25 Sep 20
Posted by: Richard Channon

It was announced as this review was being written that The Boundless Sea has won the Wolfson Prize 2020, which is regarded as the United Kingdom’s most prestigious history prize, awarded for ‘excellence in research with readability’.   The Wolfson judges summarise this book as “History on the grandest scale, and from a bracingly different perspective”.   At which point your reviewer might reasonably shrug his shoulders and say “Job done”.   However, while its quality and importance are assured, it remains to give prospective purchasers a foretaste of what they will get for their money…

Professor Abulafia sets out his aim in his preface, which is to record the making of contacts between human societies across the 70% of the Earth’s surface which is water.   He does so by first devoting a dedicated section to the history of each of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, followed by a fourth part from 1492 to 1900 AD, and finally Part V ‘The Ocean contained AD 1850-2000’.

Part I ‘The Oldest Ocean:  the Pacific 176,000 BC – AD 1350’ chronicles the exploration of that ocean, starting with the enigma of Flores man and going on to the arrival of homo sapiens in Australia by sea some 65,000 years ago before moving on via Lapita to the astonishing and clearly deliberate expansion of the Polynesians eastward and southward during the second millennium AD as far as Hawai’i, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and New Zealand, with at least one visit to the mainland of South America whereby they acquired the sweet potato and some American DNA.   Their discovery and settlement of remote uninhabited islands becomes a linking thread for the entire saga to come.

Part II ‘The Middle Ocean:  the Indian Ocean and its neighbours 4500 BC – AD 1500’ is where we enter the written record.   The author paints a fascinating picture which ranges from the first contact by sea between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley over 4,000 years ago, through Roman trade with south India, the empire of Sri Vijaya, the peopling of Madagascar from Indonesia, the real and viable Silk Road by sea from China westwards, Chinese/Japanese/Korean trade in the East China Sea, Zheng He’s voyages in the early 15th century (“an impressive technical achievement”), to the establishment of Melaka and Singapore as nodal trading ports.

Part III ‘The Young Ocean:  the Atlantic 22,000 BC – AD 1500’ opens with the observation that a history of the oceans might have had little to say about it until the Portuguese and others started to discover and settle islands such as Madeira and the Azores.   However, recent archaeology has identified a common culture, sometimes called the “Western Seaways” which in Neolithic times c.5,000 BC stretched from Orkney to Portugal and even Morocco, as well as to the Baltic. The picture then goes dark until the Bronze Age and direct contacts between the Mediterranean and western Europe fostered by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and Romans, until the focus shifts to the Vikings, intrepid voyagers and traders, and of course the first Europeans to land on the mainland of North America. The networks set up by the Hansa helped integrate trading in the northeast Atlantic, but in the 15th century the Portuguese came to the fore, pushing down the west coast of Africa and then out into the ocean to exploit gold and slaves.

Part IV ‘Oceans in conversation, AD 1492 – 1900’ starts of course with the irruption of Europeans into the Americas and the East in both numbers and military strength, but it presents the author with the challenge of trying to avoid an exclusively Euro-centric standpoint. His first chapter, ‘The Great Acceleration’ sets the tone, and thereafter his narrative sets off with Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Cabot, Magellan and Drake to link the continents and oceans via the Cape and the Horn, while the English attempted both the North East and North West passages through the Arctic. It chronicles an astonishing catalogue of human endeavour and mercantile and commercial rivalry throughout the world – the development of the Atlantic slave trade, the settlements of the Portuguese and Spanish in the East Indies,  the rise of the Dutch, the discovery of Australia and New Zealand – the list goes on and on, but for example gives full weight to the actions of such as the Turks, the Omanis, the Chinese, the Japanese and the Koreans as Europeans forced their way into existing trading networks.

Part V, ‘The Oceans Contained AD 1850-2000’ covers of course the revolutionary development of mechanical propulsion of ships, and the construction of the Suez and Panama Canals, leading to faster and more secure traffic, and the story progresses through the demise of the passenger liner and containerisation of cargoes. Its conclusion looks forward to the possibility of regular traffic via the Arctic Ocean.

It is difficult to make a satisfactory summary of a book of such encyclopaedic length and breadth, “a remarkable book which through immense and impeccable research helps us to understand humanity’s relationship with the waters”, to quote once again the Wolfson judges.   It has, praise be, a map and sometimes two for every chapter showing the places mentioned in the text, and while there is no bibliography as such, the extremely comprehensive notes provide the references for the reader who wishes to delve deeper. There are well-chosen illustrations and photographs, and all in all this is a most approachable book which should inform and delight everyone interested in maritime history, and will, it must be hoped, prove a landmark in opening the riches and the fascination of maritime history to a hitherto largely ignorant and uncomprehending world.