At more than 1,000 pages, it offers nothing less than a history of humanity written from the perspective of the sea. Abulafia’s interest is in human rather than natural history, and the connections made between cultures in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, driven primarily by trade and exchange. He starts in the Pacific around 1500BC, and ends with the “containerisation” of today, with vast ships transporting millions of tons of commodities around the globe... This hardly does justice to the richness and phenomenal detail that drive The Boundless Sea: from lost commercial kingdoms in Sumatra to the rise of P&O and the victims of all these bravura maritime encounters.
The author, emeritus professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge, ranges fearlessly across time and space. His grasp of the material is not so much encyclopaedic as breathtaking, effortlessly moving from migration patterns across Polynesia to the archives of European trading companies of the early modern period, to Hawaiian oral traditions, to Sanskrit graffiti to Japanese poetry, to glottochronology — the study of the divergence of languages. As one might expect from such a distinguished academic, extreme care is taken to note the difficulty of the evidence and to refrain from generalisations and simplified conclusions...this is a tour de force. Writing history on this scale is challenging and enormously impressive; the author deserves applause for a magisterial achievement.
Detail is one of the book’s delights... Few will find fault with this magnificent and judicious book. But having done my share of seafaring and sea rescue, I doubted the assertion that bodies washed up on the west coast of Ireland with ‘Asiatic’ features were native Americans (they would have had no features left after that sort of crossing)... After reading this book your horizons will be wonderfully expanded, and you’ll be as eager as the Ancient Mariner to retell its stories
What results is a very long book packed with minute detail. The people at Allen Lane seem to like big books. Is this one too long? Perhaps. Abulafia occasionally reminds me of my uncle who told tales interesting only to himself. For the most part, however, this is a fascinating book that never descends into arcane theorising. Abulafia is delightfully scathing of his academic colleagues whose “unbridled love for abstract terms are supposed to bring sophistication and ‘theory’ to their writings”. The material is neatly ordered and presented in fluent, accessible prose. Seafaring tales are told without opulent or contrived drama; what instead makes this book special is the sheer breadth of its coverage.
This book should not, however, be approached lightly. The reader will form a relationship with it that will last for weeks or perhaps months; it’s not a book for those who fear commitment. The Boundless Sea is best read slowly. Put it on the bedside table, read a chapter at a time and feast on the magnificent bounty that Abulafia has to offer.
Abulafia discusses the motives behind these amazing enterprises: sometimes it is a will to conquer, sometimes wanderlust, but most often a hunger for commodities. One rich trading empire – forgotten until the 20th century – was Sri Vijaya, based around Palembang in Sumatra, which thrived from the seventh to the 11th century as an entrepôt between India and China. Its nature remains mysterious: it was ruled by a magnificent maharaja yet the merchants in its trading fleets were Malays, Indians, Arabs and Chinese, suggesting that its control of the seas was informal rather than imperial.