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The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans
- Read in 21 minutes
- Audio & text available
- Contains 13 key ideas
Sea Power (2017) provides an enlightening look at the role Earth’s oceans have played over the course of human history. From early voyagers who sailed into the vast unknown, to the tens of thousands of commercial ships now traversing the globe on a daily basis, our oceans have always been a powerful force that we’ve longed to tame and control. While we’ve come a long way, we still find ourselves faced with immense challenges that we’ll only overcome by working together.
Key idea 1 of 13
Adventurous explorers and brilliant deals set the stage for exploring the Pacific Ocean.
When it comes to sheer size, the Pacific Ocean reigns supreme. Believe it or not, you could combine every landmass on the planet, and it would still be smaller than the Pacific’s 64 million square miles of surface area.
The Pacific is so vast that it wasn’t until the 1500s that explorers began to fully discover the secrets that lay beyond the western shores of the Americas.
The intrepid Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan would be the first European to reach the distant Pacific islands of Guam, the Philippines and Cebu. This last destination was where Magellan was killed by locals after making the mistake of getting involved in their affairs.
But perhaps the most celebrated sailor of the Pacific Ocean was James Cook. A captain in the British Royal Navy, Cook embarked on a series of voyages in the late 1700s that charted what was previously unknown, including key ports in places like Hawaii, Tahiti, Western Canada, Easter Island and parts of New Zealand.
The United States greatly increased its interest in the Pacific following the gold rush in the mid-1800s. During this time, people from all over the country flocked to gold-rich hills of the US west coast, just as coal-powered ships were being introduced.
These boats required coaling stations for long trips across the Pacific, which is exactly what Hawaii became when it was annexed by the United States in 1898. To this day, the Hawaiian islands continue to serve as a reliable gateway for the United States in the Pacific.
A far more questionable land deal was made by the United States in 1867 when Secretary of State William Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Unlike Hawaii, this land was in a much chillier part of the North Pacific Ocean, and many vocal critics believed Seward had wasted money on a useless chunk of frozen tundra.
They may have called it “Seward’s Folly” at the time, but as we’ll see, Alaska came to play a key role in the US economy further down the road.