrote was a book about a chap called Joseph Needham. He was essentially the architect, or the one who made people realize all of a sudden that China was not a country to be overlooked. China is far from having been on the periphery of civilization, which is what our Atlantic-centric culture persuades us is the truth. Instead, China has been at the center of the creation of civilization.

We've got the message now. But we didn't start to get it until essentially he wrote his book. The first volume of Science and Civilization in China, the biggest book in the English language about China ever written, was published in 1954. Up to that point we were unashamedly Atlantic-centric, and we did overlook the realities of the coming Japan, Korea, and China. But there is no doubt nowadays.

However, I think—and this isn't simply because I have written a book about it—it is going to be a very long time before the primacy of this ocean and the axis of decision-making between Europe and the east coast of North America is toppled from its perch.

We all know China and Japan, China particularly, are vastly important economically. But important culturally, spiritually—I'm still not certain that that is going to happen. I think Euro-American centricity is going to dominate the world for a long time to come—and New Zealand of course. [Laughter]

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt.

You have spoken about the Pacific, you've written about the Atlantic, but there's something in between. Robert Kaplan was here a few days ago to speak about his new book, Monsoon. He says the Indian Ocean is the one that is essentially the ocean of the future, given what is happening in China and the decline in some ways of the West.

What do you say about the Indian Ocean?

SIMON WINCHESTER: I'd love the two of us to have a debate about that.

I cannot agree. I was a correspondent in India for three years; I love India; I go there every year. It is clearly hugely important. The Chinese premier a few years ago said the future of the world is that India is the brains and China is the muscle, and between the two of us we will dominate the world.

That may well happen. But people have been talking this way for quite a long time now, ever since Deng Xiaoping made that remark about "to get rich is glorious." The coming economic strength of China, no one doubts it. Whether those two countries are going to have quite the global influence that America and Europe have, which is the position that Kaplan takes, I don't buy it. Theoretically it's a nice idea, but I just don't think it is going to happen practically.

I would love to sit down with him. Maybe you could think of a future occasion where we could have a ding-dong debate about it.

It's a nice idea—well, I don't think it's a nice idea either. It's an idea, but I don't think it is going to happen, not for a long, long time.

You took us on a magical carpet ride. I know it's not the ocean, but thank you so much for being with us.

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