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Winner of the Wolfson History Prize 2020


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.


David Abulafia is an English historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He spent most of his career at the University of Cambridge. He retired in 2017 as Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History. He is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He was Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University, 2003-5, and was elected a member of the governing Council of Cambridge University in 2008. He is visiting Beacon Professor at the new University of Gibraltar, where he also serves on the Academic Board. He is a visiting professor at the College of Europe (Natolin branch, Poland).

He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. In 2013 he was awarded one of three inaugural British Academy Medals for his work on Mediterranean history. In 2020, he was awarded the Wolfson History Prize for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans.

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