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1.1: Early Trade and Navigation

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  • The history of voyaging in the ocean is one filled with danger, discovery, and romance. For over 4,000 years people have traversed the oceans and crossed the seas of this planet. The first oceanographers were traders, navigators, conquers, and explorers who dared to cross the sea.


    The first people seafarers did not stray far from land, but stayed close to coastal areas in small simple watercraft, used primarily for fishing or light coastal navigation. Much of the early history of

    The Polynesians

    Perhaps the most daring of these were the Polynesians, who long before all others crossed the Pacific Ocean in small balsa wood canoes, migrating across much of the South Pacific, eventually making their way to Hawaii. There exist many conflicting theories as to how or why this culture was able to disperse across such vast distances so early on.


    Some of the first ocean faring people's were the Minoans, Greeks, and the Phoenicians of the ancient Mediterranean. They crisscrossed the sea for trade and war, at first staying within sight of shore, but eventually using the sun, moon, and stars to aid them in their navigation. The Phoenicians were some of the first to use the heavens to take them beyond the sight of land, but the practice spread throughout the region to facilitate maritime commerce and navigation. The most famous Phoenician explorers were Hanno the Navigator and Himilco, both from Carthage. In the sixth or fifth centuries B.C., Hanno sailed from Carthage, in modern day Tunisia, out of the Mediterranean and along the coast of Africa, reaching as far as Cameroon Himilco, in the fifth century, sailed from North Africa to as far as England. These journeys sought to establish and control trade routes.

    Homer wrote of Odysseus using Ursa major to find his way home from Troy, and Greek navigators were using nautical charts as early as 600 BC. Some Greeks are known to have sailed all the way to India after Alexander's conquest of the east.


    After the Polynesian people's had migrated across the South Pacific, the first cultures to successfully navigate the waters around Asia were the Indians in the 4th century BC and the navy of the Chinese Qin dynasty around 200 BC. Much of the ocean navigation for these groups relied on the seasonal monsoon winds, which limited travel direction and time. Regardless both the Indians and Chinese cultures were able to sail and explore much of Southeast Asia, and even to the eastern coast of Africa. The Qin dynasty fielded a large navy to control the South China sea as early as 200 BC. The ships were as long as 100 feet, and could carry up to 30 tons of cargo.


    1. Homer, Odyssey
    2. Donald Harden, The Phoenicians, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, page 168
    3. Tyson, Peter Secrets of Ancient Navigators, NOVA PBS, Oct 1998
    4. Sun, Guangqi (1989). History of Navigation in Ancient China. Beijing: Ocean Press.
    5. Taylor, E. G. R. (1971). The haven-finding art; A History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook. New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company, INC.