The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia

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Review by Liz Dexter

The reason this book is in the news now is that it has been shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize (more on the shortlist here). I felt it was a strong contender, in terms of the depth and breadth of the scholarship and research, and the global reach of the descriptions. Because this is a book giving the human history of the world’s oceans, from pre-history right up to the year 2000.

David Abulafia is a retired Cambridge professor, and currently Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History. He’s been writing on history, with a particular emphasis on trade connections and the encounters of different civilisations and religions since 1977, when he published a history of Italy, and he’s noteworthy for having written a major history of the Mediterranean (as that is a sea and not an ocean, it’s not covered in this book, but a working knowledge of the sea and its history would be a good background for this one, and if you have an opportunity to read both, do read them in the order of publication).

The book opens with a preface that sets out the structure and the author’s intentions. He says right from the start that it’s more a book about traders than explorers, as the explorers (who are dealt with of course) are only active for a while but the trade routes are what change history and lives and the merchants are the ones who, often bravely, establish and maintain these routes. A very important concept for the book linked to this is presented early on:

Discovery is not generally a sudden process; awareness of new land spreads thinly, but does not necessarily lead to further action, as the example of the Norse arrival in North America shows; the crucial change occurs when this new knowledge takes place in a wider world view.

and there’s a constant theme of far-off places being imbued with a mystery and wonder that are not so mysterious and wonderful when they’re actually visited. We are reminded that it’s not only the spices and jewels that are important, but all the standard items needed for everyday life which might well need to be shipped from place to place. He’s also forthright about the importance of the lives of indigenous and otherwise non-European merchants and sailors, who are not as well-documented as their European counterparts but equally as important, and in the text for example Roman trade is moved aside from being the main action when the activities of ‘native’ traders are pieced together. Women are mentioned in the introduction as harder to find, but he does clearly treat woman travellers and merchants where he can find them in the records, and it’s important to have mentioned them and the issues in finding those records.

The first three sections treat the oceans separately, as the civilisations around them dealt with, traded around and interacted with each other in each one in isolation until the Middle Ages. We start off with the Pacific and the stunning achievements of its navigators, locating tiny specks in the huge ocean with no writing system but an established one for navigation. Then we’re onto the Indian Ocean and an astounding mix of ascending and falling rulers, states and cities, with trading established early and China intriguingly coming late to the party, but fascinating details on, for example, the craze in China and Japan in the first millennium AD for Indian texts and works of art. We also find networks of traders here rather than in the more isolated settlements of the Pacific. The section on the Atlantic examines the coming of the Norsemen to the Americas as well as the network of ocean fringe trade and settlement that linked art and culture through Orkney to Portugal and Morocco. It also details of necessity the beginning of the slave trade. The role of the smaller islands off West Africa is fascinating (and also of course horrible) in this section and the effects of the winds and ocean currents play a major part in all three sections.

Then we join up after about 1450, as people began to get seriously from ocean to ocean and look for passages north and south, finally working out how the world and its continents work. The Suez and Panama Canals are discussed at length as everything gets linked up. The long view of the book as a whole is emphasised here, with islands like Singapore rising and falling in importance, and layers of artefacts being built up. The way the world worked in these centuries did not represent true globalisation, apparently, but for example the sugar producers in Barbados responded to demand created by the tea trade out of China. The development of Singapore and Hong Kong is different but similar as various small places continued to have a larger sway than one would expect.

The final section takes us from 1850 to 2000 and looks at the continued rise of entrepots like Singapore and Hong Kong and the huge change that came about with the introduction of containerisation, which required railway infrastructure to be developed as well as shipping, and brought other smaller towns such as Rotterdam into international importance. I also found it fascinating to find out how late sailing ships worked the oceans, taking advantage of their speed as they did not need refuelling like the newer coal-powered ships. There is a good discussion in this section about what globalisation is and the higher level of complication of the 19th and 20th centuries. 

The conclusion rounds up how the oceans have now irrevocably changed with the loss of passenger transport except for cruises (and that’s now of course doubtful) and the dominance of containers. There are hardly any staff at ports now, with most things being done automatically.

The accoutrements of the academic book are all here, notes on transliterations and dates, footnotes galore, a list of museums with maritime collections, further reading and an index. The book is also lavishly illustrated, with many maps helping us along our way and 72 illustrations of ships, ports and wares.

Information from the Wolfson Prize:

First awarded by the Wolfson Foundation in 1972, the Wolfson History Prize remains a beacon of the best historical writing being produced in the UK, reflecting qualities of both readability for a general audience and excellence in writing and research. The most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK, the Wolfson History Prize is awarded annually, with the winner receiving £40,000, and the shortlisted authors receiving £4,000 each. Over £1.25 million has been awarded to more than 100 historians in the prize’s 48-year history. Previous winners include Mary Beard, Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Amanda Vickery, Antony Beevor, Christopher Bayly, and Antonia Fraser.

The Wolfson History Prize shortlist 2020

To be eligible for consideration, authors must be resident in the UK in the year of the book’s publication (the preceding year of the award), must not be a previous winner of the Prize and must have written a book which is carefully researched, well-written and accessible to the non-specialist reader. To learn more about the Wolfson History Prize please visit their website or connect on Twitter via @WolfsonHistory / #WolfsonHistoryPrize.

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Liz Dexter has loved to read about travel and exploration for as long as she can remember, and knows how to sail but chooses not to. She writes about reading and running at Adventures in reading, running and working from home.

David Abulafia, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (Allen Lane, 2019). 978-1846145087, 1088 pp., col. ill., hardback

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  1. This book sounds fascinating, but so do all the others on the shortlist. It’s a shame this prize doesn’t get more publicity.

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