in the Making of an Atlantic Oceania, 1400-1800
"The events of history often
lead to the
islands. Perhaps it
is more accurate
to say that they make use
think about islands in very different ways. The inhabitants
of pre-colonial Polynesia saw themselves as inhabiting a sea
of islands, connected rather than divided by water and thus
more like an aqueous continent. "Their universe comprised
not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as
they could traverse and exploit it,..." writes Epile Hau'ofa,
"Their world was anything but tiny."2
For them the sea was home, a place rather than an interval
between places. Connected to the sea around them, islands
were are not perceived as small or insular. They were the
center of the world, and every bit as up-to-date as any mainland.
and North Americans brought a very different understanding
of oceanic islands to the Pacific. For them the sea was a
void rather than a place, and what they perceived from their
continental perspectives as islands in the far sea appeared
small, remote, and isolated whatever their size or proximity.
For them the Pacific isles were not only spatially but temporally
distant. Joseph-Maria Degerando wrote in 1797 that the traveler
there was "exploring the past; every step he makes is the
passage of an age. Those unknown islands that he reaches are
for him the cradle of human society."3 The notion that Pacific island
cultures represented undisturbed examples of earlier stages
of mankind continued to dominate western anthropology until
contrasting understandings of islands should not obscure the
degree to which something like a sea of islands once existed
in the Atlantic itself. During the early modern period its
islands were closely connected with one another and constituted
a world of their own, very much at the leading edge of the
developments of the day. Atlantic cosmographies differed in
important respects from those found in the Pacific À the sea,
for example, remained a non-place for most westerners À but
islands took on an importance that they only later ceded to
the continents. This paper attempts to explain this moment
by placing it in the context of economic, social/cultural,
and political developments unique to the early modern period.
We have such
difficulty recovering the history of this Atlantic Oceania
because according to the western historiographical canon laid
down in the nineteenth century history begins and ends at
the edges of continents, and dwells almost exclusively on
their interiors. "Although history is ostensibly about people,
it has tended to become overwhelmingly about 'lands,'"
writes Ian Steele. "Countries are given histories that
can portray areas of soil as living social, economic, and
political beings, whereas oceans are viewed primarily as vast
and empty moats between those histories."4 In the story
as it is usually told, that which lies beyond the shores is
either prelude to or aftermath of the grand continental narratives.
if we were not so attached to the myths of continents, less
enamoured of a continental telos that would have us believe
that everything begins and ends at the shoreline? It might
be possible to imagine other narratives in which oceans play
more important roles than continents, becoming historic places
in their own right. There is every reason to do so because,
as J.H. Parry has demonstrated, "The Great Age of Discovery
was essentially the age of the discovery of the sea," reminding
us that "for the most part, the explorers sought not new lands,
but new routes to old lands."5 Waters that had been obstacles
now gave unprecedented access. Before the fifteenth century,
"the Ocean led nowhere; in the next centuries people would
see it led everywhere."6
In the revised
narrative history moves off rather than onshore. The
Atlantic becomes a sea of islands linked as much to one another
as to continental littorals. The Chinese saw it that way,
publishing a guide in 1701 that lumped together Europeans,
Africans, and Americans as the "people of the Great Western
Sea."7 In the rewriting of history,
it would not be territory itself but access to territory that
would be of central economic, political, and social importance.
The extraterritorial, including seas and rivers as well as
islands, would come into their own as agents rather than as
passive objects of continental imperatives.
As the geographer
Philip Steinberg has pointed out, during the early modern
period "the sea was fought over not as a space to be possessed
but to be controlled, a special space within world-society
but outside the territorial states that comprised its paradigmatic
spatial structure."8 Charles Maier
has reminded us that "territoriality has not been a timeless
attitude in human societies." It was the product of the emergence
of the modern continental nation state and now that in this
latest phase of global development its boundaries have become
more porous, the relationship between land and sea is also
changing once again.9
A longer perspective, taking into account the early modern
period, enables us to see that continentalism is a defined
period, bracketed by times when the extraterritorial and the
extracontinental, when oceans and islands were of much greater
importance than they have been given credit for. One could
even venture to say that the initial stages of western modernity
have been as much a matter of islands as continents. What
might be called the Age of Islands, 1400-1800, not only alters
our sense of periodization, but cuts us adrift from the mainlands
of history itself. It not only alters the when of global history
but the where as well.
We need to
accept John Pocock's invitation "to let our mental vision
travel out into a diffusion of pelagic cultures lying beyond
'Europe' and 'civilization' as conventionally imagined."10 This is the only way to
recapture the true relationships of lands, oceans, and islands,
and to give them historical as well as geographical parity.
The cumulative effect of the Age of Discovery was to alter
Europeans' conception of both land and sea. The oceans became
something between rather than something beyond.11
Perceived as more like great lakes than a single body of impassable
water, and no longer placeless, the Atlantic and the Pacific
could be seen as connecting rather than separating all lands,
islands as well as continents. As a consequence, Europe's
sense of itself was profoundly altered. From being the western
margin of an Orbis Terrarum dominated symbolically
and economically by the Middle and Far East -- the Cap d'Asia
as Valery described it -- Europe came to see itself as being
the center of the world.12
No longer itself a frontier, it acquired its own frontiers,
temporal as well as geographical, the most important of which
was the sea itself.
of the Americas was unintended and as Robert Lopez once preceptively
remarked: "Indeed, for a moment it looked as if Europe would
reject the unresolicited gift of 1492."13 Europe was absorbed by its own internal
problems and would soon be fissured by the Reformation. The
Black Death a century earlier had solved the overpopulation
problem, making it very difficult to get its people to settle
the New World. Most who ventured overseas were looking for
both a quick return on their investment and an equally quick
return home. During the sixteenth century it was gold and
silver that lured the Spanish onshore.14 The French
and English launched similar searches for treasure, but when
these proved unsuccessful they had to settle for fish and
furs. These enterprises did not involve permanent settlement
until the seventeenth century, however, and, when that finally
happened, it was first on islands, not mainlands. Fishing
required no continental connection at all, while the fur trade
trade was in the hands of well organized Native American peoples.
The North American continent was by no means empty; and initially
inland settlements were not only impossible but unnecessary
as far as trade was concerned. Europeans were content to visit
the coasts on a seasonal basis, taking advantage of the already
well defined trading networks of Native Americans. Fishermen
had set a precedent for the use of islands early on by camping
there in the summer months. Newfoundland and islands along
the New England coast served this purpose well into the sixteenth
century, but never led to permanent populations.15
the advantage of being accessible to the mainlands but fortifiable
against the Native Americans onshore. Islands therefore became
forward bases in both fishing and fur trading. Sable Island,
a whaling station off Nova Scotia founded by the Marquis de
la Rock, became the first French colony to last more than
a year. But its colonists were minor criminals rounded up
for the purpose, and in 1603 they turned on their guards and
escaped their island prison, thus ending the enterprise.16 The Dutch had their trading
post on Manhattan Island and the English also looked to islands,
first to Roanoke and then Jamestown, for their first permanent
settlements. But the colony on Roanoke Island was a failure,
and Jamestown came close to disaster. It was only when
a suitable export crop, tobacco, proved profitable that the
inland dimension of the Virginia experiment was assured.17
for islands was second nature to Europeans, who had been developing
what David Ringrose calls "island empires" long before they
ventured beyond the Pillars of Hercules.18
Beginning with the crusades, the islands of the Mediterranean
had been strategic stepping stones. As Fernand Braudel described
it, Europeans moved "crab-wise from rock to rock," rarely
going far inland.19 The Aragonese invaded Mallorca and Menorca
in the thirteenth century, turning the former into an entrepot
of free trade and low taxes, which attracted a polyglot population
of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The Aragonese island empire
ultimately included Sicily and Sardinia. It dominated the
coastline of Tunisia, giving access to the north African coast
and connection with the sub-saharan gold trade. At the same
moment, Genoese communities were spreading throughout the
Mediterranean islands, constituting yet another loosely constructed
trading empire. Islanders themselves were active in colonization,
the Mallorcans being at the forefront of exploration and settlement.
In this period intrusions on the mainlands remained "shallow
and feeble," a measure of how European imperialism was a seaborne
operation from the very beginning.20
In the eastern
Mediterranean the Venetians had important colonies on Crete
and Corfu. There they developed not only trading networks
but export economies based on sugar. Its production began
in Syria and Palestine, but when control of these areas was
lost in the fourteenth century, the technique was moved to
Cyprus, and then to Crete and Sicily. There it became associated
with slavery, so that when in the fifteenth century the Genoese
took sugar production to the Azores and the Madeiras they
imported Africans as the newest slave supply. Columbus introduced
sugar in San Dominque in 1493. From there sugar and slavery
spread throughout the Caribbean.21
eastern Atlantic islands began to attract European attention
in fourteenth century, their discovery and colonization was
another multinational enterprise, with Mallorcans and Catalans,
together with the Portuguese, taking the lead. By the mid-fifteenth
century there existed what Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has called
the "Atlantic Mediterranean," projecting itself gradually
south and west from the Canaries and Madeiras to the Cape
Verdes and Azores. On the African coasts islands served Europeans
as trading posts and prisons for slaves awaiting transhipment.
There were not only Genoese, Castillans, and Mallorcans, but
French and Flemish involved in trade and colonization.22 And these
archipelagos were now connected with northern nodes of trade
and exploration in Ireland and England. There is evidence
that Columbus sailed on Portuguese ships to Galway and Bristol,
and that he may even have gone to Iceland.23
further west was therefore not such a great leap as we have
been led to believe by those who see 1492 as representing
a great historical turning point. On the contrary, its late
medieval origins are now reasonably clear. Europe's maritime
technology and navigational skill had been honed by centuries
of experience. But no less significant was insular romanticism
and late medieval millenialism, without which the the thrust
westward is inexplicable.24
Columbus believed that the discovery of islands was a prelude
to the Second Coming. And islands continued to hold pride
of place in millenialist dreams which were increasingly oriented
toward the west in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.25
Divine providence did not lead automatically from sea to land;
and destiny did not become landlocked until the nineteenth
century, when the future, evisioned as Manifest Destiny, finally
departed from islands and attached itself to continents.
Europeans tended to think of the world archipelagically. This
facilitated the shift from a closed cosmologies of the Middle
Ages, where everything was perceived as analagous to everything
else, to a fractured perspective in which "insularity comes
to stand for a kind of knowledge, a distinctly partial knowledge
that counters the totalities of institutions and regimes."26 Insularity in the early modern period seemed
liberating rather than confining, for each island could be
imagined as a different world, offering new possibilities
to a Europe which had for so long conditioned to thinking
according to one model of the world. This was the moment when
the mappaemundi, showing a single earth surrounded
by an impassable ocean, finally gave way to vision of multiple
lands and seas. It was also the time of the isolario,
or books of islands, compendiums of facts and fiction organized
around chapters on islands real and imagined, which encouraged
speculation on the diversity the world's peoples and cultures,
reflecting but also facilitating the process of global encounters
that Europe had embarked upon.27
archipelagically, Europeans initally understood the Americas
to be islands. A firm distinction between island snd continents
was slow in emerging, and Australia was also perceived as
insular when it was first encountered in the eighteenth century.
Islands remained the favored location for western dreams and
fears throughout the early modern period. Edenic and utopia
isles would continue to fill the mental maps of Europeans
until the nineteenth century.28 Later, islands
were viewed as instruments for a more secular kind of progress
and the objects of scientific exploration. Richard Grove has
argued that islands like St. Helena were the world's first
laboratories for environmental science. Islands were particularly
appealing because they were "in practical environmental
as well as in mental terms, an easily conceived allegory of
a whole world."29
Islands were also sites for early anthropological speculation.
status as microcosms did not necessarily result in their being
seen realistically on their own terms. Quite the contrary,
islands would remain until the eighteenth century a site of
mythologization. Even as some islands, like the Canaries,
lost their paradisical associations, others, especially those
further to the west, took on mythic dimensions. Eden first
relocated to the Caribbean and then to the American mainlands
before moving on in the eighteenth century to the Pacific.
is the only Empire which naturally belongs to us, conquest
is not in our interest," wrote the Englishman Andrew Fletcher
in 1698.30 Few of the great ancient
empires had relied so much on sea power; nor had the states
of Asia bothered to militarize their adjacent seas. But now
Europe used the one resource that gave it an advantage, namely
its skill in shipbuilding and navigation, to create something
quite unprecedented, what Charles Boxer felicitously christened
exception of Spain, the European empires were more insular
It will be remembered that the initial objective of the voyages
of discovery was trade: and trade on the European, African,
and Asian coasts was often conducted from islands.33 The islands
of the Caribbean were easily mistaken for Asian archipelagos.
Initially the Spanish were not looking for empty lands, but
trading partners; islands "were best if they were inhabited,
preferably by docile and industrious people."34
The Spanish would ultimately find riches on the American continents,
but other European powers did not readily follow them inland.
Northern European empires tended to hug the coasts and focus
trading possibilities of Atlantic islands proved disappointing
or their populations proved hostile, Europeans turned to the
strategy of conquest (often accompanied by genocide against
indigenous peoples) and extraction of resources. This was
first visited on the Canaries. Then it was the turn of the
Azores and Madeiras, which were first stripped of their native
timber.35 The next
step was the importation of European herds and crops, altering
forever the ecology of these places. The production of sugar
using slave labor, already perfected on Mediterranean isles,
was first transferred to the near Atlantic islands and then
to the Caribbean. And islands were to remain the preferred
locations for plantation economies for almost three hundred
think about the expansion of Europe we often conflate an oceanic
presence -- or a bounded presence on an island or a littoral
-- with continental territorial control," writes Elizabeth
Mancke.36 She rightly notes that with the exception
of the Spanish control of the seas and islands was not just
a prelude to territorial possession, but as an end in itself.
As for the northern European powers, which would surpass Spain
in the development of commercial capitalism, empire was a
matter of access, not of possession. Leaving aside New Spain,
interiors of the Asian, Africa, and American continents were
neither known nor coveted until the nineteenth century. What
was desired was access to the goods, including slaves, that
were produced in the interiors. This was best achieved
by control over the coasts and coastal islands. The success
of just such a strategy in the Mediterranean in the late Middle
Ages led to its extension to the African coast in the fifteenth
century, and its ultimate projection to all the world's regions
by the end of the eighteenth century. In some cases, the relationship
between mainlands and islands was actually reversed, with
the later exercising sovereignty. In order to encourage
migration to the Cape Verde archipelago, the Portuguese sovereign
granted the first settlers a monopoly of trade on the creeks
and shores of Senegal, causing them to be known thereafter
as "the rivers of Cape Verde." However, Europeans were
content to let the peoples of the interior, whether they be
African slavers or Native American fur traders, control that
end of the business. Indeed, they preferred it that way.37
be called the early modern empires of access were empires
on the cheap. With the exception of Spain, most even the strongest
Renaissance kingdoms were weak and poor by world standards
of the time. Their legitimacy was dependent on dynastic claims
over peoples who were linguistically, culturally, and ethnically
heterogenous, and over territories that were noncontiguous.
In short, their domains were more like archipelagoes than
like continents. Borders mattered much less in polities where
allegiances were organized hierarchically rather than horizontally,
where sovereignty was attached to persons rather than
to territories.38 In a world of verticle
rather than horizontal perspectives, Europeans at every level
were willing to accept authority from above, even when this
power was from the outside. Loyalties to extraterritorial
authorities which would be quite unacceptable in the modern
territorial nation state were routinely accepted until the
nineteenth century, when boundaries finally severed sovereignty
from individuals and vested it in clearly defined lands and
kingdoms did not possess the kinds of standing armies necessary
to occupy territory outside their own domains and certainly
not overseas. They were used to wielding power at a distance,
handing out lands as feudal fiefs and concessions, rather
than ruling them directly. The most powerful empire within
Europe, that of Charles V, has been described as being more
like "a modern multinational corporation than a state."39 Crowns did not yet possess a monopoly on
armed force and continued to rely on private individuals and
groups as extensions of sovereign power. Granting charters,
fiefs, and special powers was the way in which European expansion
had proceeded in the later Middle Ages and this would continue
to be the practice right up through the eighteenth century.
The Portuguese found they could keep Azores going only by
encouraging the settlement of Flemings.40 To achieve their
goals, kings readily indulged the "insular romanticism" of
the nobility, freely handing out fiefdoms on islands that
were only presumed to exist. Columbus may have thought he
would be rewarded with the legendary Antilia, which he fully
expected would be one of the stepping stones to Asia.41
Monarchs could afford this generosity because the supply of
unclaimed isles seemed inexhaustible. It was a cheap and easy
way of extending patronage. This worked well as long as the
reality of the Atlantic isles was still obscured by the legends
conjured up by enduring insular romanticism.
Steinberg has demonstrated, Europeans did not regard the oceans
as something to be possessed, but as a force field of struggle
for control over key sea routes and nodal points. In the prevailing
theory of mercantilism, trade was the primary source of wealth
and "the sea was an important connecting space to be dominated
as a means of controlling trade."42 The oceans were regarded
as extraterritorial, and islands also belonged to this category,
regarded not, as integral parts of the home country, but more
like pawns to be traded on a world chessboard of power politics.
The European powers were quite willing to trade away their
own nationals when it suited them. To secure their monopoly
on the world nutmeg trade, the Dutch were willing to offer
Manhattan for the tiny islet of Run in the Banda archipelago
of Indonesia. There is no question but that islands were the
most traded, fought over, renamed, cherished and forfeited,
instantly recognized but also immediately forgotten places
on earth in the early modern period.43
In the absence
of a standing navy, the licencing of seagoing privateers also
allowed kingdoms to make claims with little or no cost to
themselves. In the long term a distinction between noble and
ordinary pirates would have to be drawn, but that did not
happen until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries
when freebooting began to complicate internal European politics
and monarchies found it necessary to place tighter controls
over their surrogages on land as well as sea.44
By the mid-eighteenth century European states felt they had
no choice but to make the settlers pay for their own protection.
When new taxes and laws were imposed, the loyalties of the
colonists were sorely tested. The result was that the continental
parts of the empires of access broke away. Significantly,
most of the islands (with a few exceptions like Haiti) remained
more or less loyal, and today virtually all that is left of
European imperium is insular.45
of Atlantic Oceania in the early modern period were feudal
in origin, but their economies were anything but medieval.
While land continued to be the basis of European status, wealth,
and power at home, this was not the case in the Atlantic world.
It was access, not possession, which offered the greatest
rewards for the commercial capitalism that gained its greatest
momentum on the sea, not on land. This was an extraterritorial
economy in which money was to be made in transactions between
widely scattered markets. Merchants invested in inventory,
not directly in production. In a system that resembles in
some ways the economics of current global capitalism, merchants
left it to the producers to shoulder the costs of the instruments
of production, labor discipline, and time lost when demand
fell and the labor force was idled. Urban merchants warehoused
both raw materials and finished products in what we called
at the time "factories," but they preferred to keep production
at a distance.46
capitalists operated from within urban enclaves in their homelands
or abroad under charters issued by foreign rulers. Commercial
capitalism functioned extremely well in this archipelagic
environment. Having no territorial ambitions of its own, it
was satisfied in playing off one sovereign power against another.
Profits were made by attempting to calculate when to release
or withhold inventory, or by controlling markets according
to mercantilist principles. What was crucial was not possession,
sources of slaves required no possession of African territory,
something that was in any case beyond the power of Europeans
to achieve against the overwhelming strength of the African
kingdoms and the deadly effects of tropical diseases. It cannot
be said that the African coast belonged to any European nation
during this period. The Dutch and the English successfully
competed with the Portuguese as supremacy in the carrying
trade changed hands several times. A similar strategy of access
also applied to the third leg of the triangular trade, namely
the plantation economies of the New World. As long as Europeans
controlled the waterways, Caribbean islands' extensive coastline
guaranteed them access while denying their African captives
exit. The same thinking applied to places where white convict
labor was imported. It is no wonder that some of the first
permanent colonies, staffed with prisoners, were islands.
The greater the proportion of coast to interior the better,
for smaller islands like Barbados had no hinterlands to escape
to. But even larger islands like Jamacia were preferable to
the mainlands, and so began the long and tragic association
of islands with both slavery and imprisonment.
In the seventeenth
century, when sugar was king, the Caribbean islands were the
world's richest prizes, changing hands frequently as the European
powers fought over them. Islands remained extraterrtorial
to the sovereign powers, however. The idea of launching a
war to protect their nationals, as the British did in the
so-called Falklands War of the 1982, would have been unthinkable
in an era before modern nationalism when access meant so much
more than possession.47
But this competition should not hide the fact that island
economies were multinational affairs. The fishing islands
of the North Island were occupied by men of various origins,
who in some instances elected an "admiral" from their own
ranks to rule them.48
Ships under foreign flags were tolerated by local authorities
as long as duties were properly paid and authority ritually
acknowledged. Even when mercantile controls were tightened
in the eighteenth century, the new rules were easily evaded.
Smuggling was endemic on islands, where the abundance of coastline
was an invitation to free trade. The same sea moats that made
islands so attractive to plantation development, made them
virtually free ports for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth
capitalists treated the plantations in the same way they dealt
with their hinterland producers in Europe. They rarely invested
directly in the production process, leaving its windfalls
and risks to the plantation owners. They were no more eager
to be in possession of these places than were the royal authorities,
who left planters with an enormous amount of power, not only
over the lives of their workers, but over themselves. Indeed,
by the later eighteenth century many of the sugar islands
had, like the mainland economies, developed separate identities,
still recognizably European, but claiming liberties that even
the most privileged subjects of the home country would not
have dared to assert. In many ways, feudalism lingered much
longer in the New World. The power of local authority, hierarchical
ways of thinking, insularity, all these remained live and
continued to operate under the assumptions of the empire of
access longer than did their countrymen back home. When, in
the second half of the eigtheenth century, monarchies became
more absolutist in their territorial ambitions and more competitive
with one another, they began to exercise a greater measure
of control over Atlantic islands and littorals. This was first
met with appeals to honor "ancient liberties" by those who
held concessions there. Liberals like Adam Smith also supported
American claims to independence on the basis that this was
consistent with the existing empires of access.51 But the
monarchs saw only the threat to their authority and ultimately
the American settlers were forced into armed rebellion. By
the early nineteenth century the continental elements of the
empire of access lay in ruins.52
of Atlantic Oceania did not feel small and remote to islanders
themselves. Given considerable free rein, settlers came to
regard the sea as belonging to them, drawing the world closer,
expanding rather than shortening their horizons. During the
early modern period it was land, not sea, that created the
greater sense of remoteness and insularity. It was the continents
that appeared on maps in narrowed or shrunken form, filled
with blank spaces, while the oceans remained crowded with
islands, large and small, and with images of ships plying
the well known sea routes between them.
The sea and
its islands loomed large in the European imagination. Indeed,
maps exaggerated not only the number but the size of islands.
Just as the mythic island of Antilia and St. Brendan had once
filled the ocean void, so now known islands were represented
as "monstrously swollen, enlarged out of all proportion
to the continental land masses." The Madeira archipelago,
which is about the size of Long Island, was portrayed as the
size of the present New York State. In the maps of the sixteenth
century, observes T. Bentley Duncan, "the huge islands
emphatically assert their presence in the mid-Atlantic and
furnish graphic testimony to both the psychological and practical
significance of islands to men of former times."53
In an era
before standard measurement, scale was much less precise than
it is today. Yet this is not sufficient to explain why islands
were to loom so large in the European and North American imagination
during these three centuries. "Smallness is a state of mind,"
Hau'ofa Epile reminds us.54 Of course, the meaning
of islandness varied enormously. For the African slave or
the English convict the same shores that offered unlimited
horizons to their masters were prison walls. But for a majority
of European islanders it is perhaps safe to say that the sea
was not a limit to but an extension of their possibilities.
It has been said of the multiethnic and polyglot merchants
of Funichal in the Madeiras that they were "men of true 'Atlantic'
outlook, at home on two or three continents."55
In the sixteenth
and early seventeenth century, peoples of the African, European,
and American littorals often had more in common with one another
than they did with the residents of their hinterlands. Coastal
Africans who had a long history of interaction with Europeans
have been called for good reason "Atlantic creoles." Coastal
Africans found themselves in Americas constituted a distinct
group, quite different from inland Africans who were later
imported to stock the plantation economies. "Black life
in mainland North America originated not in Africa or America
but in the netherworld between the continents," writes Ira
Berlin. Atlantic creoles were prominent in the New Netherlands
but also in New Orleans and the Chesapeake region. Many were
free people, who farmed, traded, and even owned slaves.56
They often intermarried with Europeans and Native Americans
living in the coastal regions. On Kent Island in the Chesapeake
there existed a triracial community of Europeans, Africans,
and Native Americans who managed to hold their own until finally
overwhelmed by the Maryland planter elites later in the seventeenth
It was not
uncommon for the people of the European, African, and American
littorals to identity more with sea than with the hinterlands.
In the sixteenth century the English, having cut themselves
off from their continental connections, began to think of
themselves archipelagically. As Jeffery Knapp has argued,
the sixteenth century English came to see themselves as a
chosen people, whose insularity was proof of spiritual strength,
and who would make of this a virtue and conquer the Atlantic
"by means of littleness."58
Colonies in America allowed John Donne to think of "this Iland,
which is but the Suburbs of the old world, a Bridge, or Gallery
to the new."59 The small scale of many
islands precluded selfsufficiency, made them dependent on
other islands and mainlands, and thus precluded isolation.
And the tendency to see the world as one vast archipelago
persisted through the eighteenth century.60
The idea of continents, dating only from the sixteenth century,
imposed itself itself on western geographical thought only
very slowly. California continued to be shown as an island
until the eighteenth century, and only then was America depicted
as being separate from Asia.61
experiments in conquest, colonization, and commerce clung
like a ship's barnacles to the littoral of the world ocean
or sought out offshore islands surrounded by sea moats,"
writes Stephen Pyne.62 These coasts and islands
came to constitute a distinctive world, with its own dynamics.
To be sure, this Atlantic sea of islands was to have a much
stronger continental flavor than its Pacific counterpart,
but it would be wrong to think of it as either European or
African as an extension of the American continents. As the
leading historian of the eastern Atlantic islands has put
it: "...the islands made signal contributions to the Atlantic
world in general. If there had been no islands, seventeenth
century maritime commerce would have been distinctly different,
and navigation itself appreciably more difficult and more
also crucial to the peopling of the New World. The reluctance
of Europeans to leave their homelands and settle the New World
voluntarily meant that the process of the Europeanization
of the Americas came much later.64
Outmigration from islands was to become a major factor in
the Atlantic world. Islands were particularly subject
to overpopulation because, without hinterlands to absorb their
surpluses, the only way to survive was to leave. Often this
was young men, who would leave their wives and children behind
to sign onto a passing vessel, especially the lucrative whaling
ships. With the money earned at sea, they might then establish
themselves on some other shore, later sending for their families.
They might even return in old age, a pattern that still today
prevails on many islands without the resources to support
their younger populations.65
It was not
really until the nineteenth century that the newly discovered
continents became what Alfred Crosby calls "Neo-Europes."66 Islands were the first
Neo-Europes, but they did not remain so for long. The Azores,
for example, became the nodes in the great flows of goods
and peoples; and, as such they were "neither of Europe nor
of the Americas."67 By 1700 the people of the
Cape Verde islands had their own distinct identity. Mixtures
of peoples characterized most Caribbean island populations;
there, as elsewhere, island cultures were hybrids.68 William McNeill has noted that it was in
this period that sea frontiers superceded steppe frontiers
"as the critical meeting point of strangers."69 Islands
were classic "middle grounds" beyond the lines of ordered
territoriality, where all kinds of new identities were formed
and reformed in the early modern period. Insularity, which
was later to acquire the meaning of narrowness and stasis,
was at that time associated with plenitude and mutability.
peopling of the Americas was as much an Atlantean as an African
or European project. Many of the first settlers on isles and
coasts of the Americas were themselves islanders.70 They preferred
to face outward to the sea. "God performed no miracle
on New England soil. He gave the sea," writes Samuel
Eliot Morison.71 For most
of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries New England was
as closely connected with the Caribbean, with Madeira and
the Cape Verdes as with the British Isles. The Azores were
particularly closely connected to New England through whaling,
a connection that never completely disappeared even when that
continent with a well developed multitude of Native American
"nations" with whom they had managed to establish an ambivalent
relationships, the European littoral settlers occupied a kind
of borderland, acting as intermediaries between two worlds,
agents for indigenous traders as well as European merchants.
Movement inland was by no means assured or desired. Indeed,
westward destiny was a myth which was created much later to
legitimize a continental identity which had formed only in
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.73 Until then
the thirteen mainland British colonies were more archipelagic
than continental, connected more by sea rather than by land
transport and belonging to a sea of islands and littoral enclaves
that stretched from the Shetlands to the Falklands. In the
course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries
it even seemed as if the colonists were being drawn ever more
to the sea rather than into the interiors of the continent.74
nothing at all insular about the islands or the islanders.
Many, like the Cape Verdeans, learned by necessity to feel
more at home on the South and North American continents than
in their native isles. Ties of trade stretched from the salt
islands of the south Atlantic to the fishing outports of Newfoundland.
The Yankee cod fleet would sail first to the Cape Verdes to
pick up salt before heading for the northern fishing banks.75 People from the Hebrides
adapted easily to Cape Breton Island; and Nantucket was closer
in many ways to the Azores than it was to Massachusetts.76 Islands were to islanders
like oases are to desert nomads. For most of the early modern
period islands were like ships, their populations more like
passengers than permanent residents. Island populations were
as polyglot as the crews of the vessels that paid them call,
and they owed their loyalty and identity more to the sea of
islands than any of the continents.77
It was from
its mastery of the seas, not lands, that Europe experienced
its first great economic boom. The wealth accumulated through
its archipelagic empires of access would find its way back
to the continent, partly to be invested in land, partly to
capitalize new industrial enterprises that would ultimately
overturn the old order of things. By the late eighteenth century
the boundary between land and sea became more definite and
during the nineteenth century new nation states concentrated
their energies on their own interiors. The rebellious North
American settlers declared themselves to be "continentals,"
and Tom Paine used the argument that if God had meant them
to remain British subjects he would have never placed an ocean
in between. Edmund Burke thought that, short of draining the
Atlantic, there was no way that the Americans could be denied
The sea, that thing which for three centuries had been perceived
as tying the Atlantic world together, was no longer seen as
doing so. In the nineteenth century the division between land
and sea became absolute; and islands, which had once been
understood as bridges, also lost their power of connectivity.
It was not
so much that commercial ties had weakened or that distances
had gotten somehow greater, but the sea was now coming to
be seen as a vast empty moat and the islands were taking on
an aura of narrow insularity that has haunted them ever since.
In the age of industrial capitalism and the nation state,
history turned its back on Atlantic Oceania, forgetting that
it had ever existed. The nineteenth century progressive imagination
turned inward to focus on roads and bridges, ignoring water-borne
forms of transporation. No longer stepping stones to the future,
islands retreated into the mists of history, waiting, like
castaways, to be rescued from oblivion.
Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterannean World
in the Age of Philiip II, i (New York: Harper & Row,
1972), p. 154.
Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of Islands," The Contemporary Pacific:
A Journal of Island Affairs, vi, nr. 1 (Spring, 1994),
p. 152. See also Philip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction
of the Ocean (Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press, 2001),
pp. 54-58; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations: Culture,
Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (New York:
Free Press, 2001), Part VI; Greg Dening, "The Geographical
Knowledge of the Polynesians and the Nature of Inter-Island
Contact," Polynesian Navigation, ed. Jack Golson (Wellington:
The Polynesian Society, 1963), pp. 102-131.
in Eric Leed, The Mind of the Traveller: From Gilgamesh
to Global Tourism (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p. 134.
K. Steele, The English Atlantic, 1675-1740: An Exploration
of Communications and Community (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986), p. vi.
Parry, The Discovery of the Sea (New York: Dial Press,
1974), p. xii.
Boorstin, The Discoverers (New York: Random House,
1983), p. 154.
Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created:
Society, Culture and World Economy, 1400-Present (Armonk:
M.E. Sharpe, 1999), p. 43.
Maier, "Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative
Narratives for the Modern Era," American Historical Review,105,
nr. 3 (June 2000), p.808.
J.G.A. Pocock, "The Atlantic Archipelago and the War
of the Three Kingdoms," The British Problem, 1524-1707
eds. Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1996), p. 174.
Edmundo O'Gorman, The Invention of America (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 19610, p. 131.
Valery's description is from Henri Baudet, Paradise on
Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man,
trans. Elizabeth Wentholt (Middletown: Wesleyan University
Press, 1988), p. 4.
Robert S. Lopez, "Epilogue," First Images of America: The
Impact of the New World on the Old, ii, ed. F. Chiapelli
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 888.
Ibid, p. 889; Carole Shammas, "English commercial development
and American colonization, 1560-1620," The Westward Enterprise,
eds. K.R. Andrews, N.P. Canny, P.E. Hair (Liverpool: University
of Liverpool Press, 1978), pp. 151-74.
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "International at the Creation: Early
Modern American History," Rethinking American History in
a Global Age, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2002), pp. 103-122.
David Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First
Settlement (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 472-3.
David R. Ringrose, Expansion and Global Interaction, 1200-1700
(New York: Longman, 2001), chapter iii.
David Abulafia, A Mediterranean Emporium: The Catalan Kingdom
of Majorca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994);
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration
and Colonization from Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229-1492
(London: Mamillan, 1987), p. 137.
Charles Verlinden, "The Transfer of Colonial Techniques from
the Mediterraean to the Atlantic," The European Opportunity,
ed. F. Fernandez-Armesto (Aldershot: Variorum, 1995), pp.
William D. Phllips, Medieval Origins of European Expansion
(Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press, 1996); Valerie
Flint, The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
Loren Baritz, "The Idea of the West," The American Historical
Review, lxvi nr 3 (April, 1961), p. 635.
Roland Greene, "Island Logic," 'The Tempest' and Its Travels,
ed. Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman (Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania, 2000), p. 138.
On the context of the isolario, see Tom Conley, The
Self-Made Map: Cartographic Writing in Early Modern France
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), chapter
I will pursue these themes in my forthcoming Islands of
the Mind: The Shaping of the Atlantic World
Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical
Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 32.
Quoted in Anthony Pagden, Peoples and Empires: Europeans
and the Rest of the World from Antiquity to the Present (London:
Weidenfeld and Nicoloson, 2001), p. 94.
C.R. Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800 (London:
J. H. Parry, The Discovery of the Sea (New York: Dial
Press, 1974), p. xiii.
Parry, p. vi; Quinn, p. 472; Samuel Eliot Morison, The
European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, ad 500-1600
(New York: Oxford University Press), p. 481.
Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1986), chapter iv.
Elizabeth Mancke, "Early Modern Expansion and the Politicization
of Oceanic Space," The Geographical Review 89, nr.
2 (April 1999), p. 227.
Basil Davidson, The Fortunate Isles: A Study of African
Transformation (Trenton: African World Press, 1989), p.
15; Quinn, chapter xix; Geoffrey W. Symcox, "The Battle of
the Atlantic, 1500-1700," First Images of America: The
Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. F. Chiapelli,
i (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 265-277;
Anthony Pagden and Nicholas Canny, "Afterword: From Identity
to Independence," in Colonial Identity in the Atlantic
World, 1500-1800, eds. Pagden and Canny (Princeton: Princeton
University Pres, 1987), p. 273; Carla Rahn Phillips, "The
Organization of Oceanic Empires: The Iberian World in the
Hapsburg Period," paper delivered at "Seascapes, Littoral
Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges," Library of Congress,
Feb. 12-15, 2003.
Peoples and Empires, p. 56.
Steinberg, p. 69; for further explorations of the law of the
sea, see Lauren Benton, "Oceans of Law: The Legal Geography
of the Seventeenth Century Seas," Eliga Gould, "Lines of Plunder
or Crucible of Modernity? Toward a Legal History of the English-Speaking
Atlantic, 1660-1825," and Alan Karras, "Trangressive Exchange:
Rewriting Atlatnic Law in the Eighteenth Century," given at
Seacapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges,
Library of Congress, Feburary, 2003.
Stephen A. Royle, A Geography of Islands: Small Island
Insularity (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 74-77: on
the trade of Run for Manhattan, see Tim Severin, The Spice
Islands Voyage (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1977), p.
117; in this respect islands were like ships. See Hans Konrad
van Tilburg, "Vessels of Exchange: The Global Shipwright of
the Pacific," paper delivered at Seascapes, Littoral Cultures,
and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges, Library of Congress, February,
Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra:
Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary
Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
Jack Greene, "Changing Identity in the British Caribbean:
Barbadoes as a Case Study," in Colonial Identity in the
Atlantic World, pp. 213-65.
The parallels between this and the contemporary global economy
are striking. See Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access
(New York: Tarcher/Putnam 2000).
the Malvinas/Falklands islands, see Royle, pp. 135-7.
Kupperman, pp. 109-110.
Peoples and Empires, pp. 67-68.
Pagden and Canny, p. 273, Michael Zuckerman, "Identity in
British America: Unease in Eden," in Colonial Identity
in the Atlantic World, p. 136.
Peoples and Empires, p. 95.
Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, "World History in a Global
Age," American Historical Review, 106, nr. 4
(October, 1995), pp. 1034-60.
T. Bentley Duncan, Atlantic Islands: Madeira, the Azores
and the Cape Verdes in Seventeenth-Century Commerce and Navigation,
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, p. 3.
Ira Berlin, "From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and
the Origins of African-American Identity," William and
Mary Quarterly, lii, nr.2 (April 1996), pp. 251-288.
Jeffery Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and
Literature from Utopia to the Tempest (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1992),pp. 4-13.
Bernhard Klein, Maps and the Writing of Space in Early
Modern England and Ireland (Houndmills, 2001), p. 135.
Karen Wigan and Martin Lewis, The Myth of Continents: a
critique of metageography (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1997); Eviatar Zerubavel, Terra Cognita: The Mental
Discovery of America (New Brunswick, Rutgers University
Press, 1992), chapter ii; Dora Beale Polk, The Island of
California: A History of the Myth (Spokane: Arthur H.
Stephen J. Pyne, How The Canyon Became Grand: A Short History
(New York: Viking, 1998), p. 5.
K.G. Davies, The North Atlantic World in the Seventeenth
Century (Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press,
1974) pp. 86ff.
Duncan, p. 145, 250-51.
Allan Williams and Monica Lucinda Fonseca, "The Azores: Between
Europe and North America," Small Worlds. Global Lives,
eds. Russell King and John Connell (London: Pinter, 1999),
William H. McNeill, "World History and the Rise and Fall
of the West," Journal of World History, ix, nr.
2 (Fall, 1998), p. 281.
For example, Barbadoes was the jumping off spot for the peopling
of other Caribbean islands. Davies, p. 138.
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts,1783-1860
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), p. 11.
p. 140; Duncan, pp. 248, 251; Steele, p. 272.
Peoples and Empires, p. 97.
Copyright: © 2003 by the American Historical
Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle and Brandon Schneider. Format
by Chris Hale.