The bounding, boundless main

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

David Abulafia, Allen Lane, 2019, 1,050 pages, £35

David Abulafia’s 2011 The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean set a standard in Middle Sea scholarship, charting a course from 22,000 BC to today, combining careful detail with epic sweep. This dazzlingly ambitious companion-piece looks far beyond the Strait and Suez, towards seaways older than those of Odysseus but less often explored.

Classical cosmographers dreamed of Okeanos, an all-encompassing, intermingling great water which both islanded and united humanity, an azure immensity played across by wanderlust and winds. Deities disported there with dolphins, adventurers hazarded lives against leviathans, and invaders crossed routes with traders. Even Homer’s storied sea was but a bay of the world’s water – a conception that harmonises with today’s ecology of oceanic interconnectedness.

The thalassographer’s imagination must be equally untrammelled, reconstructing ports and practices from single coins or cuneiforms, out-of-place amphorae, or tersely tantalising texts. Abulafia never lets enthusiasm overpower him, knowing that goods often came hand-to-hand overland rather than by sea, and similarities between separated cultures may be ‘processual’ (arising independently out of circumstances) rather than the results of diffusion. But often the evidence astounds – like the coins of Augustus still in currency in twentieth century Colombo.

In The Discovery of Mankind (2008), the author chronicled medieval Atlantic encounters with hitherto unguessed-at non-Europeans. The Boundless Sea similarly stresses contacts over ‘discoveries’, and relativizes aggrandizing European narratives, from Strabo via Camões and Hakluyt to Cook. The author is more interested in merchants than captains, believes insufficient attention has been paid to non-Western navigations, and urges us not to overlook slaves, or women (such contingencies seem unlikely). To the author, people are generally outward-looking, predisposed to travel, and against restrictive practices; he supports Brexit as a liberal enterprise.

Readers might reasonably anticipate dull determinism, or boundless angst, but these shallows are avoided by shrewd sensitivity, and the sheer majesty of his subject. He sees inevitable – and desirable – cross-fertilisation where others see only one-way exploitation. Denunciations of European actions during the ‘Age of Discovery’ (really an Age of Revelation) are tempered by awareness that anyone can behave appallingly. Africans and Arabs were agents for Western slavers, and criticisms of New World Catholicism are viewed against Aztec human sacrifice. In 1567, a friendly Tuvualan offered Spanish captain Álvaro de Mendaña the shoulder and arm of a child to eat (the hand was still attached). Mendaña’s horror is counterpointed by a gentle hint that Inquisitorial immolations were equally unpalatable.

Unlike frigid Fernand Braudel, Abulafia ascribes world-shaping importance to religion. It was not just European geopolitics, or Castilian cupidity, but personal idealism that impelled Columbus to weigh anchor that August morning:

It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.

Religions travelled along with goods, invisible cargoes bringing mixed blessings to previously ‘ignorant’ islands. St Elmo’s Fire crackled auspiciously around mastheads, proof of various deities’ approval. Romans brought their household gods when seeking islands whose sands were literally silver – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Taoists swapped blows and scriptures – Christians searched for sacred sites, or souls to be ‘saved’ from themselves. Enslavement, to some Churchmen, was better for the enslaved than never knowing about Christ. Others opposed slavery, and yet others waxed sentimental; Thomas More’s Utopia was coloured by naïve accounts of new-found Edenic ‘innocents’.

The Pacific is Abulafia’s ‘Oldest Ocean’ because Lapitans were traversing vast distances between scattered atolls when others preferred inshore shallows. Lapitans (we think inevitably of Swift’s Laputa) and their Polynesian successors performed brilliant computations without compasses, through knowledge of water colour, phosphorescence, clouds, smells, birds, fish, floating debris, angles of sun and moon, positions of the stars – their ancestors, they believed, watching over their tiny boats, which stayed still while the world wheeled. Captain Cook’s ally Tupaia tried to reconcile Polynesian and European navigational notions, but ultimately he knew where islands were ‘because they had always been there’. Tupaia hadn’t heard of New Zealand or Hawai’i, yet these had already been settled, although thousands of miles from other islands and, in the case of Hawai’i, under different stars.

Sumerian sea links to the Indus Valley essentially inaugurated global trade, but even to them the Indian Ocean remained elementally alien – ‘abyss’ derives from the Sumerian abzu. Even frequent ports of call were simultaneously markets and magical realms. When Egyptians essayed the ‘Great Green’ in quest of the fabulous ‘Land of Punt’, they expected to meet spirits on the way. The author brims with information on Asia’s aquatic achievements – Mongol naval might, the ‘empire’ of Śri Vijaya, how Shintō prohibitions delayed Japan’s development, and why Ming emperors stopped funding Zheng He’s armadas, which might else have turned the Indian Ocean Chinese.

Atlantic histories often scant the pre-1492 period, but The Boundless Sea offers depth, zooming from ninth century steering to mirage-humped horizons. Even icebound ‘Ultima Thule’ thawed into the world economy – Iceland offered sulphur and walrus ivory, Greenland falcons went to Sicily, a headdress from a Norse Greenlander’s grave copied 15th century Burgundian fashion, Basque boats brought Newfoundland herrings, the Russians sent ermines for crowns, obsessives hunted the ‘North-West Passage’ to Cathay. The Hanseatic League famously stitched together the Atlantic littorals, but fewer remember the Vitalienbrüder pirates who preyed on their iconic cogs. The English and Dutch East India Companies are still talked of – but there was also a Danish one, and a Swedish. Hugo Grotius’ 1609 Mare Liberum is the classic exposition of the doctrine of the freedom of the seas – but it was written to further Dutch (and Protestant) interests.

With steam, seas started shrinking – and science has had the unintended effect of stripping away enchantment. Blandly impersonal bulk shipping, and leisure cruisers overpowering Venice, are symbols of a subtle danger to add to climate change, overfishing, and pollution. The sea will always spring surprises, but we plainly need to reimagine our coasts. The Boundless Sea reminds us brilliantly of once brand-new landfalls – times when endless oceans glittered with primordial possibilities.

This review first appeared in the Irish Times on 26th October 2019, and is reproduced with permission

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