U.K. Cambridge’s Prof. David Abulafia on Oceans, Seas, & Global Trade

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on

[00:00:25] Kerry McDonald: Welcome to the Learning Curve podcast. I’m Kerry McDonald, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education and the Valinda Johnson Family Education Fellow at State Policy Network. Thrilled to be guest co-hosting The Learning Curve podcast today with Charlie Chieppo, Senior Fellow at Pioneer Institute. Charlie, how are you?

[00:00:47] Charlie Chieppo: I’m well, Carrie, thank you. As I was saying before we came on the air, I’ve been, reading your stuff and writing about it for years, so I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity today.

[00:00:57] Kerry: Well, it’s always great to be connected to the Pioneer Institute. You’re all doing such great work. What are you working on these days, Charlie?

[00:01:05] Charlie: Well, let’s see, going to be working a little bit these next couple of days on some vocational-technical school stuff, always working on some things around the transit authority here in Boston, the MBTA, which is a target-rich environment, as they say, so a whole sort of wide range of things. How about you?

[00:01:24] Kerry: So, I’m focused on, you know, education entrepreneurship, kind of the supply side of trying to expand education options for families, both in states with robust school choice policies and states without robust school choice policies by helping to identify and promote removal of entrepreneurial barriers that sometimes education entrepreneurs encounter, and this is sort of top of mind, of course, as we head into back-to-school season in many parts of the country. And this is such a wonderful year for school choice. Now we have eight states with universal K-12 school choice. So, really exciting times. And I know that the article that you wanted to talk about for today was a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal about the rising demand for school choice.

[00:02:14] Charlie: There was an article last week, or I’m sorry, an editorial last week in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Rising Demand for School Choice,” and, I read it with great interest, and I’m going to say that my comments and my reaction to it are largely selfish based on my own experience here and the fact that I live in Massachusetts, but the short version is that the article talked about this really exploding choice movement, which is great, you know, 20 percent increase in Indiana’s voucher programs, Florida making K-12 scholarships universal, Arizona making education savings accounts universal, West Virginia, its ESA program more than doubling this year, new programs in Iowa, Arkansas, and I think that is fantastic. So my selfish interest is, well, that’s great, but, you know, with the exception of Arizona, I guess, which you would call probably a purple state at this point, what do we do to try to, you know, it doesn’t happen overnight, but what do we do to sort of help this wave have an impact in blue states as well? And, you know, obviously thinking about Massachusetts, where we have, you know, we’re among the, what, 37 or 38 states that have these very strong Anti-Aid Amendments, Blaine Amendments they’re called, that are a real problem that, prevent public money from going to any private schools.

[00:03:40] Charlie: It’s very interesting because the idea has been that look, the demand for this is great, I’m sort of wondering, what do you do in a state like Massachusetts where, for example, you know, out of the 40-person state Senate, we have 37 Democrats and three Republicans, the power of the teachers unions here that, you know, they are clearly the single most powerful special interest in Massachusetts as is evidenced by the fact that, you know, Massachusetts had pretty clearly the best charter schools in the country and they’ve sort of been stopped in their tracks. Boston charter schools found to be narrowing achievement gaps more than any group of public schools in the United States. I guess my point is here that the facts have only seemed to have a limited impact on what lawmakers and decision makers are likely to do. I guess in the positive side, we do have, from 2020, the Espinoza decision from the Supreme Court followed up by the Carson v. Makin, which really sort of limits these Anti-Aid Amendments to a certain degree. And I guess I would close out by saying, I wonder if the lane here for blue states would come from our neighbor in New Hampshire, which is again, you know, a purple state, but where these tax credits program have really taken hold and are growing as a way to provide some enhanced school choice.

[00:05:05] Charlie: So, I’m just looking for some, strategies to try to change what seems to be an almost Stalinist in its unanimity process here where you know where school choice is just not an option and not a priority. So that’s my comment.

[00:05:21] Kerry: Yeah, Charlie, I’m going to talk about New Hampshire for my article in just a moment, but I wanted to respond to your insights on the Wall Street Journal editorial. I thought it was interesting in the piece they talk about some of the challenges and potential challenges around implementation. Of these education choice programs that we’re spending a lot of time, necessarily so, on trying to pass legislation that expands school choice in states, but we also have to be spending a lot of time, equal if not more time, on implementation, making sure that families are able to access the portals that provide them with education savings accounts, to know what’s available to them in terms of approved educational expenses. So, making sure that the technology and kind of access is there. And then another piece that they touch on in the editorial is just making sure we’re activating the supply side so that if there’s all this demand from parents for alternatives to an assigned district school, that there is enough supply to meet that demand. And I think that it’s not the case in many places yet, that there is sort of this lag between what parents want and the available supply of options. And that’s where we can look at reducing and removing some of these entrepreneurial barriers that education entrepreneurs encounter when they’re starting to create low-cost private schools, micro-schools, learning pods, homeschool collaboratives that are very often included in these education choice programs —

[00:06:52] Charlie: All things that I’ve learned from reading your work, by the way.

[00:06:55] Kerry: Thank you. Yeah, and some of these things are applicable again, even in blue states like where you and I are in Massachusetts, of making sure that we address things like building and occupancy codes that might be outdated and irrelevant for today’s emerging learning models like micro-schools, or in some states that have really high barriers to entry in terms of accreditation requirements and approval requirements for private schools to operate, regardless of whether or not a school is participating in the school choice program. So, removing some of those accreditation requirements that could prevent new or emerging models from operating and instead kind of protecting incumbents and prevent innovation. So, those are things to think about again, both in blue states without school choice policies yet and certainly in states that are starting to expand these policies. So, you did bring up New Hampshire, which of course is also expanding its tax credit scholarship program and its low-income ESA. So, they are doing some great work there. More and more families have more options just north of us in New Hampshire.

[00:08:02] Kerry: And the article that I wanted to talk about today was another op-ed, another opinion article, this time by the Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire, Frank Edelblut. And this was an editorial in the Union Leader called “Education Choice Will Save Public Schools.” And in the article, Commissioner Edelblut talks about again, this expansion of school choice policies, parent demand for alternatives to their local public schools and talked about sort of the necessity for public schools to respond, and ways in which that could look, and what they’re doing in New Hampshire to make that happen. And so, Commissioner Edelblut talks about expanding public charter schools in New Hampshire, creating innovation schools, which allow public school districts to have some more of that freedom and flexibility that charter schools often enjoy.

[00:08:54] Kerry: Commissioner Edelblut was instrumental in creating kind of the first-in-the-nation initiative called Learn Everywhere, where students can get high school credit for learning that takes place outside of a conventional classroom. So that’s another way of kind of broadening this definition of public education. And then, of course, the new Education Freedom Accounts, the new ESA programs that enable even more low-income families to find just the right educational fit for their children. So, a lot of good things happening there. Commissioner Edelbluh makes the point that demographic changes are leading to more, to kind of reduce population in K-12 public schools in New Hampshire. We’re seeing that in many other states as well, and that it’s a real opportunity for public schools and people who care about public education to Think about competing in kind of innovative ways with the private sector and these education entrepreneurs who are creating a lot of the, again, low-cost private schools, micro-schools, pods, homeschool collaboratives that families really seem to want.

[00:09:56] Charlie: Yeah. And it’s interesting. You know, I’ve been away the last few days, so I may not be up to date, but at least as of last week there was also a lot of speculation about whether the commissioner would be mounting a campaign for governor. Now that Governor Sununu said that he is not running for reelection in New Hampshire, so that could certainly elevate these issues even further.

[00:10:16] Kerry: Yeah, I was wondering the same thing. That’s it would be exciting if that were to happen, so we’ll wait and see, yeah. So, we have a great guest on The Learning Curve podcast this week. We are going to be talking after the break to Professor David Abulafia, who is a professor emeritus of Mediterranean history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, and author of The Boundless Sea, A Human History of the Oceans. So I can’t wait for that after the break.

[00:11:10] Charlie: All right, welcome back, everybody. We’re very excited today to have Professor David Abulafia with us. Professor Abulafia is Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University and a Professional Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He’s also visiting Beacon Professor at the newly founded University of Gibraltar, Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. His most recent book, The Boundless Sea, A Human History of the Oceans which won the Wolfson Prize for 2020, the largest nonfiction book prize in the UK. His 2011 book, The Great Sea, A Human History of the Mediterranean, was a bestseller, which won the British Academy Medal, the Mountbatten Marine Award, and has been translated into 12 languages. Professor Abulafia has been appointed Order of the Star [00:12:00] of Italian Solidarity by the President of Italy in recognition of his writing on Italian history. And in 2023, this very year, he was appointed commander of the Order of the British Empire, CBE, for services to scholarship.

[00:12:14] Kerry: Professor Abulafia, welcome to The Learning Curve podcast.

[00:12:19] David: Well, it’s a great pleasure to be with you.

[00:12:21] Kerry: It’s great to have you here. Charlie and I are both excited to talk with you about your book. You know, you’ve written this magisterial book, The Boundless Sea, A Human History of the Oceans. Approximately 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water covered. The oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water. Given these facts, could you share with us just a few of the grand examples of how oceans have networked human societies and shaped commercial trade?

[00:12:54] David: Yes, it’s an interesting question because when one looks at the globe, of course there is all that blue. There’s all that water. And we talk about the blue planet, and yet people have managed to cross these spaces. And what’s really interesting about the oceans as compared to sort of smaller seas like the Mediterranean or the Black Sea or whatever is that the mastery that’s been established over such wide-open spaces and going back very far in time. So, I mean, if we just think about some of the connections that have been made, if we think in terms of migration, right, so the population of Madagascar, which arrived in the 5th, 6th, 7th century of our era, so not so long ago, where did they come from? The closest language to the language spoken in Madagascar, you know, off the coast of Africa is actually spoken in Borneo in Indonesia.

[00:13:59] David: So, you have these people crossing these vast distances, looking either for new places to live, and there are all sorts of circumstances that might lead to that — soil exhaustion, climate change, whatever — and then also looking in the other direction. You have people heading out, from somewhere around the Philippines, Taiwan, that sort of area, Indonesia, eastwards, many, many thousands of years ago. And as we now know, even reaching as far as South America, though that wasn’t until about the 13th century CE, so it’s pretty late. But the way in which people have mastered these spaces and the way in which, in order to do that, they’ve had to develop very sophisticated technology. What I mean by that is deep knowledge of the art of navigation, deep knowledge of the art of constructing ships.

[00:14:59] David: And we have to remember that, for instance, in, let’s say, Europe in the Middle Ages, building a large trading ship was really the largest industrial activity you could imagine. I mean, you know, a bit like nowadays, building a Boeing aircraft or something like that. So, we have to remember that in order to achieve all of this, it was essential to develop very sophisticated technology, which involves two things, really. One is the art of navigation, which could be handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation in societies that didn’t have writing. And the other thing is building ships. And this was really in many ways the most sophisticated piece of technology, and in a place like Europe in the Middle Ages the largest single tool, if you like, that was constructed in society.

[00:15:58] David: These were these big wooden ships. It was to them, you know, it was like building a sort of billion-pound aircraft or something like that. It was an enormous investment. So of course, people also wanted a return on their investment, and we find them bringing goods back and forth. We find migrants moving back and forth we find all sorts of military uses. Obviously, also you find the process of conquest and so on. So, opening up the seas opened up trade. It opened up conquest. It opened up the movement of peoples, both free and unfree, both people willingly going abroad, merchants and so on, but also of course, slaves who were traded across these vast spaces.

[00:16:45] Kerry: Professor, in your first chapter, The Oldest Ocean, it says, you write: “The Pacific Ocean is far and away the largest ocean, covering a third of the Earth’s surface, within this vast space, however, there are extraordinary signs of unity.” I wonder if you could talk about the European explorers and traders who widened our understanding of the Pacific, what we know about the non-European peoples who’ve populated it, and its centuries-long role in global trade?

[00:17:16] David: Yes, it’s best to start really with the native population, which, as I said earlier, really radiated out from all those islands off the coast of East Asia over a great many decades. Centuries, a great many millennia, really and a very, very slow movement across this extraordinary space, because what’s really interesting about the Pacific is that if we discount Australia and some of the very large islands, we’re basically looking at a constellation or a series of constellations of very small islands from which people moved gradually over time from one to another, not necessarily a planned process of conquest, but just identifying places where they could go to live, where they could produce the sort of foodstuffs they needed from which they could trade with their neighbors and so on.

[00:18:13] David: So we’ve got this extraordinary world into which the Europeans begin to penetrate only very late, really, only in the 16th century, because one of the key moments was the arrival of the great Portuguese navigator in Spanish service at the beginning of the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan, who came in the wrong way, really, because he came around the bottom of South America, which was a route that was pretty well abandoned for a long time.

[00:18:45] David: It, was a much more difficult route, really, than crossing the Indian Ocean and getting into the Pacific from the other side. But what did they really want? They knew of these islands as The Spice Islands and these spices, which had been reaching Europe for centuries, since the Roman period, really, many of them extremely precious, extremely rare and very fragrant and, consumed actually, I mean, in ancient Rome across quite a wide section of the population. They weren’t just for, you know, the imperial court or anything like that. So, demand for these products was extremely strong, and yet their price by the time they arrived in Europe was extremely high because they had to pass through so many customs stations with such complicated routes bringing them and so on.

[00:19:39] David: So, the idea that you could get straight to these islands, you might even be able to conquer some of these islands and make them into European bases. So that’s really what drew the Europeans. I mean, there’s some extraordinary examples of attempts to establish a permanent European presence in the Pacific.

[00:20:00] David: I think the most extraordinary example is the island of Run in the Moluccas, now within Indonesia, which was famous as one of the only reliable sources of nutmeg. And there was competition between the English and the Dutch, and the English over time managed to occupy the island. And it’s a very famous moment actually in the history of America, the future United States, because in the end, the English under King James I, who declared himself king of Run, this very small island, they swapped rRun for this rather sort of marshy island off the coast of North America, Manhattan. And that led to the English presence in that part of North America. So, you can see how sometimes events in a little corner of the Pacific had ramifications which were truly global.

[00:20:59] Kerry: So, if we shift from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean in the early 1400s, the Chinese Admiral Zheng He led voyages to the Indian Ocean, while in 1497, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama became the first European to sail around Africa to India. Could you talk about a few key ways the maritime history of the Indian Ocean, which covers 27 percent of the world’s marine space, has culturally and commercially interconnected Europe, East Africa, India, and Asia?

[00:21:32] David: Well, yeah, it’s a very interesting question because the Indian Ocean, although it’s the smallest of the three great oceans, at the same time, it’s the place where the most intense commercial activity has been going on for so many centuries. I mean, I mentioned the migrants from Madagascar, but we’ve also got Greek traders going to India, Greek traders who actually originated  their place of residence was Egypt rather than Greece itself — but coming down the Red Sea, going to Southern India. We have Roman coins turning up in Thailand, all sorts of things like this. So, it has a very long history, again, bound up very much with the trade in spices because India as a source of pepper was I mean, it was unbeatable. There were such enormous quantities available in the South of India. And that continued right through the Middle Ages to be one of the major attractions in that part of the world.

[00:22:38] David: But we also have to think of the Indian Ocean as a channel linking the Western Pacific to the Mediterranean and carrying really exotic goods, Chinese goods, Chinese pottery, Chinese silks. You mentioned Zheng He, the Chinese admiral, but even before his time around 1400, we’ve had centuries and centuries of what we now call the Silk Road of the Sea. People talk a lot about the silk roads that crossed Eurasia over land through the Gobi Desert, etc., etc., but they were actually much less significant really than the routes, the maritime routes. And, you know, we have shipwrecks from the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea — if you take those two together — shipwrecks containing half a million pieces of Chinese porcelain from the Middle Ages.

[00:23:36] David: So you can understand why the Portuguese wanted to find a route into the Indian Ocean. And the normal route was blocked by the Mamluks, the rulers of Egypt, who themselves were then conquered by the Turks, the Ottoman Turks, in 1517. So, finding routes around the bottom of Africa was, I really think, the only way to gain access to these products. And because the irony is that by the time these Portuguese ships loaded with Indian pepper from Calicut and other ports in southern India, but then we reached Portugal the product had actually deteriorated quite a lot. It wasn’t as good as the pepper that was brought up the Red Sea through the Islamic world into Venice and other cities. But still it became the foundation of a great trading empire, the Portuguese trading empire. Then of course everybody wanted to imitate that. So we’ve got the Dutch and the English and the French and the Danes. We don’t hear much about the Danes, but very active in the Indian Ocean with a base at a place called Tranquebar in India. So, it’s that continuous history of the search for spices, which I think dominates that picture.

[00:25:00] Kerry: I have one final question for you, Professor Abulafia, before turning it over to Charlie to ask a few more. This time shifting to the Atlantic Ocean, you know, in the U.K., the U.S., Europe, we’re certainly most familiar with the Atlantic Ocean, including the exploits of Christopher Columbus, the horrific transatlantic slave trade, and commercial wars for empire in the Americas. I wonder if you could briefly discuss the Atlantic and the central role that it has played in the historic economic rise of the European and American civilizations over the last several hundred years, as well as its ongoing importance in twenty-first century trade.

[00:25:43] David: So, looking at the history of the Atlantic, we can look at it from two perspectives. There’s one perspective, which, you know, immediately comes to mind, which is people moving from east to west and discovering America and so on. And the development of that relationship, which carried so many slaves from Africa to the Americas, both North and South, the Caribbean and so on. But before we come to that in a way it’s very important to remember that the Atlantic had a much longer history, and that history goes back to the history of the whole eastern flank stretching all the way from Scandinavia right down to at least Morocco and probably further south than tha, and then, right back in the New Stone Age Neolithic period people trading all the way down from the Scottish islands down to Cornwall, Brittany, and then across to Spain and Portugal in ships.

[00:26:47] David: So, the Atlantic has actually a much longer history than one tends to think, ‘Oh 1492, or possibly the Vikings, of course,’ but their presence in North America around the year 1000 was only a brief moment that they stayed in Greenland for 400 years. So, remember, first of all, that the history of the Atlantic is a long history, and then it sort of takes off in a new way in 1492 with — very rapidly actually — with the colonization of what Columbus called Hispaniola, what we now call Dominican Republic and Haiti and the surrounding islands, and that extraordinary attempt, first of all, to secure sources of gold and then to conquer the native peoples and so on.

[00:27:36] David: So, accompanying that always — from almost, you know, the first year — ships moving back and forth, back and forth in greater and greater quantities. And problems to do with manpower. So, you have the native population of Hispaniola dying out and being replaced by black slaves from Africa, the beginning of a very tragic history, of course, which lasted many hundred years, that Atlantic slave trade. So, the Atlantic opened up totally new opportunities for people living within Europe. It opened up a new world also for a great many black Africans who didn’t want to be in the Americas, who didn’t want to be transported across, but they’re also part of this picture of three continents or four continents, I should say, because America is really two continents — four continents — North America, South America, Europe, and Africa.

[00:28:33] David: Very closely interacting, drawing produce from the Americas, sugar in particular, tobacco also, other products as well, back into Europe and laying the foundations for the success, particularly for the Spanish empire, Portuguese empire, these great trading and military empires of the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries.

[00:28:58] Charlie: Thank you, Professor Abulafia. I’d like to integrate a little bit of your earlier book now in antiquity with Greek city states like Athens and through Renaissance Italian port cities like Venice, the Mediterranean has long shaped and directed the fortunes of European civilization. In your book, The Great Sea, A Human History of the Mediterranean you call it probably the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of this planet. Could you talk about the relationships between the findings of that book and those of the Boundless Sea?

[00:29:46] David: Yes, I mean, one of the very interesting features of the Mediterranean is that it accounts for really very, very small percentage — was it 0.08 or something percent, of the maritime surface of the globe. We always think of it as being much larger than it really is because it has played such an important role in the development of civilization, leading to the ancient Greeks, the Romans, etc., and everything following on from that. And yet it’s a small space. It’s a long, narrow space. And being long and narrow, it was quite easy to move across. It’s got an assortment of islands, which is one of the great differences between what we the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, which once you get beyond the Azores, you know, there are these great empty spaces. There’s not much of the Mediterranean that is really wide open, empty space. And so, you’ve got that side of it.

[00:30:29] David: You’ve also got an enormous variety of ecologies. You’ve got areas that are very rich in grain, which was obviously vital for the survival of both the rural and urban population. You’ve got other areas which are more suitable for pasture, other sorts of things. You’ve got areas where you can mine for metals and so on. I mean, the island of Sardinia in antiquity, a source of copper, as Cyprus was as well. So, you’ve got this incredibly varied world within this rather sort of tiny, well, tiny isn’t really the word, but relatively small space. Very, very different picture to what you see in the case of the oceans. And this helped to generate enormous interaction between the opposing shores.

[00:31:22] David: Now, you know, only under the Romans. So, from about the sort of year doc, to well, it sort of faded out gradually, but let’s say 400 CE only during that period with the whole Mediterranean under a single political authority. But in terms of the economic connections, these have gone ahead in the face sometimes of Crusades and other wars and so on. The economic connection to trade, movement of peoples and so on has gone ahead at a continuous sort of pace — with the odd interruption. And alongside this, another very important feature of the Mediterranean, which mustn’t be forgotten, is its religious identity, that it is the birthplace of two of the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. And Islam, although it originated a little further out in the Middle East, nonetheless had a very intimate relationship with the Mediterranean in the Medieval period, in the period of Turkish Empire and so on.

[00:32:32] David: So, that too is very much part of the history of the Mediterranean. So, we can think of it as a place where so much cultural activity, so much commercial activity and so on was concentrated by comparison with other areas, which, the Baltic, for instance, a bit like Mediterranean, much lower population, much less commercial activity, no real picture of political unity and so on. So, the Mediterranean does have this very special character.

[00:33:06] Charlie: Interesting. You know, I never really considered the whole angle of the, great religions started there, and that does add a whole other interesting layer to the history. So from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides to the 19th century U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Mahan, I’m probably killing his name — The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Military strategists have long understood the central importance of naval power. Given your deep knowledge of seas and oceans could you talk about just a few ways in which naval superiority has shaped great wars?

[00:33:41] David: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question because I wonder to what extent the term naval superiority really applies to me. In several cases it’s the side that didn’t actually have naval superiority that has somehow managed to come out on top to give an example from the 1580s in the reign of Elizabeth I of England, the Spanish Armada. This enormous Spanish fleet with all sorts of others sort of joining in from other parts of the Spanish empire. And they’re defeated partly by the weather, but also by the tactics of the English Navy. If you think of the Battle of Actium when Antony and Cleopatra were defeated and the result of that was the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire. Again, you know, the balance perhaps — I mean, which side was actually stronger at sea — or near there, very near there in 1570, the battle of Lepanto when these Spaniards and the Turks faced each other and very evenly balanced. But it’s the outcome of these conflicts really, I think rather than what might call naval superiority, because it’s actually very difficult to exercise command of the sea. To some extent, I suppose, the British managed to do that in the sort of late nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century. And that helped to trigger the First World War, German rivalry over command of the sea. But actually maintaining control of maritime space is something that has only become possible within our own memory because nowadays we have satellites in space, we have drones, we have all sorts of ways in which we can monitor the movements of our, say, enemies, which was simply not available if we go further back in time, even if we go back to the Second World War, really.

[00:35:53] David: I mean, obviously there were things like radar and so on, but they weren’t necessarily much use out at sea. So, the concept of naval power. Some naval historians have tended to argue that actually the most successful naval powers have tended to be very small nations, like the Dutch in the 17th century. And that others, like the Spaniards, who had this sort of global empire in the 16th, 17th century, they didn’t really know how to use naval power. It’s a very interesting question, something that one needs to chew over a lot, I think.

[00:36:34] Charlie: The Boundless Sea offers many insights into the historic nature of oceanic commercial trade among civilizations. Obviously we live in an era in which globalization is redefining the world. Would you talk about the role oceans and trade have played in previous eras, when global commerce was also reshaping the world?

[00:36:51] David: Yes, I, think what we have to understand is that this concept of globalization, of course, it’s a very, very loose concept and a distinguished American historian just two or three years ago, published a book called The Year 1000 in which she argued that you could already find evidence of globalization at that particular point. I mean, she had Vikings reaching America and things like that as part of her picture. These long-distance connections, particularly maritime connections, because it’s so much easier to make those connections across the sea because land traffic was impeded for so many centuries by poor roads, by political disorder on land, all sorts of things, which actually made it cheaper, quicker, safer — though one might feel that that’s perhaps an exaggeration given the number of shipwrecks that have been found   — but nonetheless, it’s safer to travel by sea. So, that has very much stimulated this contact across large spaces and the contact across large spaces, you know, you can write it as rather sort of solid, perhaps  — but it goes beyond that. It’s not just about the quantity of goods. It’s also about the way in which people’s culture has been transformed as a result of these commercial contacts. And the great example I always like to cite takes us right back to the 5th century BC is the role of the Greeks, if you like, the awakening of Italy at that particular period, ancient Italy around the time of the emergence of Rome, the Etruscans north of Rome, who became, I mean, they bought these phenomenal quantities of Greek ceramics, they imitated Greek art. They started identifying their own gods with the Greek gods. So, it’s not just about trade, though a lot of it was bound up with trade. They supplied iron and copper and so on to the Greek world. But it’s also about the way these cultural contacts were generated through the commercial economic contacts.

[00:39:14] Charlie: So, finally, your book on oceans concludes “The scale of trade through container ports is now astonishing. Hong Kong sees a thousand ships pass through its nine container terminals each day. The harbor handles 20 million containers each year, each weighing a maximum of 20 tons.” Modern globalization is the most powerful economic trade humans have ever seen. Could you talk about the role that oceans will likely continue to play in twenty-first century markets?

[00:39:42] David: Yes, there are a number of constraints, I think, first of all, that one needs to bear in mind, and one of them is sort of geopolitical situation given that so many of these container ships come out of ports along the coast of China, Hong Kong, as we mentioned one of the results of this is that we’ve become very dependent on a country with which our relations in the West have not been smooth in the last few years. So, there’s a problem there. How long will that sort of relationship last, particularly if there’s a crisis in the South China Sea and so on. So, a word of sort of warning about how this might continue. The other word of warning, it’s not really a word of warning, but a change which I think we will see we’re beginning to see — the automation of shipping is going to reach a totally new level. We’re already hearing about how it will be possible for the crew to be living in Qingdu in the middle of China or St. Louis in the middle of the United States operating their ship from a control room while they are nowhere near the sea. And, you know, unmanned shipping.

[00:41:01] David: Already ports have been completely transferred. If you compare New York as it was, let’s say, in the 1950s, with all these longshoremen and so on, loading and unloading goods, great experts on how to pack it on board ship, and the transformation from that to the world of the container ship where everything is mechanized and, you know, 99 percent of the work can be done using gig machines, cranes, and so on. So, we’re looking at a very, very different way of moving goods around the world. It’s transformed the identity of ports, many of which like London have completely lost their sort of maritime identity, except perhaps from a sort of touristic point of view. So, I think there are, they’re going to be some remarkable developments, but difficult to predict. Interesting.

[00:41:54] Charlie: Well, thank you, Professor Abulafia. We were hoping that maybe you could finish by reading a passage from The Boundless Sea.

[00:42:02] David: Yes, I’m happy to do so. This comes from quite early in the — very early in the book — but I’m trying to sort of set out what I aim to do in the book. So, I hope it will be of interest:

“This book insists 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 the lands in which they lived, others of whom formed part of widespread diasporas, Greeks and later on Jews from Egypt, Armenians, Transcribed Chinese, Malays, and so on. Sometimes the sea routes were managed by a sort of relay team, as goods passed from one set of traders to another, and from one type of ship to another, and as local rulers exacted their customs duties at each stopping point. And sometimes, even in the Greco Roman Indian Ocean, they were managed by entrepreneurs who traveled the whole route, from, say, Berenike on the Red Sea coast of Egypt to Pondicherry on the southeast coast of India. This is not to deny the transformative effect of the arrival of the Europeans in nearly every corner of the oceans. After Columbus and da Gama, the oceans and their islands were bound together in new ways. Ambitious new routes, longer than anything attempted before, crisscrossed the world, linking China to Mexico via Manila or the East Indies to Lisbon and Amsterdam. A further revolution occurred when steamships began to replace sailing vessels along the ocean routes in the 19th century, while two great canals, Suez and Panama, transformed the routes themselves. And further revolutions in the late twentieth century introduced massive ships capable of carrying thousands of containers and cruise ships that carry as many thousands of passengers.

[00:44:09] Charlie: Ah, well, than, you, Professor Abulafia. That was absolutely fascinating. I certainly learned a great deal today. I think all our listeners did as well.

[00:44:15] David: Oh, oh, I hope so very much.

[00:44:41] Kerry: Well, Charlie, that was great conversation that we had with Professor Abulafia, and it’s been wonderful to guest co-host The Learning Curve podcast with you. I thought we’d wrap up today with the tweet of the week, and the one that I was looking at is one from Education Week. they tweeted an article that they published on August 7 about AI chatbot Ed, the chatbot’s name is Ed, will be L.A. Unified’s newest student advisor, superintendent says. And it’s talking about the ways in which artificial intelligence and chatbots, AI chatbots, are able to, in some ways, really individualize education even further. So, in this case, Ed, the chatbot, will be providing real-time updates on grades and test results and attendance for families and really providing that kind of individualized education experience. So, another way in which AI could really be a positive influence on the education system. Thank you. And Charlie, it’s just been great to be with you this week. I know next week I won’t be here, but I am so excited that my good friend Shireen Rattigan, who’s the founder and lead educational curator at Colossal Academy in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, will be the guest on The Learning Curve podcast.

[00:46:06] Kerry: Shereen is a former public school teacher and an education entrepreneur who’s really helping to activate this dynamic cluster of entrepreneurship and low cost private schools in South Florida. So, glad that she’s going to be on The Learning Curve podcast.

[00:46:22] Charlie: And Kerry, this has been a real pleasure. You know, in the twenty-first century, we meet people in stages, I think, right? It’s not like before where you just sort of run into them and shake their hands, read your stuff and worked on it. And now I get to. Meet you online and maybe one of these days we’ll actually be face to face, but I, I really enjoyed it. It’s really been a pleasure. So, thank you very much.

[00:46:43] Kerry: Thanks, Charlie. I feel the same way. And thanks again to everyone listening to the Learning Curve Podcast.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Charlie Chieppo and Kerry McDonald interview Professor David Abulafia from Cambridge University, who discusses the many roles of the world’s oceans in human history and trade. He focuses on how the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans, along with the Mediterranean Sea, have networked human societies and spurred the rise of civilizations. From religion, language, and culture to maritime trade, military conflict, and the modern era of container ships, Professor Abulafia shows how the oceans have been instrumental in shaping cultures and history, and outlines the seas’ ongoing importance in the century ahead. Professor Abulafia concludes the interview with a reading from his book The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans.
Stories of the Week:
Charlie discussed a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal that details the rapid expansion of school-choice programs across the nation. Kerry cited an op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader that discusses how school choice will help save public education.
Dr. David Abulafia is Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University, and a Professorial Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He is also visiting Beacon Professor at the newly founded University of Gibraltar, a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Member of the Academia Europaea. His most recent book is The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (2019), which won the Wolfson History Prize for 2020, the largest non-fiction book prize in the UK. His 2011 book The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (2011) was a bestseller, which won the British Academy Medal, the Mountbatten Maritime Award, and been translated into 12 languages. Professor Abulafia has been appointed Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity by the President of Italy in recognition of his writing on Italian history, and in 2023 he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to scholarship.
Tweet of the Week