‘The Boundless Sea’ explores centuries of ocean voyaging

David Abulafia’s sweeping history “The Boundless Sea” touches on great explorers as well as war, trade, and migration. 

Courtesy of Oxford University Press
“The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans” by David Abulafia, Oxford University Press, 1050 pp.

Humans have been conducting war, commerce, and exploration on the world’s oceans for thousands of years, and the oceans have been reflected in human literature from its beginnings. Histories of that relationship abound, including Lincoln Paine’s “The Sea and Civilization” and James Stavridis’ “Sea Power.” Now comes David Abulafia’s “The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans,” which focuses on earth’s three largest oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian. 

These pages feature the great sea-going nations of the past, the globe-circling commercial empires built on fragile ships and enormous risks, and Abulafia includes a colorful cast of mostly well-known figures. These include Walter Raleigh, Ferdinand Magellan, and Vasco Núñez de Balboa, along with equally important figures who will probably be less familiar to some readers, like the great Ming admiral Zheng He or the ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder. 

Due to the sheer immensity of Abulafia’s subject – human interactions over centuries on three vast watery arenas – none of these figures can stay for long. When it comes to poor old Pliny the Elder, our author only has time to repeat a well-worn slander about “a man whose obsession with scientific detail was so powerful that he lingered too long in the gas-filled air of the Bay of Naples and fell victim to the famous eruption of Vesuvius.” (To set the record straight, Pliny was a naval officer attempting to get residents out of harm’s way at nearby Stabiae, not some oblivious tourist; Abulafia’s source for the slander is, oddly enough, Pliny’s own “Natural History,” a book in which Pliny describes quite a bit but not, alas, the circumstances of his own death). Likewise, the book has enough room to mention Captain Edward Preble’s defeat of the Tripoli pirates during the 1801 First Barbary War but must hurry on without mentioning the star vessel of his squadron – the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” whose decks you can still walk today in Boston.

But that’s one of the problems with a volume as big and inviting as this. Even while you’re floating along on the generous glories of its narrative, you’re noticing little bits and pieces that are missing. Far more notable, even given the page count here, is the sheer amount of detail Abulafia actually manages to include. Readers get glimpses of thousands of worlds, from the first American traders encountering Chinese merchants in their elaborate business hostels (“They were not supposed to bring in women,” Abulafia writes, “but occasionally smuggled wives or mistresses in nonetheless”) to the notorious scourge of all pre-modern epic sea voyages: scurvy, which made long voyages “a deathtrap.”

And through it all, Abulafia keeps one eye on the broader aspects of his subject, both the growing interconnectedness of his three separate water-worlds but also on the larger conceptions of what the oceans mean as spheres of human endeavor. 

Who has mastery over the sea itself? Abulafia attempts to answer that question by looking back to the days of Dutch and Portuguese supremacy. In 1609, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius wrote that classical and Biblical literature clearly indicated that the open oceans should be neutral international fields of play. In our unprecedentedly interconnected age, the issue is intensely relevant. “The question that the Dutch raised has still not gone away: in the twenty-first century the South China Sea has become the focus of intense legal debates in which theoretical claims and practical realities are closely intertwined,” he writes. “The Boundless Sea” largely steers clear of those 21st-century questions, and it likewise doesn’t consider the rampant, worldwide damage humans are doing to these oceans. 

“So have I seen Passion and Vanity stamping the living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her seasons for that,” Herman Melville writes in “Moby-Dick,” and this is the line “The Boundless Sea” follows so engagingly: Here we have the passion and vanity on full and glorious display.

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