The Levelling Sea

by Philip Marsden

(Harper $26.99)

One of the abiding mysteries and fascinations of history is how small states and cities can emerge from obscurity into world significance. How did Rome come to dominate the bulk of the then-known world? How did the Dutch and the Portuguese create globe-spanning empires? Why did Britain end up with an empire that reached from London to New Zealand?


In this compelling book Philip Marsden tells the story of the explosion of Britain's maritime sway by concentrating on the history of the small Cornish town of Falmouth that went from an isolated rural backwater with no houses at all to becoming one of the great ports of the world. Then, mirroring the British empire itself, it slid off the upper slopes of history and now exists on tourism and is celebrated for housing a Rick Stein fish and chip shop.

The close-focus concentration on Falmouth still enables Marsden to encompass the wider issues from advances in navigation to the revolutionary changes in ship building that led to the great voyages of discovery and the development of entirely new ways of waging war at sea. It is like reading a concentrated version of books like Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves with interesting excursions down byways into subjects like the battle to protect wooden vessels against ship-worm, the rise and fall of the mail packet ship service and, being Cornwall, the constant presence of smuggling and shipwrecks.

The purely local history has its own fascination and a great cast of characters like the Killigrew family, who embraced the respectable and the disreputable, the black musician Joseph Emidy, and the Jewish traders who founded their own community. The mariners loom large and some like Edward Pellew and Jeremiah Coghlan beggar the fiction of novelists like C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian. As Marsden comments they are "maritime figures who seem to come not just from a different age but from a different species".

Skilfully woven into this already rich tapestry are some of Marsden's own reflections and experiences of his life in Cornwall and he is a writer of considerable skill in communicating his feelings. I'm no sailor but he did bring back memories of the sheer enchantment of being in a small boat in the early morning, coming out from Mylor Creek into the Fal estuary.

Even for those with no interest in British history, this is a book worth reading for it is built on the foundation of a deep love of the sea which he describes as "the only true wilderness" we have left and it is unconquerable.

"In its omnipotence, its beauty and its purity, the sea is the earthly manifestation of the divine. Building a vessel and crossing a body of water is a transcendent achievement, and afterwards nothing in this life quite compares."

It is only a pity that this grandeur of spirit is not complemented by this edition in which the illustrations are meanly cramped and for which the publishers have provided no index.

John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.