The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia - review by Margarette Lincoln

Margarette Lincoln

Making Waves

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans


Allen Lane 1,050pp £35 order from our bookshop

In 2003, archaeologists excavating a cave shelter on the island of Flores, Indonesia, discovered the remains of early humans, remarkably over eighteen thousand years old. Even more surprisingly, the bones showed that these people were only about a metre tall and had brains no larger than a fizzy-drink can. Flores is one of a cluster of small Indonesian islands that may never have been connected by land bridges to nearby continents; it has only a small number of reptiles and animals. Some have conjectured that these people were small because they had no choice but to adapt to the island’s restricted diet. If so, they may have descended from earlier, taller hominids who managed to reach Flores. In any case, the discovery was strong evidence that very early humans crossed the seas. Other archaeological finds show that Australia’s Aborigines arrived there more than sixty thousand years ago; they can only have done so by crossing open water, out of sight of land.

The history of humanity is inextricably bound up with the seas and oceans, which were used for communication and trade but also for war and the determined exploitation of peoples and resources. David Abulafia’s book tells the story of contacts between humans across the three primary oceans. His account is broadly chronological, ranging from the great Polynesian navigators of the Pacific, through Viking forays into the Atlantic, to the Age of Discovery when Western sailors reached the Indian Ocean, to the growth of global maritime empires and two world wars, with their devastating impact on shipping. It ends with containerisation and the current popularity of cruise holidays. A single ship can deposit as many as seven thousand holidaymakers at destinations often ill-equipped to deal with them.

A simple outline will not do justice to this ambitious book; it is a magnificent achievement. While many of the stories it contains have been told elsewhere, few readers will have encountered them all. And by bringing them together in one volume, Abulafia allows us to make global comparisons. When Greeks reached the British Isles in the fourth century BC, possibly seeking tin, they were at the outer rim of their known world, but the Indian Ocean was already connecting the cultures of Rome and the Far East, functioning as a link between the Mediterranean and the South China Sea. And when, in the 15th century, the Portuguese were extending their rule over the Azores and other uninhabited island groups in the Atlantic, New Zealand had already been settled by Polynesians for a hundred years.

Abulafia explores material that has been little studied and scotches easy assumptions. Chapters on early trade between Iberia, Brittany, Ireland and Britain show how wrong it is to treat Atlantic history as beginning with Columbus, with maybe a cursory nod to the Vikings. Earlier peoples lived by the sea and river mouths because it was unsafe to trust in a staple foodstuff; what mattered was variety. Stone Age archaeological sites in Orkney provide evidence of cultural contact with communities across the sea; Stonehenge and other Neolithic structures reveal a knowledge of the heavens of a kind that was exploited for navigation. Traders crossed the English Channel regularly. In the Bronze Age, ‘scrap metal merchants’ from Brittany brought axe heads to England that would be melted down to make objects that suited local tastes.

Other misapprehensions are corrected. Japan was not isolated from the rest of Asia for centuries; it revelled in outside contacts from the early Middle Ages, especially with China. The Inuit did not always live in igloos. Viking ships rarely had the striped sails seen in comics; most had a lozenge or chessboard pattern made from plaited strips, Viking looms being too small to weave a sail in one piece. Henry the Navigator barely fostered the science of navigation in Portugal, although he did spur exploration of the African coast. Captain Cook did not ‘discover’ modern Australia – the Dutch arrived before him.

As far as sources permit, Abulafia avoids a Eurocentric perspective. Polynesian navigational skills in the Pacific, he says, far outstripped those of Western sailors. He tells the story of a schooner captain who dropped his compass overboard and confessed to his Polynesian crew that he was lost. They told him not to worry and sailed him to where he wanted to go. He asked how they knew where the island was. ‘Why,’ they replied, ‘it has always been there.’ The Polynesian experience shows that it is completely wrong to assume that without literacy there can be no accurate science.

Although Abulafia does not go below the surface of the oceans to deal with the ecological damage caused by plastic waste and other pollutants, one important theme of his book is the rapid changes humans caused to the environmental balance of once-uninhabited islands. In the Pacific, for example, humans cleared land for crops and introduced rats that attacked wildlife. He also underlines the role of commodities in maritime history. Tea and Chinese porcelain are familiar game-changers, but he also explains how the Dutch made a fortune exporting herrings once they discovered, in the 14th century, a way to keep them fresh by partially gutting them and salting them in barrels as they were hauled on deck. The Portuguese quest for gold spurred voyages of discovery, then imperial expansion. The Portuguese sought gold and ivory but in the mid-14th century began shipping enslaved Africans. The Atlantic slave trade came into being, it is argued, because many collaborated with the Portuguese, along the coast of West Africa and in the Cape Verde Islands, an early base for traffic with the Guinea coast.

As Abulafia admits, his book is mostly about men. Women appear only on the periphery, as co-voyagers when lands are colonised, or as prostitutes, and only rarely as merchants and shipowners. But this is a rounded history, not an all-inclusive one, and men took most of the risks. Sources for later periods yield personal stories about the terrors faced. Scurvy was a persistent nightmare on long voyages; the curative powers of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables were understood, but not their preventive effect. During the return of Magellan’s fleet from the Spice Islands in 1522, crews subsisted for five months on nothing more than corn, rice and water. A century later, Danish explorers battled scurvy after a long winter in the Arctic. When they had food, they could barely eat because of swollen gums: ‘The stomach was ready enough, and had appetite for food, but the teeth would not allow it.’ And a sailor rounding Cape Horn in 1840 left a horrifying description of the impact of turbulent seas on his small, two-masted brig:

All the forward part of her was underwater; the sea pouring in through the bow-ports and hawse-holes and over the knight-heads, threatening to wash everything overboard. In the lee scuppers it was up to a man’s waist … The brig was laboring and straining against the head sea, and the gale was growing worse and worse. At the same time sleet and hail were driving with all fury against us … At daybreak (about three, AM) the deck was covered with snow.

Abulafia pursues interconnected histories and underlines the shortcomings of placing academic boundaries around such fields as ‘Pacific studies’ or ‘Atlantic studies’. He details the importance of building the Suez and Panama canals, further connecting oceans and cutting journey times. The human cost was terrible: when the French attempted to create a canal across Panama in the 19th century, officials often brought their own coffins so that their remains could be repatriated if they caught tropical fevers. The USA succeeded in the 20th century; the first cargo towed through the Panama Canal in 1914 was tinned pineapple from Hawaii, another innovation seemingly modest in context. The process of building the canal also brought about a breakthrough in medical history: Americans on the ground identified malaria and yellow fever as insect-borne diseases and worked to reduce local breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

The book ends on an elegiac note. The world has shrunk; great ports such as Rotterdam operate like machines. But Abulafia shows that there has always been change, if not on such a large scale as today, and while we admire the resilience of traders and explorers of the past, it’s good that seafarers no longer risk scurvy (although piracy is still a threat). As he points out, from outer space the Earth is mostly blue; perhaps in centuries to come someone will be writing a testimony to human space travel.

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