Reviewed by Miles Powell (Nanyang Technological University)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Review of Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans
Absorbing and delightfully readable, Vast Expanses explores an immense topic—the history of the world’s oceans—with the skill and intelligence we have come to expect from Helen M. Rozwadowski’s writings. Adding to the enormity of her task, Rozwadowski sets out to write a three-dimensional history of the oceans, one that passes beneath their visible surfaces to include the murky depths below. She crafts a flowing narrative by braiding together three strands of analysis: she demonstrates the interconnectedness of the oceans and human history by examining the enduring human relationship to the sea, spanning back through evolutionary time; she shows that human exchanges with the sea have become increasingly profound over time, especially in the ages of industrialization and globalization; and she reveals that human understandings of the ocean—shaped by science, work, and play—have substantially shaped our interactions with it. Highlighting the ocean’s essentialness to life on the planet, and its vulnerability to human disruption, Rozwadowski reminds us that “our future may depend on acknowledging the ocean as part of—not outside of—history” (p. 12).
Structure matters in an ambitious work of synthesis such as this, and the thoughtful organization of Vast Expanses represents one of its strengths. Following a generally chronological order, the seven chapters are sweeping but argument-driven, varied in scope but logically connected. In the first chapter, “A Long Sea Story,” Rozwadowski taps into Big History to present a chronicle of the seas stretching back four billion years. Conscious of keeping this a human story, she reminds us that our evolutionary ancestors began life in the ocean. In a middle chapter, “Seas Connect,” she reveals how exploration in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries led, for the first time, to a sense of the interconnectedness of all the world’s oceans. In the final chapter, “Accessible Ocean,” she considers how various new technologies, especially recreational diving equipment, brought people into closer contact with ocean life, contributing to calls for greater protection of marine environments.
For all the book’s strengths, academic readers may take issue with some aspects of it. For starters, it overstates the novelty of marine environmental history. Rozwadowski proclaims that “the time has come to put the ocean in the centre of some of our histories” (p. 7). She reminds us that while the ocean may appear timeless, it “is no less susceptible to natural and historical change than is the land.” She hopes that this volume will be a “starting point, in the hopes of inspiring others to embark on fuller, more inclusive histories” (p. 8). Marine environmental history is hardly a new field, though. It has been thirty-four years since Arthur McEvoy published his pathbreaking The Fisherman's Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850–1980 (1986) and twenty-one years since Joseph E. Taylor III won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history with Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (1999). Eight years ago, Jeffrey Bolster won the Bancroft Prize when he reminded us, as Rozwadowski does here, that the ocean is not timeless but has a profoundly human history in The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (2012). Five years ago, Joshua Reid published his Caughley Western History Prize–winning The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs (2015). Three years ago, Jack E. Davis published The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea (2017), which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (2019) is one of the most impressive pieces of historical writing on any topic in recent years. Granted, perhaps some of these works are not as ocean-centric as Rozwadowski would like, but Bolster’s and Reid’s—and too many examples to list in this review—are. By all measures, marine environmental history is a maturing field, and we would do well to treat it as such.
Related to this, most of the content in Vast Expanses will be familiar to scholars who have kept abreast of the fields of marine environmental history and maritime history. This includes Rozwadowski’s excellent previous volumes, The Sea Knows No Boundaries: A Century of Marine Science under ICES (2002) and Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (2008). Rozwadowski’s osprey-eye scope in Vast Expanses allows her to link topics in interesting ways. But the book’s greatest strengths lie in its remarkable synthesis, creative organization, and beautiful writing, rather than bold new insights.
This work also suffers from shortcomings common to nearly any work addressing so vast of a theme. First, it is hardly balanced. While Rozwadowski aspires to provide “a history of the oceans,” Vast Expanses draws disproportionately—and at points overwhelmingly—on European and North American materials. This is true even in instances when examples from other regions are readily at hand. Her discussion of the laying of underwater cables overlooks Asian initiatives that would have enriched the analysis. Second, as is inevitable in such a sprawling discussion, this work contains some minor errors. A probable typo lists the Sui dynasty as spanning from “581 to 671” when it ended in 618 (p. 44). This is a trivial mistake but one that a subject expert working on a narrower topic would likely catch. At another point Rozwadowski states of salmon that “knowledge of their oceanic wandering was virtually non-existent until fisheries developed in open sea areas in the post-Second World War period, touching off tagging studies which proved that the targets of these fisheries did, indeed, return to rivers” (p. 27). But tagging studies of Pacific salmon commenced in the early 1900s, and publications demonstrating these fish’s immense oceanic migrations and their drive to spawn in their natal streams were circulating in the 1910s and 1930s, respectively. Again, this is hardly an unforgiveable error; it merely underscores the reality that no person can know everything about all things.
These negligible flaws hardly detract from this remarkable book. Through its many interesting facts and details, presented with discernible enthusiasm, Vast Expanses reveals not only Rozwadowski’s considerable ability as a historian but also her love for the ocean. This work will appeal to environmental historians, maritime historians, and any reader who wants to know more about our relationship with the sea.
. See, for instance, Joseph E. Taylor III, “The Historical Roots of Canadian-American Salmon Wars,” in Parallel Destinies: Canadians, Americans, and the Western Border, ed. John Findlay and Ken Coates (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 168-70.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Miles Powell. Review of Rozwadowski, Helen M., Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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