- - Thursday, October 24, 2019

In the preface to his masterful account of human history as shaped by the oceans, Cambridge Professor David Abulafia reminds us that the seas around us “account for something like 70% of the world’s surface, and most of this watery space consists of the vast open areas we call oceans. From outer space, the Earth is mainly blue.”

This vast, often perilous blue highway fascinated men with a spirit of adventure long before the great age of European discovery, and the impact of these earlier “explorers” could be just as dramatic on the territories they “discovered.” 

Mr. Abulafia writes with something approaching awe of “the extraordinary achievements of Polynesian sailors in settling the scattered islands of the largest ocean of all [the Pacific]” and marvels at the impact that such pre-literate, instinct-fueled voyagers could have on their newfound surroundings.

Long before Columbus set off for what he thought was a new route to the Indies, Arab merchant mariners had been plying trade from the Red Sea to the Indian subcontinent on a regular basis. And as long ago as the age of Imperial Rome, ocean as well as land routes were bringing silk, spices, ivory and slaves from the distant points east to the Eternal City. 

But the true “globalization” of oceanic commerce and competition went into high gear when 15th and 16th century European nation-states with superior navigational skills, highly organized commercial systems, and an overwhelming superiority in weapons, discipline and tactics, started colliding with an unknown “New World” they hadn’t been aware of, mistook for something it wasn’t, but ultimately made their own.

As the great American naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wryly observed, “America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman [Columbus] who was looking for something else; when discovered it was not wanted; and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it … History is like that, very chancy.”

Timing can also play an important part. Morison speculated that if European discovery had been delayed for a century or two, “it is possible that the Aztec in Mexico or the Iroquois in North America would have established strong native states capable of adopting European war tactics and maintaining their independence to this day, as Japan kept her independence from China.”

Perhaps. But the burst of creativity that led to European military, scientific, economic and humanist progress from the late Renaissance through the Victorian age was also what drove Europeans to explore, trade with and quite often conquer far larger, more sophisticated non-European territories than those of the Aztec and the Iroquois, including the entire Indian subcontinent.

In “The Boundless Sea,” Mr. Abulafia makes passing reference to another intriguing historical question: “[W]hy Europeans opened up routes across the world after 1500, in the wake of Columbus and da Gama, while the Chinese, under Zheng He, launched extraordinarily ambitious voyages in the early fifteenth century that came to a sudden stop.”

While the reasons are many and complex, the decisive factor must have been the essentially inward-looking nature of Imperial China, a vast land mass centrally ruled, surrounded by much weaker neighbors, and producing most luxury goods and everyday necessities within its own borders. While China settled in to a mood of complacent insularity that gradually degenerated into decay, Europe looked — and leapt — outward.

These are just a few of the vistas that David Abulafia explores and illuminates in his lengthy but animated narrative, taking the reader on a water-borne journey from pre-historic times to the dawn of the 21st century.

One of the most striking things about the conquest of the seas — and the vast commercial, colonial and imperial networks that resulted — is the sheer guts of the sailors, soldiers, missionaries and settlers who formed the first wave of each European advance into the alien and unknown.

Some of them were little better than the early Norse invaders that threatened the old Roman world, in the words of a Latin poet, “Foes are they fierce beyond other foes, and cunning as they are fierce; the sea is their school of war, and the storm their friends; they are the sea-wolves that live on pillage of the world.”

On the other hand, as Samuel Eliot Morison pointed out, “sea power has never led to despotism. The nations that have enjoyed sea power even for a brief period — Athens, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, England, the United States — are those that have preserved freedom for themselves and have given it to others. Of the despotism to which unrestrained military power leads we have plenty of examples from Alexander to Mao.”

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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By David Abulafia

Oxford University Press, $39.95, 912 pages

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