First awarded by the Wolfson Foundation in 1972, the Wolfson History Prize is the most valuable non-fiction writing prize in the UK. It is awarded annually, with the winner receiving £40,000, and the shortlisted authors receiving £4,000 each. Over £1.25 million has been awarded to more than 100 historians in the prize’s 48-year history. Previous winners include Mary Beard, Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Amanda Vickery, Antony Beevor, Christopher Bayly, and Antonia Fraser.

To be eligible for consideration, authors must be resident in the UK in the year of the book’s publication (the preceding year of the award), must not be a previous winner of the Prize and must have written a book which is carefully researched, well-written and accessible to the non-specialist reader.

To learn more about the Wolfson History Prize please visit or connect on Twitter via @WolfsonHistory / #WolfsonHistoryPrize.

The books shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2020 are:

  • The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (Allen Lane) by David Abulafia
  • A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths (Allen Lane) by John Barton
  • A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (Allen Lane) by Toby Green
  • Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire (Oxford University Press) by Prashant Kidambi
  • The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper (Doubleday) by Hallie Rubenhold
  • Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton University Press) by Marion Turner

I was very honoured to be asked to choose a book to read again by the prize’s PR people (after my great experience reading “Birds in the Ancient World” last year) and selected this history of the oceans as I’m interested in the sea, travel and exploration. I hadn’t expected it to be over 1,000 pages long but managed with a PDF copy read on my tablet. It does look like a beautiful book to own and hold, though, too.

So, this is a book giving the human history of the world’s oceans, from pre-history right up to the year 2000. And it really does go from bark boats and dugout canoes to behemothic container ships.

The book opens with a preface setting out the structure and the author’s intentions, stating that it’s more a book about traders than explorers, as the explorers are only active for a while but the trade routes are what change history and lives and who often bravely establish routes. A very important concept for the book linked to this is presented early:

Discovery is not generally a sudden process; awareness of new land spreads thinly, but does not necessarily lead to further action, as the example of the Norse arrival in North America shows; the crucial change occurs when this new knowledge takes place in a wider world view. (p. 38)

and there’s a constant theme of far-off places being imbued with a mystery and wonder that are not so mysterious and wonderful when they’re actually visited. We are reminded that it’s not only spices and fancy goods that are important, but all the standard items needed for everyday life going from place to place. He’s also forthright about the importance of the lives of indigenous and otherwise non-European merchants and sailors, who are not as well-documented as their European counterparts but equally as important, and in the text for example Roman trade is sidelined from the main action when the activities of ‘native’ traders are pieced together. Women are mentioned in the introduction as harder to find but he does clearly treat woman travellers and merchants where he can find them in the records, and it’s important to have mentioned them and the issues in finding those records.

The first three sections treat the oceans separately, as the civilisations around them dealt with, traded around and interacted with each other in each one in isolation until the Middle Ages. We start off with the Pacific and the stunning achievements of its navigators, locating tiny specks in the huge ocean with no writing system but an established one for navigation (and pooh-poohing Thor Heyerdahl’s theories once and for all). Then we’re onto the Indian Ocean and an astounding mix of ascending and falling rulers, states and cities, with trading established early and China intriguingly coming late to the party, but fascinating details on, for example, the craze in China and Japan in the first millennium AD for Indian texts and works of art. We also here find networks of traders rather than the more isolated settlements of the Pacific. The section on the Atlantic covers my favourites the Norsemen and examines their coming to the Americas as well as the network of ocean-fringe trade and settlement that linked art and culture through Orkney to Portugal and Morocco. We also have a section about the woman settler Guðrið who visited Vinland and Greenland before settling back in Iceland (and who features in one of the books I’m going to read this month). Of necessity, it details the beginning of the slave trade. The role of the smaller islands off West Africa is fascinating (and also of course horrible) in this section and throughout the book as a named theme in which the author is interested.

Then we join up after about 1450 as people began to get seriously from ocean to ocean and look for passages north and south, finally working out how the world and its continents worked. The Suez and Panama Canals are discussed at length as everything gets linked up. The long view of the book as a whole is emphasised here, with islands like Singapore rising and falling in importance, and layers of artefacts being built up just as the Vikings covered the walls of Maes Howe with runic inscriptions. The way the world worked in these centuries did not represent true globalisation, apparently, but for example the sugar producers in Barbados responded to demand created by the tea trade out of China. The development of Singapore and Hong Kong is different but similar as small places continued to have a larger sway than one would perhaps expect.

The final section takes us from 1850 to 2000 and looks at the continued rise of entrepots like Singapore and Hong Kong and the huge sea-change (thank you!) that came about with the introduction of containerisation, which required railway infrastructure to be developed as well as shipping and brought other smaller towns such as Rotterdam into international importance. The Aland islanders rose to importance now, too, with small companies sending ships around the world. I did like this attention to the smaller and more diverse players throughout the book, found also in the way the naval warfare of the 20th century is left out to an extent to discuss the shipping industry and how it fared. I also found it fascinating to find out how late sailing ships worked the oceans, taking advantage of their speed as they did not need refuelling like the newer coal-powered ships. Eric Newby is mentioned in the section about these, which pleased me of course. There is a good discussion in this section about what globalisation is and the higher complication of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The conclusion rounds up how the oceans have now irrevocably changed with the loss of passenger transport except for cruises (and that’s now of course doubtful) and the dominance of containers. There are hardly any staff at the ports now, with most things being done automatically, and here comes China again, “with an enthusiasm not seen since the days of the Song Dynasty or Zheng He’s voyages” (p. 908).

It’s a great book and resource and one which addresses issues of under-representation of non-European traders and explorers. It’s extremely well-written and draws out so many fascinating details.

Thank you to the publisher and to the PR people for the Wolfson History Prize for sending me this book to read in return for an honest review on their blog tour, and also for allowing me to review it here.

Here’s details of week 1 of the blog tour, with two of us reading and reviewing each book this year. Follow the hashtag for all the reviews and next weeks’ three. Here is the review by my fellow ocean reviewer, The Last Word Book Review.