Ernesto Bassi. An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada's Transimperial Greater Caribbean World. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 360 pp. $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-6240-1; $104.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-6220-3.
Reviewed by Jamie Goodall (Stevenson University)
Published on H-War (June, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
In 1975, Edward Said introduced the concept of “imaginative geography” as he critiqued orientalism. But the idea that geography operates as a social construct in which the meanings given to space are dependent on perspective seems foundational to recent transnational and transimperial scholarship that has challenged traditional narratives of Caribbean and mainland American histories. Ernesto Bassi’s masterful work, An Aqueous Territory, joins scholarship by Fabrício Prado, Jane Landers, and Pérez Morales who reexamine the complex and tangled histories of the Americas—broadly conceived. Like Doreen Massey, Bassi recognizes the “dynamic and constructed nature of space” (p. 6). Bassi’s framework is grounded in two processes: the development of what he calls the transimperial Greater Caribbean—a regional space he defines as “malleable and flexible”—and the geopolitical imagination of the region’s inhabitants. With this framework, Bassi challenges scholars to “understand how the historical subjects we study developed a sense of place—how they located themselves in the larger world—and envisioned potential futures for themselves and those whom they claimed to represent” (p. 3). He approaches these processes from the vantage point of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Granada, what the British referred to as the Spanish Main. The area is physically located on the Caribbean coast of northwestern South America.
For Bassi, this geographical vantage point is important to advancing his critical arguments for three key reasons. The first is that it demonstrates the interconnectedness between New Granada and the British, French, and Dutch Caribbean. The second is that it allows us to recognize that the transimperial Greater Caribbean looked different and covered different areas depending on where people experienced it. Bassi uses the centrality of certain ports as an example for how this operated in reality. Lastly, this geographical vantage point “highlights the extent to which key economic and social institutions spread unevenly through space” (p. 4). For Bassi, the institution of slavery is the best example of this uneven development.
An Aqueous Territory is focused on the years 1763-1824. Bassi makes two interrelated arguments resting on the maritime mobility of sailors and coastal inhabitants. These two arguments form the structure of the book, which itself is divided into two parts. Part 1, “Spatial Configurations,” examines the development of the transimperial Greater Caribbean and emphasizes the importance of everyday commercial policies and border crossing in the configuration of this space.
Part 1 is then subdivided into two chapters. The first chapter uses the vantage point of New Granada’s Caribbean ports and sailing frequency to examine the growth in intensity of transimperial trade. Bassi argues that after the Seven Years’ War, the Caribbean evolved into a “de facto free trade area largely ... controlled by Great Britain from the Caribbean commercial center of Kingston, Jamaica” (p. 26). Bassi reconstructs many of New Granada’s commercial networks via Jamaican shipping returns, a set of sources that have largely been underused. One of the unique aspects of this chapter is Bassi’s interpretation of growing transimperial trade by including minor (in other words, lower ranked by the Spanish) ports and his identification of “hidden ports.” These hidden ports, according to Bassi, are ports that were frequently mentioned in Spanish reports as sites of illicit commercial exchanges between Spanish, British, Dutch, French, and Danish subjects. His use of these records and the concept of hidden ports is both a strength and a weakness of the chapter. Trade that circumnavigated official routes often leaves archival gaps. Bassi himself indicates that Jamaican shipping returns offer only a partial reconstruction of these networks, which he had to supplement with records of arrival and departures at other ports.
In chapter 2, Bassi shifts from vessels to those who occupied them. The main argument of this second chapter is that the information exchange facilitated by captains and sailors, as well as their social interactions, created “a region that historians can use as a coherent unit of historical analysis” and allows us to think of the transimperial Greater Caribbean as “an amorphously demarcated aqueous territory” (p. 56). This particular chapter is informed greatly by the bottom-up view of the maritime Atlantic in Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s work The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (2000).
Part 2, “Geopolitics and Geopolitical Imagination,” builds on the discussion of how the transimperial Greater Caribbean in turn assisted in the creation of several geopolitical projects. The remaining chapters in part 2 serve as case studies, with each one dedicated to just one of these projects. Chapter 3 emphasizes indigenous mobility, cosmopolitanism, and political autonomy to challenge the “geographical fictions ... embedded in European-drawn maps of the Caribbean” (p. 17). The fourth chapter shifts to the geopolitical imaginations of Caribbean merchants, planters, royal officials, and military adventurers in the transimperial Greater Caribbean from the vantage point of northwestern New Granada after the American Revolution. Chapter 5 examines exiled insurgent leaders (after the Reconquista in 1815), in particular the experiences of Simón Bolívar, to reveal the geopolitical imaginations of “creole adventurers, British and Spanish imperial officials, and independent Haiti’s government authorities” (p. 18). Bassi tackles this by dividing the chapter into four distinct sections to posit four interconnected arguments. The final chapter shifts the geopolitical vantage point once again, this time away from the Caribbean coast of New Granada to its Andean capital to examine the development of Colombia into an Andean-Atlantic nation via nineteenth-century “enlightened creoles” and “politician-geographers” (p. 19). The construction of this Andean-Atlantic nation purposefully decaribbeanized the nation.
Bassi’s work is exhaustively researched and meticulously detailed, and advances a multitude of important arguments. If there is any doubt about the amount of research that went into this manuscript, Bassi provides six appendices that help to elucidate his methodology and sources. While it could be difficult at times to keep all of the different arguments posited throughout the manuscript straight, the overarching argument about the development of a transimperial Greater Caribbean and the importance of many geopolitical imaginations remains quite clear. Bassi’s work has a little something for everyone. From those interested in border crossings and transimperial networks to the Age of Revolutions, from lived experiences of sailors and coastal inhabitants to transmission of knowledge, Bassi builds on familiar foundations. By adopting and advancing a transimperial Greater Caribbean framework, An Aqueous Territory speaks to scholars of Latin American, Caribbean, Atlantic, North American, transnational, and transimperial history. I found An Aqueous Territory to be not only a welcome contribution to the wider field of history but also an enlightening and enjoyable read.
Jamie L. H. Goodall is an assistant professor of history in the Public History Department at Stevenson University in Baltimore, Maryland. She has a PhD in history from The Ohio State University with specializations in Atlantic world, early American, and military histories. Her publications include “Tippling Houses, Rum Shops, & Taverns: How Alcohol Fueled Informal Commercial Networks and Knowledge Exchange in the West Indies” in the Journal of Maritime History and a forthcoming book manuscript with The History Press called Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay: A Brief History of Piracy in Maryland and Virginia. She is presently revising her book manuscript that examines piracy, taste-making, and consumption in the early modern Caribbean-Atlantic world.
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