BOOK REVIEW – The Sea in History

Christian Buchet, editor.  The Sea in History.  Suffolk, UK: Martlesham, Boydell & Brewer, Inc., 2017.  3424 pp (4 volumes, tables, maps; scholarly notes; bibliographies; photographs and line illustrations)

Review By Dr. Timothy D. Walker
Professor of History; University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Considered collectively, this abundant new four-volume work, coordinated by chief editor Christian Buchet, represents an extraordinary achievement for the field of maritime history, precisely because it manages to consistently demonstrate the fundamental significance of the sea at all stages of human history, and to connect the development of civilizations around the world to the use of ocean resources in a rich variety of ways. The project’s ambitious goal is to provide a comprehensive summary of humankind’s maritime endeavors through the recorded past, on a global scale. This the project does admirably well, in an engaging manner that is intellectually inspiring, reflective, as well as deeply informative.  The editors have assembled new commissioned works by top historians working in maritime history and related fields, including archaeology and anthropology. These scholars, under the direction of the editorial team, have used an innovative all-embracing approach to assess the importance of the sea and convincingly link human endeavors on the oceans to all dimensions and eras of world history.

This exceptional collection covers a broad range of maritime topics with a comparative approach, assessing the core subject matter in diverse historical and cultural contexts. Thus, the volumes succeed in providing a valuable resource for scholars, especially those unfamiliar with the significance of the sea in history, who may wish to add a maritime dimension to their studies or course lectures. Within the confines of a brief review, it is difficult to convey the breadth and richness of this project’s offerings. Each of the four volumes includes between 43 and 75 chapters (255 in total), each averaging approximately twelve pages. Subjects considered include the development of shipbuilding and navigation techniques, mariners as a specialized social and labor class, ocean resources as an objective for economic exploitation, the evolution of maritime law, piracy as a global phenomenon, the economics of maritime endeavors, and the singular characteristics of distinctive maritime communities. Particularly gratifying is the number of new maps and charts commissioned to support many of the texts; often these present unfamiliar regions, or convey novel perspectives that will enhance the knowledge of any reader.

Publication of The Sea in History is the culmination and product of an ambitious five-year collaborative international project called Océanides, begun in March 2012, the principle objective of which has been to “provide scientific evidence of the key role seas and oceans have played in human evolution, culture and history.” The decision to offer a bilingual publication that approaches maritime history with chapters in French and English is a welcome one, as ultimately it broadens the potential readership and the geographic impact of the work in regions beyond those that are solely Francophone or Anglophone.

Christian Buchet and his team have produced a compelling new work of scholarship, important for its innovative framing of maritime history on a global scale by exploring the multiple ways that the sea has influenced and contributed significantly to world history. Buchet is a Professor of Maritime History at the Catholic University of Paris, where he founded the Centre d ‘études de la mer. He was the scientific director of the Océanides project. His prior research and publications focus on the interactions between the sea, human societies, and economic activity.

The framework of the set proceeds chronologically, and casts a broad narrative net.  The Sea in History opens with a consideration of recent historiographical trends and theories regarding the role of the oceans in world history, and poses a series of broadly applicable historical questions around which the text is organized, forming a theoretical core. In general, the writing is strong; this highly erudite collection showcases the contributing authors’ decades of teaching and writing related to this subject, and creates a continuous historical narrative from pre-history to contemporary times.

Volume one, The Sea in History – The Ancient World, is edited by Philip de Souza (University College, Dublin), Pascal Arnaud (University of Lyon II and the Institut Universitaire de France). In its introductory capacity for the set, this volume covers a broad range geographically and culturally, starting with tentative prehistoric seaborne endeavors and proceeding through classical civilizations in the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. The Americas, Africa, and Asia are not neglected; chapters function as a series of case studies, discussing such matters as human migration by water in different parts of the globe, key ancient port cities and commercial routes, war at sea in classical times, and the rise of ancient fishing fleets. In this volume, 18 of the chapters are in French; 25 are presented in English.

The second volume, The Sea in History – The Medieval World, edited by Michel Balard, emeritus professor at the University of Paris (Sorbonne), takes the reader from the final days of imperial Rome to the end of the sixteenth century.  Through an examination of seafaring peoples like the Vikings, the Hanseatic States, the Venetians, Genoans, and Normans, this volume demonstrates the centrality of the sea to the economy and livelihood of many medieval states and peoples taking a genuinely inclusive global approach, with chapters surveying maritime endeavors in Africa, across the Americas, East and Southeast Asia, Europe and the Mediterranean. The volume is particularly strong in its consideration of the Vikings as a force of cultural and technological dissemination; evolving nautical technology (especially shipbuilding in various geographic and cultural contexts), and its detailed examination of the short-lived era of Chinese maritime exploration in the fifteenth century. In this weighty volume there are 73 separate contributions, 39 of which are written in English, while 34 are in French.

Volume three focuses on The Early Modern World, and is edited by Gérard le Bouëdec (emeritus professor at the University of South Brittany) and Christian Buchet.  It contains 42 French language contributions and 33 in English.  Beginning in the era of key voyages of exploration by Columbus and da Gama, this volume carries the story of the sea through the Napoleonic Wars and the pinnacle of the Age of Sail. Central to this tome is the development of European maritime trade routes and colonial empires maintained by sea, first focused on ports and markets in Asia, but in time creating the dynamic seaborne economy of the Atlantic World. The editors have skillfully highlighted the fundamental role of seaborne activity during this period in changing the world profoundly, not only through geographic movement of peoples (whether willingly or forced), animals, and plants (the dynamics of the Columbian Exchange), but also through the global dissemination of languages and basic social concepts about religion and government. Additional topics include essential developments in maritime technology — navigation, shipbuilding, and the development of port facilities globally. Mercantilism, of course, takes a lead role in this story; multiple chapters describe the broad impact of transoceanic trade in key commodities like Asian spices and textiles, wine, plantation-grown sugar and tobacco, and the enslaved peoples required for colonial labor. One notable lacuna, however, is the lack of consideration in this volume of the dire cardinal problem that, as voyage distances increased, all early modern mariners faced:  maintaining health at sea.

The fourth volume, The Sea in History – The Modern World, edited by N. A. M. Rodger (All Souls College; University of Oxford), carries the narrative into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when developments in maritime technology allowed for the unprecedented global pursuit of seaborne trade, and the projection of force — circumstances that often led to confrontation and conflict.  Unsurprisingly, sea power, strategic planning, and the evolving logistics of commerce and warfare in the modern era are central themes here — including useful incisive perspectives from second-tier or late-developing maritime powers like Portugal, Denmark, and China. In the context of examining modern fishing fleets, this volume concludes with a very timely discussion about sustainable ocean resources and the impact of climate change on the seas. The majority of this volume’s chapters (58 of 64 total) are presented in English.

A project of this size and scope is bound to have some drawbacks, and there are a few that should be noted, due to the practical effect that these factors will have in using this collection as a research tool. First, there is no comprehensive bibliography for the project; instead, each individual chapter may have its own organized list of cited sources — some have them, while others do not. Further, there is no uniform system of citation footnotes; there are significant variances in documentation format from one chapter to another. Ultimately, these blemishes alone are not ruinous, and are no doubt a byproduct of how the editorial team commissioned contributions, recruiting diverse international scholars from disparate academic cultures. This lack of editorial coordination of the format of the scholarly apparatus is more than compensated by the value of including exceptionally varied historiographical perspectives. However, the lack of a comprehensive index (either for the set or in the individual volumes) is a more serious matter, as it will create a significant challenge for future researchers. While readers will find much here to enrich their understanding of the maritime dimensions of global history and the seas’ impact on the world — Buchet and company have undoubtedly created a profoundly useful resource and teaching text for global studies — that said, one hopes that this particular shortcoming may be corrected in subsequent editions of the work.

One final matter that bears mentioning is the overall production quality of the volumes — their printing and binding. Unfortunately, the imprint of the pages is occasionally uneven, with the photo-reproduction of several text sections appearing significantly lighter on some pages than others. The paper quality is mediocre, and in the copies provided for this review there was a problem with some of the pages not being well cut or aligned; nor are all of the page signatures bound evenly into the bindings. Considering this set of scholarly books retails at $780.00 USD ($195.00 per volume), buyers might reasonably expect a higher quality of printing and binding. In subsequent editions, Boydell & Brewer would do well to address the concerns raised here.

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