Technology itself is neutral. They are considered innovative for their time because they allow you to do more than what you thought was humanly possible. These innovations in technology have shaped the various chapters of history far more than we have. The inspiration and impulse behind the idea and the impetus; and the ability and know-how to create those ideas are two entirely separate processes.

We have used and utilised these technologies to trade and extend diplomatic relations. We have also used those same technologies to either destroy one another or to protect ourselves from harm. You could even say that more people have been lost out at sea than anywhere else. Not that we ever found them… Till they were washed up on the shore.

Out at Sea

Mankind has fought battles on the sea for more than 3,000 years. Naval warfare is combat in and on the sea, the ocean or any other area involving a large body of water such as a great lake or a wide river. In the interior of large landmasses, transportation before the advent of extensive railroads was principally dependent upon rivers, canals and other navigable waterways.

The ocean’s nervous system–the rivers, canals and other waterways–were crucial to the development of the modern world in Britain for they enabled the mass movement of goods and raw materials; without which the Industrial Revolution would not have happened. Before 1800, war materials were mostly moved by river barge or sea vessels and needed a naval defence to guard against their enemies.

The East India Company was initially created in 1600 to serve as a trading body for English merchants, specifically to participate in the East Indian spice trade. The Republic of Venice, in particular, had become a formidable power and a key player in the Eastern spice trade.

Other powers, in an attempt to break the Venetian foothold on the spice trade, began to build up maritime capabilities. One of the most important technological exchanges of the spice trade network was the early introduction of maritime technologies to India, the Middle East, East Africa, and China by the Austronesian peoples.

The Naval Technologies of the Austronesian Peoples

Austronesians were the first people to invent oceangoing sailing technologies. The very first maritime technologies that these diverse groups of people invented include: the sewn boats, catamarans and the outrigger boats.

While they are believed to have started their journey in the collective island nations of Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Micronesia, Coastal New Guinea, Island Melanesia, Polynesia and Madagascar–they travelled far far away from their so-called origins, bridging the vast distance that separated them with their sailing technologies.

Even till today, millennia after these first inventions were born, freight transport is still done by ships. An individual nation’s fleet and the people that crew it are referred to as its merchant navy or merchant marine. Merchant shipping is the lifeblood of the world economy, carrying 90% of international trade with 102,194 commercial ships worldwide. On rivers and canals, barges are still often used to carry bulk cargo.

We humans do not travel by sea as extensively as we used to. We mainly use ‘alternative’ modes of transportation now–such as cars, trains and planes. But if you are anything like me, which I am not saying that you are, you will hear the call of the sea… and you will have no choice but to answer.

Sewn Boats

Sewn boats begin with the construction of the hull, the outside frame of the boat, resulting in a monocoque structure. Carefully shaped planks are then connected at the edges and overlapping sections are sewn together. Wood is the traditional material used for hull and spar construction. It is a buoyant, widely available and easy material to work on.

As the planks are placed together, the hull begins to bend into the desired shape. The resulting structure is highly flexible. Internal framing may be added to the planks after they are sewn in to provide additional rigidity. Large ships were often built using pegs, while smaller boats would use planks that had been sewn together.

This technique of assembly is one of the world’s oldest for the construction of boats. It was in use in Antiquity in Egypt and in Homeric Greece. In the present day, this method is still used in the Indian Ocean, most notably in Kerala, India.

Image Credit: Adityamadhav83


Catamarans, which were also invented by the Austronesian peoples, enabled their expansion to the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. A catamaran configuration fills a niche where speed and sea-kindliness is favoured over bulk capacity.

Catamarans range in size from small sailing or rowing vessels to large naval ships and car ferries. The structure connecting a catamaran’s two hulls ranges from a simple frame strung with webbing to support the crew to a bridging superstructure that incorporates extensive cabin as well as cargo space.

In larger vessels, this niche favours car ferries and military vessels for patrol or operation in the littoral zone. The first warship to be propelled by a steam engine, named Demologos was built in the United States during the War of 1812 and was a catamaran with a paddle wheel between her hulls.

A drawing by Herreshoff of F. Roosevelt’s 32ft catamaran John Gilpin (1877)

Outrigger Boats

Outrigger vessels were the first true ocean-going ships and are an important part of the Austronesian heritage. They were the vessels that enabled the Austronesian expansion from Taiwan into the islands of both the Indian and Pacific Ocean from around 3000 BC.

They comprise the bulk of traditional boats in Southeast Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and Madagascar. They spread to other cultures the Austronesians came into contact with: Sri Lanka, Southern India and the coast of East Africa.

In Southeast Asia, they range in size from small vessels like: the jukung, vinta, and the paraw; to medium-sized trading and fishing vessels like the balangay and basnigan; to very large warships like the karakoa and kora kora. In Philippine vessels, additional booms called batangan are usually added across the outrigger spars tadik, in between the outrigger floats katig and the main hull bangka.

The state boat of Sultan Harun – Sulu, Philippines (1909)

The Early Travellers

When you gaze at the ocean, what do you see?

Your imagination would have to be extremely active to think that there was something that laid on the other side of the shore. Many would not arrive at their destination, but many, too–would find themselves discovering new territories that they would not have known existed had they not had the courage to embark upon those voyages.

Our technologies and our needs are more ‘complex’ now. The stirring that one feels when one is face-to-face with the vastness of the seas and skies perhaps hasn’t changed.

We may now know what lays on the other side of the shore. It may or may not be ‘better’ than where we currently are–but as long as we dream about it, one day we may find our footsteps upon a foreign shore… If only to be washed away by the very waves that brought us there.

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