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The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

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A SUNDAY TIMES, FINANCIAL TIMES, THE TIMES AND BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE BOOK OF THE YEAR From the award-winning author of The Great Sea, a magnificent new global history of the oceans and of humankind's relationship with the sea 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 ide A SUNDAY TIMES, FINANCIAL TIMES, THE TIMES AND BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE BOOK OF THE YEAR From the award-winning author of The Great Sea, a magnificent new global history of the oceans and of humankind's relationship with the sea 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.


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A SUNDAY TIMES, FINANCIAL TIMES, THE TIMES AND BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE BOOK OF THE YEAR From the award-winning author of The Great Sea, a magnificent new global history of the oceans and of humankind's relationship with the sea 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 ide A SUNDAY TIMES, FINANCIAL TIMES, THE TIMES AND BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE BOOK OF THE YEAR From the award-winning author of The Great Sea, a magnificent new global history of the oceans and of humankind's relationship with the sea 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.

30 review for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

  1. 4 out of 5

    HBalikov

    Our oceans are our planet’s greatest geographical features and, at over 1000 pages, Abulafia’s book may be the most comprehensive treatment of humankind’s relationship to those big bodies of water. I won’t tell you that I have read every page of this book; that could take a decade. I have followed my interests and been very pleased with what I have learned (and un-learned). For instance, I found enlightening the account of the Manila galleon route and the Carlettis, father and son. Abulafia makes Our oceans are our planet’s greatest geographical features and, at over 1000 pages, Abulafia’s book may be the most comprehensive treatment of humankind’s relationship to those big bodies of water. I won’t tell you that I have read every page of this book; that could take a decade. I have followed my interests and been very pleased with what I have learned (and un-learned). For instance, I found enlightening the account of the Manila galleon route and the Carlettis, father and son. Abulafia makes a good case for why this route and similar were much more important (yet less notable) than the circumnavigations by Magellan, Elcano and Drake. Also there is a nice piece about the islands of the south Atlantic and why Ascension Island, Tristran da Cunha and St Helena had significance far beyond their size (because they could re-supply the India fleets). I found the strategy for keeping Singapore a “free port” and its affect on the monopoly assemble by the Dutch fascinating. Details about how Baba Tan Tock Seng (who came from Melaka) but achieved wealth and influence by becoming “business partners” with key British were part of the complex tapestry woven by Abulafia. I stand by my determination to come back to this book from either need or want. Until then, 4* should be sufficient.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rama

    The Captive Sea: Communication and Commerce in the last four millennia Long before Columbus set off for India, merchant mariners had been plying trade from Rome to the Indian subcontinent trading silk, spices, timber and ivory. This book is voluminous work at 1050 pages that takes the reader to far depths of the planet on water from the Pacific to Atlantic and Indian Oceans. There are 50 chapters and the reader can pick and choose a continent of interest rather than read from beginning. The five The Captive Sea: Communication and Commerce in the last four millennia Long before Columbus set off for India, merchant mariners had been plying trade from Rome to the Indian subcontinent trading silk, spices, timber and ivory. This book is voluminous work at 1050 pages that takes the reader to far depths of the planet on water from the Pacific to Atlantic and Indian Oceans. There are 50 chapters and the reader can pick and choose a continent of interest rather than read from beginning. The five sections of the book, each dealing with the three oceans is a magnificent work and describes the tenacity of human beings for their struggle to survive, prosper and dominate the planet. The Great Sea since the beginning of civilization is amazing as the author begins to focus on Mediterranean’s capacity over the last 3,000 years and reveals the imagination, resilience and ruthlessness of sailors. The unending domination continues as recently China leased the Piraeus docks from a cash-strapped Greek government. Building on economic and political strength is as old as the birth of civilization. The trade of Indian Ocean from Alexandria and Red Sea ports to Indian coasts brings together the robust trade from Rome to India and the tremendous impact on commerce, culture and religion. The trade continues onwards into the eastern side of Indian Ocean to Malay Archipelago. The navigation based on monsoons propelled trade between China, the eastern archipelago and India. The Indian trade also brought Hinduism and Buddhism to South East Asia. Author Abulafia decodes successive generations testing the sea as a source of survival. He also shows that it is a bearer of promises and rewards. The waterways were an ecosystem swayed by oceans currents and monsoon. But the political initiative and commerce determined the importance of Mediterranean cities and Asia. This is a fascinating book that includes every continent and brings amazing amount of history. I recommend this to readers interested in human adventure and ancient history.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Pickle.

    Accessible and compelling... especially fortuitous for a history novice such as myself. Fascinating for example on the ill-fated 1881 French attempt to construct the Panama canal.. plans of sea-level river tunnels through mountains; a huge death toll on the predominantly West-Indies work force. The devastation wrought by yellow fever and malaria on navvies; subsequent world changing medical achievements in the battle waged against these newly understood insect-borne diseases. A very well thought Accessible and compelling... especially fortuitous for a history novice such as myself. Fascinating for example on the ill-fated 1881 French attempt to construct the Panama canal.. plans of sea-level river tunnels through mountains; a huge death toll on the predominantly West-Indies work force. The devastation wrought by yellow fever and malaria on navvies; subsequent world changing medical achievements in the battle waged against these newly understood insect-borne diseases. A very well thought out History, fluid from topic to topic, important and wide ranging. (Abridged audio)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Patricia

    The most important reason you need to read this book is because it's probably due time you updated your knowledge of world history. You'll discover this just reading the Preface. Although its 1000+ pages appear daunting, I cannot believe that this beautifully crafted story of showing the role the oceans have played in "making connections between human societies," told in a voice that is relaxed yet in command of the subject matter, by a story-teller who enriches every page with the perfect story The most important reason you need to read this book is because it's probably due time you updated your knowledge of world history. You'll discover this just reading the Preface. Although its 1000+ pages appear daunting, I cannot believe that this beautifully crafted story of showing the role the oceans have played in "making connections between human societies," told in a voice that is relaxed yet in command of the subject matter, by a story-teller who enriches every page with the perfect story (or two), and who is confident in his knowledge, will not capture you. And the payoff is that this is not an academic tome in tone, and its author is not afraid of debunking old myths and beliefs along the way. Not a chapter or a topic is introduced when we don't have to pause to reconsider something we thought we knew. Henry the Navigator? The ruler who opened up the world? "Thoroughly modern Henry is a myth" we are told. "The statue of Henry that looms over the quayside at Belém, near Lisbon, pointing the way of his navigators out into the far ocean, was built for an exhibition in 1940...and says more about the imperial myths of Portugal...than it does about Portugal in the days of Prince Henry" (p. 480). Another example: I was taught by a very congenial professor a long time ago that it was 'Roman trade' that built those early CE centuries of trade across the Arabian Sea between the Red Sea and India/Ceylon but as this Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge points out, it's "important to remember that the economy of coastal India was not sustained simply by contact with the Roman Empire" (p. 117). Many of these errors, as Abulafia notes in this hefty tome (buy the hardback; the paperback is so thick one can barely hold it after a few hours) is because we have for too long depended too often on European sources and because the advances in archaeology, linguistics and other sciences have opened many once-locked doors and because we are perhaps more open to learning the whole stories. "It makes no sense," he writes, for example, in the chapter 'The Struggle for the Indian Ocean' "to concentrate on the Turks and the Egyptians to the exclusion of native Indian merchants who also challenged the Portuguese.... Gujaratis had been enjoying great success along the trade routes of the Indian Ocean until the Portuguese came along" (my italics, p. 604). I loved Abulafia's identification of Ceuta as having been 'Portugal's Siberia' to which they sent their undesirables (p. 478), and his warning when exploring the incredibly complicated history of the empire of Śri Vijaya, that "Ethnic muddles of this sort are exceptionally common, and the earnestness with which scholars of the Orient have chased these will-o'-the-wisp terms round and round provides more entertainment than enlightenment" (p. 162). At last, an accomplished academic who calls what he sees, as, for example, when writing of the Portuguese attempt to force the Dutch out of the East Indies in the early 1600s: "If there was ever an example of an economic policy that backfired, it was surely the decision to place a trade embargo on the Dutch" (p. 684). But enough of those little cherries of mirth that made this history one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. This is a serious world history, written by one of the foremost scholars of our day who leaves no stone unturned in his search for the events, the reasons, the causes, the people, the circumstances that influenced events. The evidence he presents ranges from shipwreck finds across the world's oceans to ancient manuscripts hastily copied around 900 AD in the Byzantine Empire (The Periplous, written by an Egyptian Greek from whom we learn of the world of Arabian Sea trade around the first or early 2nd century CE). Exploration, trade, food, ceramics, firearms, ship-building, pirates, slavery, the pepper trade ... let me just point out that the index alone (in miniscule type in three columns) is 63 pages long. I know personally of this professor's passion for his subject matter and the thoroughness of his research because during a very brief stopover here in Singapore a few years ago, in addition to a number of talks and events he had committed to, he found a way to make a day bus trip up to Malacca and back to see for himself its site and the old Portuguese fort. When he writes of Malacca, which figures often in The Boundless Sea (7" of page references in the Index), you see it literally through his eyes. I have no doubt he has stood in the vast majority of sites he writes of (including Ceuta) and has read every chronicle he quotes from. I have read several of Professor Abulafia's former books and thought The Great Sea (about the Mediterranean) couldn't be surpassed, but this book surpasses it. The words on the back cover say it all: a historical sweep, dazzling, masterpiece, an intense and thrilling tour de force.... I hopscotched my way through the work reading the chapters united by the storylines I was most interested in (Asia and Scandinavia, and even found chapters that connected the two subjects) then returned to fill in the skipped-over sections, which I found only enriched the earlier chapters. When my hardbound copy arrives, my plan is to re-read it from beginning to end, confident that it will be even more engrossing the second time through. Let me add the Scandinavian concept of 'feast' to the accolades.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Inderjit Sanghera

    Abualafia has the rare ability to write about history in a way that is both erudite and accessible in a book which is both full of depth and over 800 pages long, yet singularly light. In ‘The Boundless Sea’ Abulafia explores the history of man’s explorations of the oceans, starting with the Polynesian’s exploration of the Pacific Ocean and ending with the modern commercialisation of ocean travel. Throughout Abulafia demonstrates how instrumental the ocean has been to the development of civilisat Abualafia has the rare ability to write about history in a way that is both erudite and accessible in a book which is both full of depth and over 800 pages long, yet singularly light. In ‘The Boundless Sea’ Abulafia explores the history of man’s explorations of the oceans, starting with the Polynesian’s exploration of the Pacific Ocean and ending with the modern commercialisation of ocean travel. Throughout Abulafia demonstrates how instrumental the ocean has been to the development of civilisation, from the spread of the alphabet via the Phoenicians, to the mapping of the stars via the Polynesians or the dominance of the West via the discovery of the Americas and imperialism. The ocean has frequently been a source of human ingenuity, the bright spark upon which the explosion of human development rests, from free trade to culture and idea, none of these would have been possible without our exploration of the ocean. On the flipside, the ocean also hides unfathomable depths of human misery and subjugation, from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the acts of piracy and way committed from 15th century Japan the Second World War. Indeed, one of Abulafia’s strengths is his attempt to paint a truly inclusive picture of history. There are a couple of issues-some of the latter chapters, especially the one covering post-WW2 are fairly dull and he seems surprisingly reluctant to explore the rise of the British Empire in any great depth, perhaps due to his political proclivities or perhaps because he has explore it in greater depth elsewhere. Nonetheless, ‘The Boundless Sea’ remains a magisterial narrative of human history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Marion

    I wasn't able to finish this book before my review copy expired, but I loved everything I read so far. Abulafia is cogent and engaging and full of fun facts as well as deep analysis and commentary. This book is a lot to take in at once, but I love how he shows that the way we divide up the world today (in terms of continents or land regions) does not represent human flows and interactions throughout much of history. The seas have connected us throughout time, especially when travel through mount I wasn't able to finish this book before my review copy expired, but I loved everything I read so far. Abulafia is cogent and engaging and full of fun facts as well as deep analysis and commentary. This book is a lot to take in at once, but I love how he shows that the way we divide up the world today (in terms of continents or land regions) does not represent human flows and interactions throughout much of history. The seas have connected us throughout time, especially when travel through mountains or over land was more difficult than a journey by boat or ship. Also, the Polynesian sailors had an amazing navigational science, entirely oral and far more precise than anything the Europeans or the Chinese ever had. Read this book to learn more. ;)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    A sprawling, mind-boggling, occasionally unwieldy but ultimately awe-inspiring human history of the oceans. Contains everything from the earliest exploration of Polynesia (back in the 1000s BC) and nascent maritime trade between Egypt, Arabia and Persia, through Asian thalassocracies and the European mapping of the seas, right on up to how the world wars changed the balance of power at sea and the birth of container shipping. How Abulafia has managed to synthesise information that incorporates t A sprawling, mind-boggling, occasionally unwieldy but ultimately awe-inspiring human history of the oceans. Contains everything from the earliest exploration of Polynesia (back in the 1000s BC) and nascent maritime trade between Egypt, Arabia and Persia, through Asian thalassocracies and the European mapping of the seas, right on up to how the world wars changed the balance of power at sea and the birth of container shipping. How Abulafia has managed to synthesise information that incorporates the history and geography of regions across the globe into a cohesive book is just insane.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Keenan

    Although my reading challenge may have failed, I can at least finish this 1200+ page tome on the human history of the world's oceans before year's end... Human history cannot be understood without appreciating the role that the major world oceans played in its development. Politics and natural resources played as much of a role in what cities rose and fell as geography and trade winds did. Oceanic trade, which rightfully makes up the majority of this book, gave opportunities to small nations and Although my reading challenge may have failed, I can at least finish this 1200+ page tome on the human history of the world's oceans before year's end... Human history cannot be understood without appreciating the role that the major world oceans played in its development. Politics and natural resources played as much of a role in what cities rose and fell as geography and trade winds did. Oceanic trade, which rightfully makes up the majority of this book, gave opportunities to small nations and ethnic groups to play an outsized role on the world stage. Exploration and colonization extended the domain of human influence on the planet, while new ship designs and canals shrunk distances between far off civilzations. The extent of human interaction over the long distances of the world's oceans is clear enough that there is debate among historians as to when "globalization" first started, as arguments could be made for it stretching back to ancient Egypt. Below are some of the stories/details that I found most interesting, although every chapter had something to offer: • The colonization of Polynesia, then Hawaii, and lastly New Zealand, and the oral history, local myths, and archaeological evidence that shows how it was accomplished (and the eccentric Thor Heyerdahl trying to impose his own theories against all evidence) • The growth of Southeast Asian trading kingdoms, one long ago building on what is now modern-day Singapore. Areas that were resource poor would leverage their skills as seamen, guiding ships from India to the rich kingdoms of China and Japan (Buddhist texts were in high demand and could bring you some serious $$$). Malaysian sailors went as far as Madagascar and colonized the previously uninhabited island! • Norse settlers, first in the Faroe islands, then Iceland, then Greenland, and for a short time the Eastern Seaboard. Fascinating stories about the way they integrated into the Norwegian mainland, the legends duly recorded by medeival scribes, and their motivations for exploring West. • The Portuguese built their maritime empire based on a model that first succeeded in their colonization of islands like Madeira, Cabo Verde, and the Azores. Within 50 years of rounding the Cape of Good Hope, they had established bases in the Persian Gulf, India, Malacca, Macau, and Nagasaki. The Spanish took a more colonization approach, and for a century most global maritime trade involved Peruvian silver in some shape or form en route to the Ming dynasty. The Dutch succeeded in the 17th century by eating away at Portugal's monopoly in the Indian Ocean. • The swiftly changing role of the East Pacific vis-a-vis trade. Drake's expeditions were first motivated by the search of a Northwest Passage, Japanese sailing to Veracruz trying to cut out Spanish middlemen in the Philippines, Americans going up and down the coast looking for seal skins that they could sell in Canton, Russians trying to lay claim east of the Bering strait, and Hawaiians building up a European-style fleet to cement control over the islands. Clearly there was a lot more to this immense novel, but if you're a passionate reader of history there should be a few chapters that stoke your interest. If anything, it ties together the histories of places you may previously have considered separate into a beautiful tapestry of civilizations and the seas they lived and died on.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kadri

    This is an absolute leviathan of a book, a beautifully narrated maritime history of the world. But since I listened to it as an audiobook, I found myself crying for maps so many times throughout the thing. Why don't audiobooks come with maps???!!! You can embed them in chapter titles! Honestly! Also, it contains this sentence: "Before long they were reduced to a diet of grubs, psychedelic crab meat, and luminous but poisonous lizards." Now you can look forward to hearing from my new band, Psyched This is an absolute leviathan of a book, a beautifully narrated maritime history of the world. But since I listened to it as an audiobook, I found myself crying for maps so many times throughout the thing. Why don't audiobooks come with maps???!!! You can embed them in chapter titles! Honestly! Also, it contains this sentence: "Before long they were reduced to a diet of grubs, psychedelic crab meat, and luminous but poisonous lizards." Now you can look forward to hearing from my new band, Psychedelic Crab Meat. Will probably listen to it a few times more, possibly when googling maps.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tom Blumer

    This book is best read during the middle of a pandemic when it is most appropriate to stay home. This is a massive book, over 1000 pages, with a myriad of details that are virtually impossible to fully absorb. But with that said, what makes this book interesting is learning that travel and trade by sea has been part of the human condition since time immemorial. The only things that have changed are the size of the seagoing vessels and the technology.

  11. 4 out of 5

    James

    David Abulafia’s ‘The Boundless Sea’ provides a grand historical account of how humans have used the oceans since the earliest times for migration, exploration, trading, conquest and war. It is sweeping in all senses, beginning with the gradual population of the Pacific Islands from West to East by Polynesian societies who had mastered open ocean navigation in tiny outriggers. The book seamlessly ties together the movements of peoples on the Mediterranean in early antiquity to the eventual push David Abulafia’s ‘The Boundless Sea’ provides a grand historical account of how humans have used the oceans since the earliest times for migration, exploration, trading, conquest and war. It is sweeping in all senses, beginning with the gradual population of the Pacific Islands from West to East by Polynesian societies who had mastered open ocean navigation in tiny outriggers. The book seamlessly ties together the movements of peoples on the Mediterranean in early antiquity to the eventual push out into the Indian Ocean by Muslim traders making trading ties to India, Sri Lanka and onwards to Indonesia. The historical ports of Melaka, Palembang and Singapore provided the connections from Europe via the Indian Ocean onwards to China and Japan. Conquests led by Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, Denmark and the British saw explorations of the vast Atlantic and then the Pacific Oceans being mapped and then exploited for financial gain. With the oceans now better mapped and new lands connected, the European powers looked toward international expansion both in terms of colonisation and mercantilism. This precipitated the development of the horrific slave trade in which not just the Portuguese, Spanish, French and the British (among others) participated, but also elucidated how African kings and chiefs were often key suppliers of slaves in this terrible chapter of human history. Discovery of the New World by Europeans, piracy in the Caribbean and wars on the high seas paint an incredible picture of how global these ventures were. This in fact is the dawn of globalisation. As this book covers huge swathes of history and geography it still goes into a certain amount of detail and provides an excellent primer from which to explore each of these chapters in history. It is a long book, over 900 reading pages but was able to keep my attention and I often found myself dreaming what it would have been like out there on the oceans. Highly recommended for lovers of world history from antiquity to the present as well as readers with interest in globalisation, maritime trade networks, shipping and exploration.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Koit

    There’s a saying by which the knowledge of today is too great for generalists to survive: one has to specialize. I definitely think that Mr Abulafia should have focussed this book by that principle, because the book jumps from one time and place to another, leaving confusion in its wake. This book begins with Polynesian expansion in the Pacific Ocean and covers everything from that to recent trends of container ships. Between these two extremes are Arab merchants of the Indian Ocean, Norse coloni There’s a saying by which the knowledge of today is too great for generalists to survive: one has to specialize. I definitely think that Mr Abulafia should have focussed this book by that principle, because the book jumps from one time and place to another, leaving confusion in its wake. This book begins with Polynesian expansion in the Pacific Ocean and covers everything from that to recent trends of container ships. Between these two extremes are Arab merchants of the Indian Ocean, Norse colonization of Greenland, Baltic Sea merchant city states, and the Russo-Japanese War. As the subject matter tries to cover everything that has ever happened on the seas, this book becomes very difficult to follow. Also, the author has a tendency to refer to things which are going to be described in more detail a few chapters on—this can become annoying very quickly (and is most certainly *very* annoying by the twentieth time it happens). This inability to focus on any area in more detail also means that while the descriptions of different periods and areas are detailed, these lack the anecdotal stories that give history colour. Most of the description is dry, though occasionally the author’s tangents take the reader onto land for long periods. While this makes sense for the reasons why those descriptions are included, it also makes for a book that is even more aimless. Another aspect of this book I dislike is how often the author likes saying how much better his own research is compared to everyone else who’s ever published a theory regarding these subjects (which is near everyone due to the wide scope). What this could have been, instead, is a series of volumes that either focusses on specific regions or times. A coherent narrative that wants to include both Scandinavian settlements in North America and early trade empires in Malaysia doesn’t make sense otherwise, and the author’s attempts to tie it together prove this. Yet, the narratives that the author did include are thorough and do offer new information to the reader, and partially the same wide scope will offer near every reader something new to think about. So… there’s a lot here that’s new, possibly quite a lot. Yet, the book is structured poorly and misses out on some of the most colourful detail that I’d like to see in a narrative history. I wouldn’t like to read it again. This review was originally posted on my blog.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Toby

    Tour-de-force might be an overused word, bordering on cliché, but there is little else that could be used to describe an almost-1000 page history of human interaction with our oceans. Of course size isn't everything, but the sheer grasp of detail matched with an ability to tell a story and make the odd wry side-comment is what makes this book something special. In reality it is a history of global trade. There are comparatively few descriptions of sea battles, although I was introduced to the rem Tour-de-force might be an overused word, bordering on cliché, but there is little else that could be used to describe an almost-1000 page history of human interaction with our oceans. Of course size isn't everything, but the sheer grasp of detail matched with an ability to tell a story and make the odd wry side-comment is what makes this book something special. In reality it is a history of global trade. There are comparatively few descriptions of sea battles, although I was introduced to the remarkable Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin whose turtle boats won a series of against-the-odds battles against the Japanese. Nelson gets one sentence, as does the battle of Jutland. Explorers aren't over-emphasised either (with the obvious exceptions of Columbus, Magellan, Zheng He and Cook). Ernest Shackleton makes no appearance, for instance. In fact the Southern Ocean surround Antartica doesn't feature much, presumably because it (as yet) has no trading advantage. Neither is there any particular discussion of human impact on the oceans (at least not until the final paragraph). Of course had this been a comprehensive history of human interaction with the oceans then it would require many volumes of the same length. The book needs to be treated for what it does speak of, rather than what it doesn't. Four millennia of human history is a lot to squeeze in and the great strength of this book is the way in which Abulafia tries his best to ensure that human history from across the globe is given recognition even if, as he admits, post-1500 it is very difficult not to make it Eurocentric simply because Europe, and then America, was the centre of the sea-faring world for the next 400 years. The opening chapters on the Polynesians makes for fascinating history, as does Medieval (to use a European term) China and Japan. The sophistication of the Chinese and Japanese trading networks compared with contemporary European societies raises the unanswerable "what if?" question about the course of human history. An undercurrent (appropriately) of the history is also a history of the international Jewish people - a nation afloat as Abulafia calls them. Abulafia himself is a Sephardic Jew and it is a nice touch to see, what I presume is a personal interest, woven into the story.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Wang

    I read both of David Abulafia's recent books. I am still not convinced that it's the history of oceans/seas. I think we are at odds regarding the definition of what constitutes history of seas or oceans. Most of the history in the books actually happened on the land. The book mostly deals with how human found land, islands, continents. The history is good by itself. I read both of David Abulafia's recent books. I am still not convinced that it's the history of oceans/seas. I think we are at odds regarding the definition of what constitutes history of seas or oceans. Most of the history in the books actually happened on the land. The book mostly deals with how human found land, islands, continents. The history is good by itself.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    An ambitious, if sprawling, account of our relationship to the seas. Feels a little too much like a history of human civilisation in places. The chapters on the Indian ocean and the Sea of Japan especially feel patchy, and some of their content reads a bit tangental. However, the chapters on the pacific - before and after the Polynesian encounters with Europeans - are fascinating, and I wish those sections had been longer.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Colby

    A tour de force (almost too much; best read in tranches, and best read)

  17. 4 out of 5

    Daniel KML

    Albeit a bit Eurocentric (the author aknowledges that as we are all victims of our sources), this is an impressive and ambitious book full of details and interesting stories. Maybe too long for some casual readers. I only wish it had more on the slave trade - I think it deserved a dedicated section as it took place mainly across the Atlantic ocean. Also, there was nothing on the human history below the surface of the oceans, especially as we are more and more exploring the depths, finding natura Albeit a bit Eurocentric (the author aknowledges that as we are all victims of our sources), this is an impressive and ambitious book full of details and interesting stories. Maybe too long for some casual readers. I only wish it had more on the slave trade - I think it deserved a dedicated section as it took place mainly across the Atlantic ocean. Also, there was nothing on the human history below the surface of the oceans, especially as we are more and more exploring the depths, finding natural resources, etc. I recommend wholeheartedly to those interested in wide and comprehensive history books. Finally, there are some hidden gems throughout the book which make the long reading worth the dedicated time - such as the passage below: “In September 1597 thirteen ships under the Korean admiral Yi Sun-sin proved capable of holding back the entire Japanese fleet of over 200 ships at the battle of Myongnyang. In the fifteenth century the Koreans had developed a type of fortified ship known as ‘turtle ships’, with strengthened sides and spiked roofs, making them all but impregnable; they had gone out of fashion, but Yi had new ones built, adorned at the bow with an impressive dragon’s head, through which the muzzles of heavy guns poked. Generously provided with additional firepower at port, starboard and stern, they were rather like floating armoured tanks. These ships were also used as rams, because the lighter ships of the Japanese were no match for their heavy prows. Guns blazing, the tiny Korean squadron abandoned all thought of coming out alive and charged the Japanese fleet. The Koreans targeted the Japanese flagship, which was set ablaze and sank; Admiral Yi had the satisfaction of seeing the corpse of the Japanese commander dragged from the water: it was cut in pieces and hung from the mast, so the Japanese could see what had happened to their leader. This was Korea’s battle of Salamis, fought in a narrow channel, from which the Korean ships emerged unscathed, but the Japanese lost thirty-one ships.”

  18. 4 out of 5

    Bren

    This book is a vast and impressive piece of work. The author certainly deserves much credit for putting together such a large book about such a vast swath of human and global history. The book was bland at times (no shortage of mentions of how much tonnage of grain, etc., was carried by a certain country), but the author doesn't feel the need to get overly academic with his grammar or try and prove how learned he is. The writing style is, therefore, very readable. I have Attention Deficit Disord This book is a vast and impressive piece of work. The author certainly deserves much credit for putting together such a large book about such a vast swath of human and global history. The book was bland at times (no shortage of mentions of how much tonnage of grain, etc., was carried by a certain country), but the author doesn't feel the need to get overly academic with his grammar or try and prove how learned he is. The writing style is, therefore, very readable. I have Attention Deficit Disorder, and I finished the book in just over two months; that's a testament to his writing and skill at keeping the reader engaged. I am wiser for having read this impressive work. That being said, this book is far from perfect. For a book that is supposed to be "A Human History of the Oceans," there was minimal mention of native peoples unless it was detailing their interactions with Europeans or some of the Asian Empires. He mentions that written history for certain peoples is tough to come by (or non-existent) and, therefore, difficult to write about. But I would have liked to know if American Indians, Aborigines, Inuit people, etc., went out to sea. Even if he simply mentioned they were a people who mostly stayed close to shore, that would have sufficed; but aside from the people of the South Pacific, there was very little such detail about indigenous cultures. There was also shockingly little mention of Venice, which, to my knowledge, played a major role for several centuries in oceanic commerce. As a reader, you are also expected to know of a good deal about history and peoples' (countries, empires, etc.). I would have liked a bit more history, but I understand that he didn't want to get too far off the rails. Overall, a very enjoyable and worthwhile read.

  19. 5 out of 5

    David

    Overall a brilliant reading of humanity's history relative to the oceans. It fails on two minor points. First, it rejects the notion of the European voyages of discovery in favor of those 'discovered'. Abulafia fails or rejects the notion of the narrative from the European perspective. The Europeans sailed the ships, went out into the world/Atlantic to find a better route to resources they needed. These were voyages of discovery and Europeans were the actors not the peoples of the world -- Afric Overall a brilliant reading of humanity's history relative to the oceans. It fails on two minor points. First, it rejects the notion of the European voyages of discovery in favor of those 'discovered'. Abulafia fails or rejects the notion of the narrative from the European perspective. The Europeans sailed the ships, went out into the world/Atlantic to find a better route to resources they needed. These were voyages of discovery and Europeans were the actors not the peoples of the world -- African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, or Pacific. The second point occurs late in the book in which Abulafia fails to understand Asia, as a power, is on its last legs. Reasons: collapsing demographics and the end of the American Alliance which protected the sea lanes, put out global brush fires and opened the American market to global allies. Excepting those two failures, this is a brilliant history of humanity's maritime history. Highly Recommended. Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Graham

    An excellent scholarly look at world history, focusing on man's travels across the seas for exploration and trade. This is a huge book and extremely dense with tons of information and facts on every page, so it takes some reading, but it's entirely worth it. I learnt so much about world history from reading this and in particular the interconnectedness of human history and how everything ties together; you feel it all makes sense as a result. The reader learns a lot about explorers, geography, e An excellent scholarly look at world history, focusing on man's travels across the seas for exploration and trade. This is a huge book and extremely dense with tons of information and facts on every page, so it takes some reading, but it's entirely worth it. I learnt so much about world history from reading this and in particular the interconnectedness of human history and how everything ties together; you feel it all makes sense as a result. The reader learns a lot about explorers, geography, economics, colonialism, commodities, society, technology and of course history and it's all told through Abulafia's accessible style which mixes pure history writing on a grand scale with smaller stories and anecdotes on a personal level that serve to humanise everything. If there's any complaint it's that the Mediterranean barely features, but that's only because the author previously wrote a book devoted to that subject; needless to say, it's on my reading list.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Ian Hunter

    At times it seemed like I wouldn't get to the end, but at no time did I think of giving up. This is a long read, but for the most part, hugely enjoyable. The approach is to take each of the main oceans - Pacific, Indian then Atlantic - and being at the start. Over time, the travellers on each ocean begin to meet and mix and cross - so the separate narratives slowly begin to merge. The human desire to explore is fascinating, and the role which these oceans played in the history of our species can At times it seemed like I wouldn't get to the end, but at no time did I think of giving up. This is a long read, but for the most part, hugely enjoyable. The approach is to take each of the main oceans - Pacific, Indian then Atlantic - and being at the start. Over time, the travellers on each ocean begin to meet and mix and cross - so the separate narratives slowly begin to merge. The human desire to explore is fascinating, and the role which these oceans played in the history of our species cannot be underestimated. Until relatively recently, the oceans have been where much of our progess has played out. I noticed early on that the structure of each section began to irritate, with something like a summary chapter, before delving into more detail, which did lead to a feeling of repetition. But that is the only negative in what was a rewarding read.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ed Barton

    David Abulafia wrote the definitive survey on the human history of the oceans in this well researched, massive book. Weighing in at over 1,000 pages and heavy enough to use for exercise, the book takes a long time to get through, and has some spots where it bogged down a bit. However, the global perspective, the focus on the period from about 500 BCE to 1500 CE and the format of geographic focus make t incredibly interesting. While there is no way to go deep on any one area, subject or time fram David Abulafia wrote the definitive survey on the human history of the oceans in this well researched, massive book. Weighing in at over 1,000 pages and heavy enough to use for exercise, the book takes a long time to get through, and has some spots where it bogged down a bit. However, the global perspective, the focus on the period from about 500 BCE to 1500 CE and the format of geographic focus make t incredibly interesting. While there is no way to go deep on any one area, subject or time frame given the audacious scope, as a survey the book is an incredible success. You will be able to read it and find great nuggets for further research, as well as a ton of references, notes, a comprehensive bibliography and an easy reading format. A great book.

  23. 5 out of 5

    K-dizzle

    Well, this book is quite the tome. It is definitely not for those who find large books intimidating. Regardless of the fact that it took me forever to finish, it was very fascinating and informative way to approach world history. The author has done his research well and I felt like I was able to gain a better understanding of how interconnected the world has been from time immemorial. He also tried his best to not stay Eurocentric and give a variety of perspectives. Since I'm not a proper histo Well, this book is quite the tome. It is definitely not for those who find large books intimidating. Regardless of the fact that it took me forever to finish, it was very fascinating and informative way to approach world history. The author has done his research well and I felt like I was able to gain a better understanding of how interconnected the world has been from time immemorial. He also tried his best to not stay Eurocentric and give a variety of perspectives. Since I'm not a proper history buff, I didn't really care too much for the extreme details with regards to dates and names of people. Sections of the book were a bit of a drag but overall I found it very interesting.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Joe Q.

    "The Boundless Sea" is a historical survey of oceanic exploration, migration, and above all, trading. It is a long and detailed book (I read it over several months), and clearly the product of extensive research. Ultimately, though, this is one of those books where the reader, while undoubtedly being drawn in by author's storytelling and learning a lot of history in the process, may find him- or herself wondering what "the point" is. Beyond the idea that what happened in one ocean had effects in "The Boundless Sea" is a historical survey of oceanic exploration, migration, and above all, trading. It is a long and detailed book (I read it over several months), and clearly the product of extensive research. Ultimately, though, this is one of those books where the reader, while undoubtedly being drawn in by author's storytelling and learning a lot of history in the process, may find him- or herself wondering what "the point" is. Beyond the idea that what happened in one ocean had effects in the others, I struggled to locate a conceptual thread tying the book together. Perhaps reading it in one block would have helped with this, but at over 1,000 pages, that's a tall order too.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Julian Walker

    The author has set out to deliver an Herculean task, and delivers it in boatloads - with a fascinating and highly readable history covering his subject with fine detail and plenty of interesting characters, peoples and practices. This is how history should be tackled as, despite its length, the pace and interest are maintained throughout and even before I had finished reading it, I felt compelled to recommend it to others. This is a great book, on a perhaps the most important part of world history The author has set out to deliver an Herculean task, and delivers it in boatloads - with a fascinating and highly readable history covering his subject with fine detail and plenty of interesting characters, peoples and practices. This is how history should be tackled as, despite its length, the pace and interest are maintained throughout and even before I had finished reading it, I felt compelled to recommend it to others. This is a great book, on a perhaps the most important part of world history. Absorbing, educational, and thoroughly enjoyable - a heady mixture.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Joe Marshall

    A remarkable achievement. It took me a month to read it but considering it encompasses human ocean-bound activity from 175,000BC and Polinesian rafted exploration of the Pacific to the modern containerization of traded goods in less than a thousand pages is quite something. Abulafia scrutinized not just the methods but the morals of ocean-bound trade advancement, never shying away from the abhorrent slave trade and giving it the level of contempt that it deserves. I learned a lot from reading th A remarkable achievement. It took me a month to read it but considering it encompasses human ocean-bound activity from 175,000BC and Polinesian rafted exploration of the Pacific to the modern containerization of traded goods in less than a thousand pages is quite something. Abulafia scrutinized not just the methods but the morals of ocean-bound trade advancement, never shying away from the abhorrent slave trade and giving it the level of contempt that it deserves. I learned a lot from reading this book but I absorbed a lot more. I will no doubt use it for reference for many years.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Toby

    Astonishing. It may seem counter-intuitive to say of a book I've awarded 5 stars that I was so glad to finish it; but this is in no way a criticism of this vast work, merely a rueful reflection of my own limited brain space and understanding. There was just so much to take in and absorb, so many extraordinary anecdotes - I can't remember reading a book as in-depth (pun intended) or detailed. And it's the detail that left me floundering; and beaten, too, by a book that was simply too much for me t Astonishing. It may seem counter-intuitive to say of a book I've awarded 5 stars that I was so glad to finish it; but this is in no way a criticism of this vast work, merely a rueful reflection of my own limited brain space and understanding. There was just so much to take in and absorb, so many extraordinary anecdotes - I can't remember reading a book as in-depth (pun intended) or detailed. And it's the detail that left me floundering; and beaten, too, by a book that was simply too much for me to read all in one go.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Douglas Bridger

    Well it did take me well over a year to read all this book but it was worth it. It is mostly very accessible, fascinating and informative. The pieces I struggled with were some of the earlier periods which have a mass of names and places which I could barely read let alone put into context. From the Middle Ages onwards it is a rattling good read as well as being interesting. Like one reviewer said, Abulafia is outrageously intellectual. I will be dipping back into different bits of this book ove Well it did take me well over a year to read all this book but it was worth it. It is mostly very accessible, fascinating and informative. The pieces I struggled with were some of the earlier periods which have a mass of names and places which I could barely read let alone put into context. From the Middle Ages onwards it is a rattling good read as well as being interesting. Like one reviewer said, Abulafia is outrageously intellectual. I will be dipping back into different bits of this book over many years.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Vincenzo Tagle

    A magesterial history of humankind’s relationship with the oceans, it’s a sweeping book that covers a lot of aspects of human history, from the waves of migration in the Polynesian islands, to the commercial maritime links in the first millennia, to colonization. It’s very dense and contains a lot of information, but is very accessible to the curious. There is no overarching theme or argument being put forth here, just a grand and well-written account.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tony Bertram

    The book is huge covering a massive amount of history of people places and things. Really a history of trade...with trade being the advancer of civilization. Only occasionally recognizing that exploitation of peoples and the environment is the lynchpin of trade. Some sections are wonderful...others less so. The Vikings need more detail for example.The Mediterranean gets no coverage I guess being done in a previous book which may be got to down the track.

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