The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia
The Wolfson History Prize Shortlist 2020
For most of human history, the seas and oceans have been the main means of long-distance trade and communication between peoples – for the spread of ideas and religion as well as commerce. This book traces the history of human movement and interaction around and across the world’s greatest bodies of water, charting our relationship with the oceans from the time of the first voyagers. David Abulafia begins with the earliest of seafaring societies – the Polynesians of the Pacific, the possessors of intuitive navigational skills long before the invention of the compass, who by the first century were trading between their far-flung islands. By the seventh century, trading routes stretched from the coasts of Arabia and Africa to southern China and Japan, bringing together the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific and linking half the world through the international spice trade. In the Atlantic, centuries before the little kingdom of Portugal carved out its powerful, seaborne empire, many peoples sought new lands across the sea – the Bretons, the Frisians and, most notably, the Vikings, now known to be the first Europeans to reach North America. As Portuguese supremacy dwindled in the late sixteenth century, the Spanish, the Dutch and then the British each successively ruled the waves.
Following merchants, explorers, pirates, cartographers and travellers in their quests for spices, gold, ivory, slaves, lands for settlement and knowledge of what lay beyond, Abulafia has created an extraordinary narrative of humanity and the oceans. From the earliest forays of peoples in hand-hewn canoes through uncharted waters to the routes now taken daily by supertankers in their thousands, The Boundless Sea shows how maritime networks came to form a continuum of interaction and interconnection across the globe: 90 per cent of global trade is still conducted by sea. This is history of the grandest scale and scope, and from a bracingly different perspective – not, as in most global histories, from the land, but from the boundless seas.
I am delighted to have been asked to make a contribution to this year’s Wolfson History Prize Shortlist blog tour. It is a literary prize I have kept a close eye on for many years. As part of my blog tour I am reviewing one of the most outstanding history books I have read in a long time. The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (Allen Lane). Is by no means a light read at over 1000 pages but inside is one of the most detailed histories of the seas that have been the lifeline for every continent be at peace or war. From space the Earth is almost totally blue, no surprise as 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans and contain 97% of the total water on earth.
We as people’s through history has a link to the oceans like nothing else, through exploring new lands, forging new trade links, invasion of lands and as we move forward creating new forms of communications. This is an incredible books considering the huge research that would have gone into David Abulafia’s latest book. Starting with the oldest of the oceans, the Pacific Ocean at 176,000 BC before crossing the oceans at our current times. It is an epic odyssey through 65,000 years of human history of the oceans.
Written with the authority of a scholar, you would think the narrative could put off the casual reader, but that is not the case. Abulafia writes with such dexterity that you are taken on an adventure through history whether that is through the earliest of explorations or the rampaging Vikings through Northern Europe to archaeology that helps us to understand humanities clues from the past. Reading The Boundless Sea, I found totally compelling reading about the Pirates to marauding adventurers and those seeking new lands to forge both religious and trade links. But there are also the parts that talk of the slavery ships across the Atlantic that began as far back as the 14th Century. Then to almost current times when discussing both the building both the Suez and Panama Canals and the cost in lives through disease.
There is so much detail contained in this magnificent book that no matter what I write here, it will not do it justice. People and the oceans have a link to the earliest part of humanity and that link to this day continues as we transport nearly all cargo via huge container ships across the oceans. It is said that humanity to-date has explored only 5% of the world’s oceans.
The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia is a staggering achievement, I was reading this as a digital copy but ended up buying a hard copy so that I could look at the maps and colour plates.
I have now read two of the books on the Wolfson History Prize shortlist and I have to say just what an outstanding literary prize it has become, trying to pin down one book as a clear winner is harder in this prize than any other literary prize I have become involved with. I wish each and every author the very best with their books. I hope to get to read the remaining books on the shortlist.
The announcement of the winner of The Wolfson History Prize 2020 will be made on 15th June.
Thank you to Ben McCluskey (Midas PR) for the review copy of The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia.
The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia was published by Allen Lane and was released on 3rd October 2019 and is available to order through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.
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