Eric Paul Roorda, ed., The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2020. ISBN 9781478006961, Paperback, $29.95USD, 552 pages and 82 images.
By Thomas Blake Earle
In the past few decades maritime history has become an extraordinarily capacious field, one that has grown beyond the narrow focus on wooden ships and iron men that had long dominated the study of humans and the sea. Benefitting from larger changes that swept the historical discipline, maritime history came to embrace the methodologies of cultural and social history while never leaving the military and economic history approaches that the field was founded on. From the lives of enslaved seafarers, to the worlds of the wives of whalers, to working-class cultures, maritime history has indeed become a much more diverse place. Yet until just recently one aspect of the maritime world had been conspicuously absent from these histories: the ocean itself.
Eric Paul Roorda’s recent offering, The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics, builds on the work of historians like Helen Rozwadowski and W. Jeffrey Bolster who draw our attention away from an exclusive focus on what happens upon the sea to also what happens in the deep. Roorda presents a multidimensional study of the human relationship with the ocean that serves as an excellent introduction to “the new Ocean history” (p. 3). This anthology of primary and secondary sources that, while focused on the Anglosphere over the past few centuries, is—like its subject—global in scope. Pliny the Elder, Zhang He, and Olaudah Equiano all find space in this volume. In a subtle nod to the seas’ historical and contemporary importance, Roorda capitalizes “Ocean” throughout the text “to claim a formal name for that vast place within the realm of World History, as if it were a country or a continent” (p. 3). By embracing approaches ranging from environmental science and marine ecology to cultural history and theology, this collection of maritime writing should find a place on the shelf of any student or teacher engaging with the watery 70 percent of the globe.
Roorda organizes this collection in twelve thematic parts, offering selections from antiquity to today. Topics include traditional-maritime-history fodder like exploration, warfare, and shipping. But through careful curation this volume breathes new life into staid topics. By juxtaposing Herodotus’s account of the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE) with the Japanese Imperial Navy’s account of the Battle of Midway (1942 CE) this collection makes obvious the enduring importance of the seas as a place and as a theater of armed conflict. Other sections quite literally dive deeper to bring the ocean’s third dimension into focus. Roorda brings together the writings of Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin, among others, to illustrate how humans have for long studied the oceans and its depths, opining on ocean currents, deep-sea dredging, and even why the sea is salty. This long history of oceanography shows that human wonderment and curiosity of the sea is not a recent phenomenon—nor is concern for organisms that call it home. While for most of human history most people have believed that the sea held an inexhaustible stock of marine life, Roorda documents that this belief has never been universally held. In fact, the volume presents evidence illustrating that for centuries fishermen and fishery scientists have observed the deleterious impact of human activity on global fishery stocks. Roorda’s coverage of the history of overfishing contributes to what is perhaps the most useful aspect of this collection.
This volume forces readers to reckon with the contemporary state of the global ocean. The final group of documents Roorda presents investigates the current crisis as fish disappear, trash piles up, seawater acidifies, and anoxia proliferates. From the beginning Roorda makes his agenda clear, stating in the introduction, “the most important part is the last. It concerns the compounding environmental disasters taking place in the Ocean right now, which are mainly being ignored. Everyone should be aware of this information, because we all depend on the Ocean, which is in trouble” (p. 4). Some historians may shy away from making such explicit connections between past and present, by doing so this collection gives readers the tools to contemplate and understand our current crisis while finding a way forward.
Thomas Blake Earle is an assistant professor of maritime history at Texas A&M University at Galveston.