‘Silvery Strips of Sea’ and Their Role in History
From the Turkish straits to Malacca to the English Channel, watery choke points have decisively shaped history — but which did so the most?
Throughout history, the fates of empires and civilizations have often hinged on a few miles of open water. Britain wouldn’t be, were it not for the English Channel. Europe might never have been, were it not for the Turkish straits separating Asia Minor from the European mainland. The modern history of East Asia has been shaped, sometimes dangerously so, by the deep-water channel separating Communist China from the nationalist redoubt in Taiwan. And the Strait of Malacca near Singapore, less than 2 miles wide at its narrowest point, has helped determine the destinies of empires from the Venetians to the Portuguese to modern-day China’s frantic rush to build a blue-water navy.
So which strait, narrows, or channel has had the most outsized impact on trade, war, empires, and the course of civilization? Foreign Policy asked a group of strategists and historians to make their case for the world’s most decisive waterway. This follows on an earlier and similar look at the most crucial man-made canals in history.
William J. Bernstein, author of A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World:
The city-state of Athens nurtured many things, from politics to philosophy to drama. What it couldn’t ever grow was enough food to feed itself. Though the breadbaskets of Egypt and Sicily sufficed for a time, Athens’s very survival for centuries depended on imports of food from the Pontus, on the shores of the Black Sea. And to bring that grain home, Athens had to control the Hellespont, which we know today as the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, or the Turkish straits.
Though the Athenian catastrophe at Syracuse during the Peloponnesian War was one of history’s worst — “To the victors, the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished, the most calamitous of defeats,” in Thucydides’s words — what really lost Athens the war, and thus primacy in the Greek world, was the later Spartan seizure of the Hellespont and its crucial grain ships.
By the classical period, Athens’s lifeline ran through the Hellespont, and the Great Game of the classical world — the control of the straits — ensued as Athens and its allies gradually rolled up the strategic city-states that lined their shores. The most famous of them, Byzantium, had been founded by Megara, one of Athens’s traditional enemies. Athenians understood that whoever controlled the Hellespont could throttle them.
It’s not unreasonable to posit that today’s world might well be unrecognizable had Athens never gained control of the Hellespont, without which the fabled city would have remained as it began: an impoverished, despotic backwater — no Solon, no Pericles, no Plato, no Aristotle. Western civilization as we know it today might be very different, if not nonexistent.
Today, China’s worst nightmare likely revolves around the U.S. 7th Fleet’s control of the Strait of Malacca, and Western strategists keep a wary eye on the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial conduit for global oil supplies. But as strategic as Malacca, Hormuz, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Kattegat in the Baltic Sea have been over the past several centuries, none pose, or posed, the kind of existential threat that the ancient Hellespont, history’s most strategic choke point, did to Athens.
Had Sparta, Megara, or Corinth been able to strangle Athens in the 7th or 8th century, we likely would not be here to write about it.
James Holmes, professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific:
I’m tempted to choose the Strait of Malacca, the artery that connects East with South Asia and that obsesses leadership in Beijing. Or the Taiwan Strait, that island’s buffer against conquest and absorption into Communist China. Or the Strait of Hormuz, the principal nautical thoroughfare for huge shipments of oil and natural gas.
But the English Channel is history’s most consequential narrow waterway, bar none. The channel constitutes the British Isles’ moat against invasion from Europe. Like any moat, it can be crossed by foes possessed of sufficient manpower, shipping, and resolve. Just ask William the Conqueror or William of Orange, both of whom wrested away the English crown after mounting cross-channel assaults.
Still, neither Napoleon nor Hitler managed to get across. Napoleon reportedly crowed, “Let us be masters of the channel for six hours, and we are masters of the world,” thus betraying his ignorance of the time-consuming reality of amphibious warfare. Nor could Hitler mount a serious cross-channel threat.
But the English Channel is more than a moat. Until recent years, when the Royal Navy withered in numbers and capability, the channel played an offensive part in British foreign policy and strategy. A bulwark shielding the home islands from attack freed London to project power onto foreign shores from the Americas to India to China. It also made a little-known episode called D-Day possible in 1944.
Look at your map, as Franklin D. Roosevelt implored. The channel is one of just two gateways connecting the broad Atlantic Ocean to northwestern Europe, home to some of Britain’s biggest rivals over the centuries. Seal it up, and you begin to confine enemies — first the Netherlands, Britain’s archfoe during the 17th-century naval wars, and later Germany, its nemesis from the 1890s through 1945 — to the North Sea. Once the Royal Navy closed the channel (and the waters between Scotland and Norway), it could turn the North Sea and the Baltic into dead seas, cut off from the high seas where commerce flows. And as sea-power sage Alfred Thayer Mahan put it in the 1890s, severing a maritime empire’s access to the sea is like cutting a plant’s roots.
Seafaring nations wilt when cut off from global markets. Such was the Netherlands’s fate after fighting three naval wars against Britain, and such was Germany’s fate a century ago. Despite winning a tactical victory at sea in the Battle of Jutland, Germany starved under Britain’s “distant blockade” during World War I.
The channel, then, represented a defensive enabler for offensive strategy. The British Isles comprised a permanent fixture athwart antagonists’ access to the Atlantic Ocean.
Geography, coupled with naval power, let a small island nation compile an empire on which the sun never set. Not bad for a narrow strip of water.
Steven Gray, lecturer in the history of the Royal Navy at the University of Portsmouth:
Great Britain first acquired Gibraltar in 1713. And though King George III later worried, as many do today, that British control of “the Rock” was a cause of “constant lurking enmity” between Britain and Spain, Gibraltar in fact played a crucial role in Britain’s rise to preeminence as a maritime power and helped it defeat the hegemonic designs of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Hitler.
A hint of Gibraltar’s centrality in history lies in its very name, the Spanish derivative of an Arabic moniker honoring the Umayyad general who spearheaded the Islamic invasion of Iberia. And its geographic position, commanding the 7.7-mile-wide strait dividing the Atlantic from the Mediterranean and Europe from Africa, was no less crucial to Britain becoming the first global superpower. Little wonder the rock suffered no less than 14 sieges by forces desperate to wrest control.
Gibraltar enabled Britain to bottle up much of the French fleet, especially during the protracted fighting of the Napoleonic Wars. It was an ideal place from which to launch blockades, like those of Cádiz and Toulon in the early 1800s. It was the base the Royal Navy used before Trafalgar in 1805, one of history’s most famous battles. And it was a linchpin of Britain’s ability to supply by sea Wellington’s army in the Peninsular War from 1807 to 1814.
During the Pax Britannica that followed Napoleon’s defeat, Gibraltar became a key point for the control and maintenance of British trade, the lifeblood of its empire, especially with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It was also a symbol of Britain’s hegemony on the seas, the key link in the chain of bases and telegraph stations, from Cape Town to Aden to Singapore, that ensured the security of its trade and empire.
Shortly before World War I, Gibraltar became the base of the Atlantic Squadron and was key in resisting the first German U-Boat campaign, which came close to starving Britain. But it was during World War II when its crucial position for both the Atlantic and Mediterranean was most prominent. Control of Gibraltar and the strait enabled the Allies’ assault on North Africa (including a haul of prisoners larger than what Hitler lost at Stalingrad) and later Sicily and Italy.
Lincoln P. Paine, author of The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World:
Over the past 3,000 years of maritime history, the most strategically important narrows has been the roughly 100-mile-wide Strait of Sicily between North Africa and Sicily. It has been the most frequently contested by the greatest number of powers, and control of the strait — or the lack of it — has shaped the flow of culture and trade and been decisive in wars of virtually every scale and scope.
Phoenician traders recognized its importance when they established Utica and later Carthage in the early 1st millennium BCE. That gave them command of the central and western Mediterranean for at least six centuries. It took the Romans the three Punic Wars to secure control over both sides of the strait and assume the Carthaginians’ place.
Centuries later, as Rome itself was reeling, the Vandals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and resettled Carthage, becoming the first power to contest Rome’s control of Mare Nostrum in 500 years. Rome’s heirs, the Byzantines, retook Carthage, only to lose it to Umayyad armies at the end of the 7th century. Their descendants held sway over the strait for 350 years, until Normans wrested Sicily from Muslim rule.
The balance of commercial and naval power in the Mediterranean returned to Italian cities like Genoa and Pisa, which traded and raided through the strait with impunity. Spanish fleets then dominated the strait from the 13th century to 1713, when they ceded Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples to rival powers.
Control of the Strait of Sicily subsequently played a major role in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the two world wars, and the Cold War. Today, its waters are contested by refugees fleeing North Africa and Europeans trying to keep them at bay.
Given the Strait of Sicily’s historic strategic importance, it is no surprise that the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet has been based for the last 65 years at Naples, just eight hours’ steaming time away.
Photo credit: JOSE RAMBAUD/Flickr