Book Review: The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans


by David Abulafia

Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xxxii, 1052+. Illus., maps, references, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0199934983

The Oceans and Seas in Human History

Prof. Abulafia (emeritus, Cambridge), follows his 2013 book The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, a sea which, albeit large in history, is only a small corner of the world ocean, with this very impressive overview of the role of the oceans and sea as both barrier and highway in human history.

Abulafia gives us accounts of long-forgotten, heroic sea crossings, the rise and fall of many civilizations, changing technologies, early periods of “globalization”, wars, migrations, colonization, the slave trade, and more. There’s a great cast, with an eclectic collection of “primitive” sea farers, warriors, pirates, explorers, scholars, merchants, cartographers, missionaries, ship builders and fishermen. And Abulafia helps us see how the oceans fostered connectivity among the otherwise widely dispersed peoples of the world, even where cultures were often wholly unaware of each other’s existence.

Abulafia drew upon evidence from ancient writings, trade drift, folk lore, archaeology, numismatics, and more to tell this story. It’s an impressive tale, huge, but well told, and Abulafia has the knack of moving easily through the ages and across the oceans, to focus on the actions of people – whether in groups or as individuals – as a way of explaining the bigger picture, in a clear, well-written narrative.

The Boundless Sea is an excellent read, informative and engaging.


Note: The Boundless Sea is also available in several e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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