Guest Post: Review of Bassi, An Aqueous Territory

Today’s review is by James Hill, who received his Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary in 2016 and is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Bahamas. He has published articles in Early American Studies (Winter 2014) and the Florida Historical Quarterly (Fall 2014). His dissertation, “Muskogee Internationalism in an Age of Revolution, 1763-1818,” analyzes Creek and Seminole diplomacy. This will be followed tomorrow by a Q&A with the author.

Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

For decades, the historiographies of the Caribbean and the mainland Americas largely remained separate, with the modern constructions of nation-states influencing how scholars have framed the geographical parameters of their works, with some notable exceptions (New Spain, Guyana, Suriname). In recent years this has begun to change in the case of North America’s early modern ties to the Caribbean. Scholars such as Jane Landers, J. R. McNeil, and Shannon Lee Dawdy have emphasized transnational and transimperial connections between various Caribbean islands and the territories that eventually encompass the United States.

Fewer works have done the same for the Caribbean coast of South America, particularly the region west of the pearl-producing islands of Cubagua and Margarita, off the coast of present-day Venezuela. In An Aqueous Territory, Ernesto Bassi takes up the cause of drawing attention to the southern portions of what he calls the “Greater Caribbean.” Bassi argues that colonial New Granada developed as a society intimately connected with the Caribbean islands. Indeed, Bassi claims that New Granada forged much closer commercial, political, and social ties with the islands of the Caribbean than with the rest of the South American mainland prior to its independence from Spain.

Bassi’s argument rests on the maritime mobility of coastal peoples and the Caribbean networks they constructed, principally through commercial and diplomatic activities. The research efforts of the author in the sphere of commercial relations are particularly impressive, as Bassi has to employ a degree of creativity to undercover trade connections with British, French, and Dutch islands that were illegal under Spanish imperial law. By examining clearances at ports in various Caribbean islands, most notably Kingston in Jamaica, the author uncovers evidence of regular trade contacts with New Granadan ports. Moreover, Bassi discovers that in order to evade customs officials, the bulk of this trade routed through what he terms “minor ports” and “hidden ports” on the mainland. Rather than proceed directly to Cartagena, many cargoes went through such smaller ports as Portobelo or Santa Marta, or even to “concealed coves and tiny islands” that scarcely qualified as ports at all, like the offshore island of San Andrés or the mainland sites of Chagres and Sabanilla (24). There, vessels would exchange British goods for local produce, which they would then carry to Cartagena, disguising their operations as legitimate trade. Bassi employs this evidence to assert that the volume of New Granadan interaction with the Caribbean and its importance to New Granada’s economy was much greater than official records can indicate. Particularly helpful for readers that may be unfamiliar with the geography of this part of the world, Bassi illustrates the networks created by these travels with a series of illustrative maps, documenting the locations of his major, minor, and hidden ports and the routes that mariners took in traveling between them.

The economic and logistical aspects of trade form but two components of Bassi’s Greater Caribbean networks. In the act of traveling for commercial purposes, Bassi argues that New Granadan sailors formed social relationships that served to bind the Greater Caribbean on a human level. While in port or on board of a ship, people shared news and information from across the Atlantic. These sections do suffer a bit from the want of evidence, however. The author claims that a rich Greater Caribbean social world existed as a result of these frequent travels and connections between the mainland and various islands, but the reader obtains only a vague sense of the relationships formed between sailors in this milieu. This may be a function of the type of evidence that Bassi has worked with, mostly consisting of records confined to affairs of trade and political gossip. Legal records from various port city jurisdictions might reveal a greater sense of individual social relationships formed between sailors and residents. This might be better framed as a challenge for future scholars than a criticism of the present work, as Bassi has already conducted a tremendous amount of research and covered a wide array of themes in its writing.

One social aspect of the Greater Caribbean world that does come through quite clearly in An Aqueous Territory is the region’s multiethnic nature. Borrowing heavily from Marcus Rediker’s conceptualization of the maritime Atlantic world, Bassi portrays his Greater Caribbean as a polyglot domain of sea-bound subalterns. The author notes that both racially- and nationally-mixed crews operated merchant ships based out of New Granada. Like other Atlantic ports, the coastal communities of New Granada attracted people from all over the world. This tendency appears to have grown more pronounced during New Granada’s wars of independence in the 1810s, attracting republican revolutionaries from such far-flung places such as Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Germany, France, and the Mediterranean as privateers (70). Bassi’s chapter documenting Simón Bolívar’s heavy diplomatic involvement in Haiti during said wars drives his broader point further. The author demonstrates that Bolívar’s revolution depended upon financial support from Haitian President Alexandre Pétion. Bassi’s revelation that Bolívar only went to Haiti after white-ruled British Jamaica rejected him, and that Bolívar subsequently distanced himself from Haiti and Pétion does undermine Bassi’s argument to some extent. A reluctant Bolívar, grudgingly accepting assistance from Pétion, does not neatly fit the mold of the racial radicals that Rediker evokes in his work.

Bassi addresses the multiethnic character of the Greater Caribbean more convincingly in his analysis of the maritime diplomatic activities of New Granada’s indigenous peoples. Focusing on the Cunas of modern-day Panama and the Wayuu of the Guajira Peninsula, Bassi demonstrates that both groups cultivated ties with British Jamaica in particular, drawing upon officials there for munitions and provisions that helped them defend their communities from Spanish invasion and maintain political autonomy well into the post-independence era. Bassi also draws parallels between the Cunas, Wayuu, and other indigenous peoples of the Greater Caribbean, such as the Mosquitos, Caribs, and Creeks, that made similar recourse to maritime space for political and diplomatic purposes. Bassi’s research opens avenues for further investigation that examine maritime indigeneity more comprehensively.

To conclude the book, Bassi’s final chapter accounts for why more scholars do not regard New Granada and its successor states as part of the Caribbean. He argues that post-independence nation-building projects in the new state of Colombia set about “erasing” New Granada’s Caribbean past in an effort to refashion the territory into an “Andean-Atlantic nation” (173). Bassi asserts that Simón Bolívar and other Colombian nationalists sought to disassociate the new country from the indigenous and African peoples of the islands and coast, instead forging stronger links to the peoples of Europe and the South American interior. Desperate for the acceptance of the “civilized” nations of Europe and North America, Creole nation-builders feared association with peoples and places that Europeans and other Euro-Americans considered “savage.” Bassi once again demonstrates his creativity and archival exertions by employing Colombian geography readers of the mid-nineteenth century. He uses these readers to show how Colombian scholars literally wrote the nation out of the Caribbean, portraying the Caribbean coastline as a marginal space and going so far as to rename the Caribbean Sea in their visual and textual depictions.

An Aqueous Territory provides a valuable addition to Atlantic as well as Caribbean historiography, managing to address a wide variety of themes and topics in a fairly slender volume. The methodologies that Bassi employs and the painstaking detail with which he recreates sailor geographies will be of interest to readers seeking to learn more about transimperial networks, maritime spaces, and the ways in which mariners conceived of geographic space. Scholars interested in the Age of Revolutions and nation-building projects in the Americas will find Bassi’s chapters on Simón Bolivar and Columbian early national geographies informative. For early (North) Americanists in general, Bassi’s work will help readers better understand how Spanish American territories fit into the Atlantic paradigm. By adopting familiar frameworks and adapting them to what might be for many unfamiliar peoples and places, Bassi has produced a book which should prove both engaging for specialists and accessible to non-specialists.

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