The Commonwealth of the Atlantic


‘We should study maps of the seas, with the lands which lie round them, not maps of the land.’ This was the advice given many years ago to his students by an inspiring and imaginative teacher. It embodies a view of history and indicates a line of thought which is useful in reconstituting the past, and which may even be of immediate value in considering our politics of to-day and their probable extension into the future. A shape alters according to the view which we take of it, and a new point of view may help us to see the real shape of some of our present problems. All our lives we have looked at them from the land; let us now look at them from the sea.

The ordinary atlas shows us maps of countries — America, Great Britain, Germany, France, and so on. They are shown as separate entities, isolated from one another, and so we are led instinctively to think of the countries themselves as isolated, separate from one another and capable of independent action with relation to one another. Yet we know that this is not the case. At present in particular we have cause to know that a rumor in Berlin may reverberate through the markets of Chicago or Montreal. It requires a map of all Europe to show us that the countries of Europe are interdependent; it requires a map of the Atlantic to convince us that Europe and America are not unconnected and that the old-fashioned globe is, after all, the best instrument for world politics.

To what extent and in what manner the countries of the world are necessarily connected with one another is, of course, a matter for discussion. To help us in this, a slight historical retrospect may be of assistance.

The older historians were accustomed to derive our present civilization from Egypt and from Babylon. Here, in the great river valleys of the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, have been found the remains of civilizations which long preceded the earliest signs of that Greek culture upon which our own is founded. So it was only natural to conclude that Greek art, literature, and thought took their inspiration from these older people. The fit was not very good: Greek culture was patently different from that of either Egypt or Mesopotamia; but this was easily attributed to the transforming power of Greek genius, which could change the clumsy temples of Egypt into the Parthenon.

So our European culture was thought of as beginning on river banks, thence advancing to larger countries, transferred from land to land by sea voyages increasing in length and security until the Atlantic was bridged — but still founded on land, where people lived. We speak of the culture of Greece, of China, of India, and look sometimes for a new culture of North America. Culture was — and is—thought of as rising out of a land.

But since the beginning of the twentieth century the story of a Mediterranean people as old and as civilized as either the Egyptians or the Babylonians has been literally dug out of the island of Crete. Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated the remains of the city of Knossos, has shown beyond doubt that here was a civilization contemporary with the earliest dynasties of Egypt, extending back to some four or five thousand years before our era.

Earlier explorers had found remains at Mycenæ and Tiryns in Greece, at Hissarlik, the site of ancient Troy on the Hellespont, and at many other points on the shores of the Levant. These remains were evidently older than classic Greece and they refused to fit into any reasonable scheme of development. There were golden cups, fragments of jewelry, traces of buildings, and strange domed tombs. They had evidently some affinity with Greek art, yet were not Greek. So, in the ignorance then prevailing, they were associated with the Homeric poems and regarded as ‘primitive Greek.’

We know now that these ‘ Mycenæan ‘ remains were not Greek at all. They are the remains of a civilization which held the Ægean sea long before the Greeks first appeared in history. This was a civilization of merchant and pirate kings, whose rule centred in Crete and whose colonies lay all round the coasts and through the islands of the Ægean. It has been named ‘Minoan,’ and it was founded on a sea.

The evidence is already strong, and is becoming stronger every day, that the cultures of Egypt and Babylon did not deeply influence that of Greece, and so have not a very great importance for us to-day. Babylon and Egypt were hemmed in by land; neither of them had free access to the sea nor were their people ever sealovers. So their civilizations, like those of China and India, were doomed to stagnation. The greatness of Crete has been hidden in her ruins for some three thousand years and it is hard to readjust the historic views of many centuries, but it is becoming more and more evident that the culture of Greece owes more to Crete than to either Egypt or Babylon. The long-lost Cretan seafarer is our own spiritual ancestor. He nourished Greece as Greece has nourished us. European civilization begins as the civilization of the Ægean Sea.


The Greeks never formed an empire: they were too individualistic to form any such rigid organization, but they formed a very distinct culture. They were Hellenes when all other outer people were barbarians, — babblers, — and their culture was that of the eastern Mediterranean. A look at the map shows that the Mediterranean is divided into two basins: a western, bordered by the shores of Italy, France, Spain, and Barbary; and an eastern, from Italy and Sicily to Egypt and Syria.

It was on the shores of this eastern basin that the Hellenes lived. In Asia Minor they founded Miletus, Samos, Ephesus, and many another splendid city. In Italy and Sicily were Sybaris, Croton, Syracuse, and Acragas; in North Africa, Naucratis and Cyrene, though here, in the south, traded their mercantile rivals, the Phoenicians of Tyre, Sidon, and Carthage. Beyond this basin, Greek colonies stretched out into the western Mediterranean at Pæstum, Marseilles, and Naples. To the east they spread through the dark Euxine to Heraclea of the Chersonese and to the wild lands of the Scythians.

We are apt to think of classic Hellas as the modern country of Greece; but historically Hellas is the eastern Mediterranean and the lands which lie about it. Although their literature ignores it, yet the Greeks were a trading people. The vases which Greek merchants exported from Athens four hundred years before Christ are still found in central Italy; their ships ranged the inland sea, along with those of the Phoenicians from whom they had learned their letters. Hellas is the name of a sea rather than of a land.

Twice in classic times do we find efforts to found great land-states to stretch from the Ægean to India. The empires of Darius and of Alexander were founded on land. Both were of short duration; both fell to pieces from their own sheer weight. They were not founded on the security of a sea, or even of a river, and they could not last.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Persian art of Darius borrowed from rather than gave to Hellas, and that the empire of Alexander spread Greek art-forms widely through Asia. A great deal of nonsense has been talked about the immemorial wisdom and ancient, culture of the East, that is, of Asia. There was, of course, give and take on both sides; but our European civilization goes back to some four or five thousand years before Christ and we gave of our wisdom and of our art to Asia quite as much as Asia gave to us.

As civilization expanded, it seemed for a time uncertain whether Rome or Carthage would predominate on the Mediterranean. For with larger and swifter ships, the sea was growing too small for two great mercantile powers. Carthage was but two days’ sail from Rome; Sicily with its Carthaginian colonies was but one: much too close for comfort. So Rome and Carthage fought and, once she reigned supreme on the Mediterranean, Rome could grow. By the beginning of the Christian era the Roman Empire had reached its greatest power and it was the Empire of the Mediterranean. Britain and Northern Gaul were outlying provinces to be dropped on the first signs of weakness; the strength of Rome lay in her command of the Mediterranean or, more truly, Rome was the Mediterranean; for Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and Greece were as Roman as the City of Rome itself. Classic Rome was the Mediterranean Sea with the lands round about it. Rome inherited the earlier GræcoPhcenician culture of the Levant; she gave it to us, and she gave us our religion.

The oft-repeated view that Christianity is an Oriental religion is worth just a moment’s investigation. Palestine at the time of our Lord was a Roman province deeply tinged with Greek culture. The Jewish religion had grown up on the shores of the Levant, and is as true a product of that sea as is the art of Greece. Paul, the great apostle, was a Hellenized Jew and a Roman citizen; his letters are full of Greek philosophical terms. It was in Rome that Christianity attained its position as the recognized religion of European civilization. In its development, as in its origin, the Christian religion is a product of Mediterranean civilization and it is quite unnecessary to postulate for it any Oriental origin.

So in the third century of our era the civilization of Europe, its laws, its art, and its religion are founded on the Mediterranean Sea.


When this culture fell before the inroads of the northern barbarians, there followed a long period of darkness and re-formation. When next we can see Europe clearly we find two cultures: that of the south, still Mediterranean though weakened by the irruption of the Moslems into Africa and Spain; and that of the north, centring round the North Sea. The distinction between northern and southern Europeans is a valid one. Anthropologists speak of Mediterranean man as different from Nordic man. So they may well be, for they live on different seas.

A map of mediaeval Europe shows how much the north was dependent on the North Sea. Across it from Denmark and Friesland came the Angles to colonize England. Later from Norway and Denmark came the Norsemen to conquer northern France and their earlier-arrived kinsmen in England. Round the North Sea lay the great mediaeval ports: London, Norwich, Hull, Leith, Dundee, in Britain; Paris, Rotterdam, Bremen, Hamburg, Antwerp, on the Continental coast. The prosperity of mediaeval England was largely dependent on the trade of the North Sea. Let those who doubt the unifying power of the sea consider that Orkney, Shetland, and Caithness in the north of Scotland are more akin in race and tradition to Norway across the sea than they are to Perthshire, but a few miles distant across the land. Northern France is more akin to southern England than it is to the Midi. The native of Hamburg or of Denmark is more akin to the Englishman than to the Bavarian. The lines of culture follow the seas.

But mediaeval Europe was growing too large for these small seas. The Crusades may be regarded as efforts to regain control of the Mediterranean. They failed, unfortunately for Europe, and to-day we are still paying the penalty. The Turk is still in the Mediterranean. That he was not long ago expelled or absorbed is probably due to the timely discovery of a new sea. The break we make in European history in the sixteenth century coincides with the discovery of the Atlantic.

Early traders had of course crept through the Straits of Gibraltar and around the western shores of Europe, but, until the sixteenth century, Europe was bounded on the west by ocean without end. By 1520 men knew that the Atlantic existed, a sea with land lying around it. They began to colonize the shores of that sea. Columbus really discovered the Atlantic.


The shores of the new sea were settled by Europeans: Spaniards, Portuguese, French, and English, with a smaller Dutch and Scandinavian element. As was natural, looking to their geographical position, the Spaniards were the leaders of this emigration and colonized farther south. The causes which led to the eventual English domination of the North Atlantic hardly come within the scope of this article, though it may be suggested that both Spain and France are too closely associated with the Mediterranean ever to become great Atlantic Powers. It was rather North Europe which required a new and a larger sea.

This Atlantic colonization, of course, led to the rise of new and important ports. England had to right-about turn in order to face the new sea. Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow became more important than Leith or Hull. London, Rotterdam, and Hamburg direct their traffic through the Channel. Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Quebec, and Montreal rise on the western seaboard. Progress since the sixteenth century has lain in the extension westward of the American seaboard, until now all America is occupied by Europeans who still look to the Atlantic as their home sea. This statement may require to be modified later, but it will be acknowledged that the Eastern seaboard of America still dominates its culture.

To-day then we, whether we call ourselves Americans or Europeans, really live on the Atlantic. A great deal is sometimes made of the three thousand miles which separate America from Europe; but those three thousand miles are sea, and by all historic precedents seas unite people — they do not separate them. The Atlantic is to us to-day an inland sea, very much what the Mediterranean was to Rome.

We may illustrate this by comparing the size of the two seas by the only true standard, that of travel-time.

The speed of Roman sea-commerce has been reckoned at from four to five knots; that of our own to-day is about twelve. In other words sea distances in miles are to-day one third to one half of what they were in Roman times and probably about one quarter of what they were in Greek times.

Pliny tells us that a merchant ship would pass from Messina to Alexandria in six days, with favoring winds. That means that Egyptian corn, at quickest, took about seven or eight days to get to Rome. To-day Canadian wheat takes at least a fortnight to get to England. But a passenger can pass from America to England in six days, and a message in as many minutes.

So the Atlantic to-day is, for merchandise, about twice the size of the Roman Mediterranean; for passengers, about the same size; and for news, very much smaller. The comparison of Roman Mediterranean with modern Atlantic is more than mere fancy. The sense of national unity was indeed much stronger in the Roman sea, but such a sense does already exist in the Atlantic and it will probably increase with increasing civilization and in obedience to practical necessities.

To-day the Atlantic is more unified than it was in the sixteenth century. When Columbus first crossed it there were three cultures on it: that of Europe, strong and vigorous; that of Africa, weak; and that of the American Indian, midway between the two. To-day the American cultures of the Aztec and the Red Man are matters of archaeology; the Negro has adopted the culture of his masters, and European culture is supreme. It would almost seem as though two different cultures could not live together on the same sea, although of course many nations may if they are of the same culture. This community of Atlantic nations has as yet no name. Its essential unity has not yet been recognized sufficiently clearly for that and it has been torn by family quarrels. It is not an empire, for that suggests unity of rule as well as of culture. We may perhaps call it a ‘commonwealth,’ the Commonwealth of the Atlantic — for the weal of each nation in it affects all the others.


This reading of history suggests an interpretation of recent events. Before the war, Germany had two dreams of empire — the ‘Drang nach Oesten’ and the ‘Hegemony of the Atlantic.’ The outward manifestations of the first were the penetration of Turkey and the Bagdad railway. Its ultimate purpose was the creation of an empire reaching from the Rhine to the Euphrates. Alexander the Great attempted this and failed; Darius tried it and failed; nor does it take much intuition to prophesy that, even with the aid of the railroad, any such empire would fall to pieces in modern times quite as fast as it did in the days of the great Alexander.

The second dream was typified by Emperor William’s announcement of himself as the ‘Admiral of the Atlantic.’ This was indeed a claim and it had a reality in geography. Indeed, the real cause of the war was possibly not the attempt of Germany to get a place in the sun, but to gain the chief place on the Atlantic. Between her and her sea stood France and Britain, and it was against those Powers that she hurled her strength. When for a moment it seemed even faintly possible that Germany might dominate — not Europe but — the Atlantic, the war became the active concern of the other great Atlantic Power. The I nited States entered the war, not to help France or England, but to hold the Atlantic.

The questions of ‘cooperation,’‘participation,’ and ‘interference,’ which seem so urgent at the moment, must also be regarded from this point of view. The old tradition of American isolation is based on the idea that the ocean separates America from Europe. So long as a voyage across the Atlantic took weeks or months, this was true. So long as the States of the American Union were weak, the doctrine had at least a value as an act of self-defense. It applied, of course, only to political rule; for no one would pretend that Europe, in sending thousands of emigrants to America, was not interfering very actively with this country. Now, however, when the Atlantic is only six days wide and the American States are as strong, or even stronger, than those of Europe, the attitude of noninterference is purely imaginary. Every disturbance on either side of the Atlantic sends its waves across to the other. America and Europe to-day both belong to the Commomwealth of the Atlantic whether they happen to know it or not; for, like all real unions, it first creates itself and only later is recognized. A policy of complete inaction on the part of America, of utter noninterference, will have just as active an effect on Europe as the most active policy of cooperation.

Indeed one often feels a little impatient with leagues and conferences, with disputes on cooperation and the opposite, on America helping Europe, on entanglements, for all these ideas involve the idea of separate entities. Surely the overruling fact in our politics to-day is that we all live on the Atlantic, and that automatically we do form a community of Atlantic nations. This community must live together somehow, and it is the business of our statesmen to see that it lives together comfortably. Indeed at the present moment two of our Governments are negotiating a treaty dealing with twelve-mile limits and similar arrangements for living together comfortably on our sea. In time we shall probably have a great many more such agreements.


To-day the Atlantic is an inland sea, the seat of a culture which began in the Levant some five thousand years ago. There remains yet another sea, the Pacific. It is not yet enclosed. Enormously larger than the Atlantic, it still separates America, Australasia, and Chino-Japan. But as travel becomes more rapid the Pacific will become smaller, so that it too may some day become an inland sea, the suitable home for a new culture. To say what that culture will be would be to adventure too dangerously into prophecy.

But a survey of the coasts of this sea shows us one fact very clearly. The mass of the population, the best ports, and the most fertile lands are all upon the western side, from New Zealand and Australia in the south, to Japan on the north. The American coast is but a narrow strip between the mountains and the sea.

The real division of America is, of course, not along any imaginary fortyseventh parallel from east to west. That is only a political division between two Atlantic nations. It is along the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, from north to south. Every traveler from Montreal to Victoria must have felt the sensation of stepping into a new world. China, Japan, and Australia, which in Montreal are far-distant, unreal countries, suddenly come into the world at Victoria. The railroads indeed join Montreal and Vancouver, but the interests of East and West are different.

This American Pacific coast not only is very narrow, but has few good ports. From north to south are Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Lima, and Valparaiso. America really faces the Atlantic and these few cities are to be regarded rather as colonies of the Atlantic planted on the Pacific. Like all colonies they retain a sentimental affection for their mother sea (or land), but their interests are necessarily different. Oriental immigration is of much greater interest to them than any European politics. They have their own Pacific difficulties and cannot be interested in the Atlantic ones.

Some foretell an eventual war between the two cultures which at present occupy the Pacific shores. We may, however, remember that Greece and Phoenicia lived for centuries at peace on the Levant. It is true that Rome and Carthage fought, but the Pacific is large.


And now some reader may protest that this argument is indeed all at sea, and that America’s real future is in America after all. Such is indeed possibly the case. There is a freedom of choice. We know that in ancient Egypt, in India, and in China great civilizations were founded on river banks surrounded by land, and we know too the characteristics of such riverine cultures. They may rise to considerable heights of administration, science, and the arts, but they are cut off from the world and so tend to become ultraconservative, stagnant, and eventually dead. There is, of course, room for such a self-centred civilization in North America and the map will show its natural boundaries. It is the valley of the Mississippi and her tributaries. It may be regarded as stretching from the Peace River in the north to New Orleans in the south. It is bounded on the east by the Alleghanies and on the west by the Rocky Mountains.

Here is the opportunity for a great land State, concerned with no seas, thinking of no matters beyond its own mountain boundaries. Is there any whisper of this in our present day politics?

If this is to be the line of America’s future development, then New York, Boston, Montreal, must all sink into marginal villages where stern-faced officials will stop all foreign immigrants, all foreign merchandise which might possibly penetrate into the hermit State of the Mississippi Valley. Foreign trade must cease, immigration must cease, St. Louis and Winnipeg must become the capitals of the new land State. Is there any whisper of this in our present-day politics?

I hope not, for I believe that the future of all America is on the Atlantic. America is a part of that great community of nations whose ancestors for five thousand years have lived on the sea, and I cannot believe that she will now change her path. The Commonwealth of the Atlantic is the fulfillment of our history; it is the greatest power that the world has yet seen; it exists even if we do not see it; and in it is our future.