VAST EXPANSES: A HISTORY OF THE OCEANS

Reviewed by: R G Melly

Vast Oceans, with its sub-title of A History of the Oceans, pretty much delivers what it promises! Professor Rozwadowski has produced a wide-ranging and thought-provoking book which canters at pace through the full spectrum of all things to do with the seas.
The opening chapter sets the scene by outlining the way that the seas dominate the world and were the soup from which life on earth evolved. This is followed by the book’s longest two chapters which elaborate firstly on the role of the ocean as civilization’s evolved and then on the great age of discovery as the seas were finally explored and charted. This latter chapter explains the significance of China in initiating the wider use of the seas for trade – and then the role of the Europeans, particularly the Spanish and the Portuguese, in exploring the seas in the pursuit of wealth. The importance of new developments, such as of maps (in particular the significance of the Mercator projection), the printing press, the magnetic compass and the marine chronometer, is succinctly explained.
The book continues with chapters on the exploitation of the oceans. The growth of whaling and fishing activities greatly increased the understanding of the oceans and their depths, leading, in the 20th century, to the industrialisation of efforts to exploit the oceans. In no small part, this was fuelled by the huge wartime yield of knowledge, albeit, perhaps counter-intuitively, the number of people involved with maritime work declined. In particular, the introduction of containerisation, factory ships and increased automation led to a degree of what we would now recognize as sea blindness, with the movement of 90% of the world’s overseas freight involving just 0.5% of the population. Whilst fishing stocks had been exploited to exhaustion in previous centuries, the massively improved efficiency of the industry led, reluctantly, to attempts to regulate fishing to optimise a sustainable yield.
The second half of the 20th century leads the author to couch the period as one of optimism, with the oceans seen to be a new frontier, with seemingly limitless resources. New inventions and ideas, many of which failed to deliver, promised an era of ambitious and exciting progress; the sea was to be farmed, hovercraft were to overcome many of the infrastructure and accessibility issues; submarines were to be used to transport cargo; the ocean floors were to be mined for manganese modules; and bromine, magnesium and other elements were to be extracted from sea water. Finally, it was envisaged that manned underwater facilities would become commonplace.
In a similar timeframe, the opportunities for leisure and recreational activities were recognized. The impact of aquaria, films including underwater sequences, and the wider introduction of diving apparatus all increased the wider population’s understanding of the seas and marine life although, perhaps surprisingly, the author has apparently overlooked the growth of recreational sailing.
This increased environmental awareness of the seas, coupled with the shock of the loss of the northwest Atlantic cod trade and the impact of climate change, has led to a greater understanding of the impact that human activity has on the oceans. This aspect is explored in the epilogue, where the thesis concludes with an observation that we need the oceans more than the oceans need us.
This is an informative, well-written and thoroughly researched book, as is attested to by the impressive list of books and papers referenced in the Bibliography, albeit the 65 black and white images are a little disappointing in their impact. Naval warfare, of interest to this particular audience, receives only a passing mention, in as much as technological developments driven by military imperatives impacted upon the commercial and recreational exploitation of the oceans. On the other hand, there is a good argument that those who make a living on the seas ought to have a good knowledge of the environment on which their livelihood depends; this book would go some way to meeting that remit.