Book Review-‘The Boundless Sea: A human history of the oceans’ by D. Abulafia

By Richard Channon, published January 2021


t was announced as this review was being written that The Boundless Sea has won the 2020 Wolfson Prize, which is regarded as the United Kingdom’s most prestigious history prize, for ‘excellence in research with readability’. The Wolfson judges have summarized this book as ‘history on the grandest scale, and from a bracingly different perspective’. At this point your reviewer might reasonably shrug his shoulders and declare ‘job done’. However, while its quality and importance are assured, it remains to give prospective purchasers a foretaste of what they will receive for their money.

Professor Abulafia sets out his aim in the preface, which is to record the making of contacts between human societies across the 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface which is water. He does so by first devoting dedicated sections to the history of each of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, followed by a fourth part from ad 1492 to 1900, and finally, a fifth entitled ‘The Ocean contained, ad 1850–2000’…

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