Helen M. Rozwadowski. Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans. University of Chicago Press; Reaktion Books, 2019. 264 pages, $25USD, ISBN: 9781780239972.
By Soni Wadhwa
Helen M Rozwadowski’s Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans is a genuine history of the oceans: it begins with a discussion of natural history that can be traced to four billion years ago. Unlike most books that deal with the oceans in the context of human civilisation, this book is a treasure for its treatment of the oceans as they remain intertwined with the question of the emergence of life out of non-life. At the same time, it is filled with unique frames of references that help imagine the world back then. For instance, Rozwadowski mentions that the geological time known as the Age of Dinosaurs even to children ought to be known as the Age of Oysters too. Such a bringing together of the ‘vast expanses’ and the human scale of thought makes the book accessible to audiences beyond the specialist, academic reader. The author takes something that readers would comprehend easily to arrive at her point about the oceans. We gather that the Mariana Trench would drown Mount Everest! Rozwadowski’s first two chapters about prehistoric, unwritten dimensions of humans’ relationships with the seas deserve special mention for putting human history in perspective of planetary history.
For the perspectives on maritime history informed by civilizational history, Rozwadowski is exceptional in her approach; her remarks are very pointed given the huge scale of her subject and her timeline. It is hard to miss her critique of conventional history with her remarks on the terrestrial bias in archaeology that informs the practice of history as we know it. Her discussion of the ancient seafarers turns to the ceremonies that they must have performed as they turned to the sea with anxiety as well as curiosity—dread and expectation, as she puts it. She turns upside down the discourse around the Age of Discovery by demonstrating that the period should be known for discovery of not unknown lands but of sea routes to the known lands.
Rozwadowski also integrates in her book the prominent aspects of intellectual and scientific debates about the maritime medium itself. Hugo Grotius’s treatise appears in the book in various contexts. The book is a case of arguing for the free seas to promote national interests, to legitimise colonisation, and to justify the exploitation of marine resources, for example.
Though the focus of the book is on the Western understanding (or the lack of it) of the oceanic expanse, Rozwadowski touches upon the Indian Ocean regions briefly but well. She indirectly refers to the hierarchy prevalent within the Indian society in her discussion of seafaring communities from the Indian coasts. The modern period in the book is framed in terms of popular culture—the presence of the ocean in underwater filming, advertising, shipwreck narratives and biographies of sailors, and the invention of the printing press, among others. The author’s genius lies in making the presence of oceans visible and in saying that they have always been around us, influencing our livelihoods and habits of media consumption.
The closing words are a summation of the need felt by Rozwadowski to write the book and the need for more books like it: “We must jettison our perception of the ocean as a timeless place, apart from humans. We must transform our understanding of the sea to one bound with history and interconnected with humanity. Such a new vision, with new metaphors, can form the foundation for positive change” (pp 227). Rozwadowski has succeeded in talking about our perception of the ocean in terms of new metaphors especially in her references to the stuff people readily get—from dinosaurs to surfing. This perception deserves to be further worked upon by more histories. Rozwadowski shows the way by providing a glimpse of the new vision which now deserves deeper exploration.