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‘The Boundless Sea:

A Human History of the Oceans’

David Abulafia

Allen Lane

For most of human history, the seas have been the main means of long-distance trade and communication between peoples – for the spread of ideas and religion as well as commerce. This tremendous book begins with the earliest seafaring societies – the Polynesians of the Pacific, possessors of intuitive navigational skills long before the invention of the compass – and ends with the giant liners and container ships of today, which still conduct 80% of world trade by sea.

In between, David Abulafia follows merchants, explorers, pirates, cartographers and travellers in their quests for spices, gold, ivory, slaves, lands for settlement and knowledge of what lay beyond. Avoiding as far as possible a Eurocentric approach, the book deals with the Atlantic waters before Columbus and shows how lucrative trade routes were created that carried goods and ideas along the ‘Silk Route of the Sea’ well before the Europeans burst into the Indian Ocean around 1500.

In an extraordinary narrative of humanity and the oceans, Abulafia shows how maritime networks grew from many separate localities to form a continuum of interconnection across the globe. This is history of the grandest scale, and from a bracingly different perspective.

About the author

David Abulafia is Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge, a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College and a former Chairman of the Cambridge History Faculty.

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans


  • A remarkable book which through immense and impeccable research helps us to understand humanity’s relationship with the waters on which our future depends. A sweeping global survey.

Wolfson History Prize judges    

Watch the Wolfson History Prize 2020: the winner’s event

(Hosted in partnership with the British Academy)

Watch the Royal Museums Greenwich Members Lecture Series: Professor David Abulafia – The Boundless Sea