BOOK REVIEW: The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

This is indeed an almost boundless book. A 1075 page tome it looks forbidding even if the title draws the reader in. But the weight of pages is offset by the lightness of touch.

This Human History of the Oceans takes the reader all the way from the Pacific at the dawn of mankind’s movement over the seas almost to today. It does so in a multitude – 50 – of relatively brief chapters which makes it easy to digest. Indeed the reader can pick and choose areas of an era of particular interest rather than read from beginning to end.

It is also divided into five sections, one each dealing with the three main oceans – Pacific, Indian and Atlantic, each dealing primarily with a segment of history before the final two sections take the story of the uniting of the oceans since 1492 and the beginning of regular transit across the Pacific and Atlantic to today.

The breadth of knowledge shown by the author, David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University, is quite astonishing and he weaves the story together in a way which is easy to read and which shows the multiple links that have combined to bring political, economic and religious change as well as trade. Without sea trade, the ability to exchange ideas and knowledge is necessarily confined.

From an Asia perspective, the book has strengths and weaknesses. The is recognition of the size of Indian Ocean trade – mostly based out of Alexandria but ships moving from Red Sea ports to Barygaza near modern Surat, ports on the Malabar coast of India but with Romans also reaching Arikamedu near modern Chennai.

The author also gives long-overdue attention to the exploits of Malay (in the generic sense) sailors who crossed the Indian ocean from the other direction, settling Madagascar, and trading as far as Africa and Arabia. The Sumatra-based Sri Vijayan empire also gets proper acknowledgment both as a power in itself exploiting its position on the Melaka strait and pivot point for trade based on the seasonal monsoons which propelled trade between China, the eastern archipelago and India and beyond. He also recognizes it as the origin of both Singapore and Melaka.

However, more broadly there is such a focus on the importance of China that both India and Java get scant relative acknowledgment. After all, Indian trade not only brought Brahmins, Buddhists and kingship systems to the archipelago and parts of the Asian mainland, it was also the main conduit for Islam. Tamil trade and the Cholas, in particular, are noticed but scant attention is paid to the roles of Gujaratis and Bengali traders, the Muslim Gujaratis being especially important in bringing Islam. The early 16th century Portuguese official at Melaka wrote that the most important of the city’s trade officers was the one dealing with the Gujaratis.

India had a massive export trade in textiles but unlike Chinese porcelain, it did not survive shipwrecks. Neither did the timber, spices, aromatics, and diverse other items which brought Arabs, Persians and Gujaratis as well as Javanese, Bengalis, Moluccans and Okinawans to Melaka.

Generally, the author exaggerates the role of the Chinese during the Song and especially the Ming dynasties. He makes much of Chinese ships but has little say about the Javanese junks which so impressed the early Portuguese for their size and their records of moving, albeit slowly from port to port between the Banda sea and Yemen. Whilst his sources are numerous and well regarded they are necessarily limited by the fact that as an expert on the Mediterranean he has written a global book. Hence it lacks reference to works such as those of Pierre-Yves Manguin on the ships of the region.

The book cautions against making too much out of Zheng He’s famous 15th-century voyages, although the claimed size of its ships and complement of soldiers falls into some of the same traps, relying heavily on official Ming dynasty accounts and Edward Dreyer’s biography of the expeditions and their leader. The lasting impact either on trade or politics was probably much less than implied here.

The book also asserts that Manila was among ports visited by Zheng He, a claim with little backing. It does, however, make much of the galleon trade between Mexico and Manila bringing silver exchanged for Chinese, and in some cases Japanese, luxury goods. This sustained the Spaniards in Manila but – he fails to note – Spanish rule and trans-Pacific largely cut it off from its old links with Melaka and the rest of the archipelago.

Indeed the author’s occasional Eurocentricity shows through in his focus on the galleon trade – which consisted of an average of two large ships a year reaching Manila – and lack of attention given to the trading sultanates such as Makassar, Sulu and Pattani which prospered long after the arrival of the Europeans and only gradually suppressed by Dutch and later British imperialism.

Writing about this, as any other, region is naturally influenced by the availability of written sources. Euro or Sino-centric biases are hard to avoid given the paucity of others. For five centuries western seagoing enterprise has been dominant in shaping the world. Today, westerners are generally now more preoccupied with China’s role compared with their 16th- to 19th-century counterparts. Both those biases show through.

But overall this is a magnificent book, a pleasure to read, full of understanding of the sweep of history and essential reading for those who are history junkies in all corners of the world. There is much to learn, much to amaze and doubtless a few issues to argue about whether about Asia, or Russia, Polynesia, the Vikings or the Arctic.

Philip Bowring is one of the founding editors of Asia Sentinel and most recently the author of Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago.