Oceans and seas make up about two-thirds of our planet, yet historical attention to such bodies has been minimal at best. Rainer F. Buschman.
With the rise of world history, more people view the past through a lens that brings a broader range of global interconnections to light. Essential to these linkages are geographical features such as waterways (oceans, seas, and rivers) and landforms (e.g. mountains, deserts, and forests) that help shape the formations of societies and their interactions and exchanges, including trade, culture, flora and fauna, and disease. Understanding these geographical features is critical to understanding our past.
Traditional world history tends to be “terrestrial-focused,” but this is changing as historians display an increasing tendency to study the world’s waterways. Maritime history enriches our understanding by highlighting world history trends and patterns in unique ways. As Eric Kjellgren writes, “favorable prevailing winds and fish suddenly seem as influential as access to fresh water and arable land. Shipbuilding and skillful navigation challenge the prominence of building roads and canals. (1) World history returns the favour by encouraging maritime history into a global approach that moves away from seeing oceans as barriers to human interaction to conceiving them as important interconnected regions. In short, a blending of maritime and world history can lead to more sophisticated understandings.
Oceans. It would be a severe understatement to say that the world’s oceans and seas that comprise about two-thirds of the planet play an essential role in unfolding world history. Oceans and seas facilitated the migration of people, animals, flora, disease, culture and technologies. As maritime historian Lincoln Paine writes, “Before the locomotive in the nineteenth century, culture, commerce, contagion, and conflict generally moved faster by sea than by land. Besides transport, people used oceans and seas to provide food and other vital goods. Whale blubber, for instance, served as lamp fuel, lighting a growing world population. Waterways have imbued culture. Poseidon and Neptune, Moby Dick, the Ancient Mariner, various folk songs, and countless varieties of seafood reveal how waterways help shape the world’s cultures.
Beyond a Eurocentric Focus. World history encourages maritime history to move beyond a Eurocentric approach. As S. Arasaratnam points out, world history fosters a move “away from a view of the ocean as primarily the playground of European naval and commercial powers with indigenous actors providing minor roles for the lead up to the period of empire in the nineteenth century. (246) Of course, studying the European powers remains vital to our understanding of the unfolding of global history. How, for instance, could we understand the monumental developments in the Atlantic community without carefully studying its most impactful player – Europe? But an exclusive focus on these players can limit our understanding. David Abulafin argues that “the European presence around the shores of the oceans can only be understood by taking into account the less well-documented activities of non-European merchants and sailors, some of whom were indigenous to land in which they lived.” (xx) For instance, the “Silk Road of the Sea” that connected people as far as China and the Roman Empire involved a blended relay of major powers such as Rome and China with more local merchants indigenous to the shores of the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Conclusion. As Lincoln Paine writes, “maritime history offers an invaluable perspective on the world and ourselves. (599). Waterways such as the world’s oceans, seas, and rivers are integral to our past. Interestingly, recent historiography has questioned whether we can consider the oceans as separate entities. As David Armitage writes, “the oceanographic connections among the oceans ensure that any attempt to separate them will be artificial and constraining.” (359). This is particularly true after developments such as da Gama’s navigation around the Cape of Good Hope, and later, the Suez and Panama canals connected major bodies of water.
We are writing four upcoming blogs, each focusing on one of the world’s four oceans – the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic, and the Arctic. The first focuses on the world’s largest, the Pacific, but will include its relationship to other bodies of water, including the Indian Ocean. These blogs will reflect the fruitful mingling of maritime and world history that highlights regional and global connections.
Abulafin, David. The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Ocean. London: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Arasaratnam, S. “Recent Trends in the Historiography of the Indian Ocean, 1500 to 1800.” Journal of World History 1, no. 2 (1990): 225–48.
Armitage, D. (2019). World History as Oceanic History: Beyond Braudel. The Historical Review/La Revue Historique, 15(1), 341-361.
Ashin Das Gupta and M.N. Pearson eds. India and the Indian Ocean 1500 to 1800. New Dehli, 1987.
Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours. Cambridge, Mass, 2005.
Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, and Their Shared History, 1400-1900. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Buschman, Rainer F. “Oceans of World History: Delineating Aquacentric Notions in the Global Past.” History Compass 2 (2004) WO o68, 1-10.
Crosby, Alfred. The Columbine Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westpoint; Conn, 1973.
Duiker, William J. Twentieth Century World History. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.
Martin J. Peggy, Beth Bartolini-Salimbini, Wendy Peterson. 5 Steps to a 5: AP World History 2019. McGraw-Hill Education, 2018
Mukherjee, Rita. “Escape from Terracentrism: Writing a Water History,” Indian Historical Review 41 (2014), 87-101.
Paine, Lincoln. The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.