Q&A: Ernesto Bassi, author of An Aqueous Territory

Following up on James Hill’s review of Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), we’re pleased to post this Q&A with Ernesto about his book and future research. Bassi is Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University. He is a historian of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world during the Age of Revolutions, whose work transgresses conventionally defined geographic units of analysis. Ernesto can be reached at eb577@cornell.edu.

JUNTO: The historical actors in your book are largely mariners, coastal residents, and maritime Indians of the Caribbean coastline of eighteenth-century New Granada. These individuals, you explain, lived in a “transimperial geographical framework” (4). Considering that their lived experiences transected so many empires, how did you approach framing your book in terms of historiography? In other words, who did you envision as the book’s primary audience?

BASSI: My answer to this question evolved throughout the process of thinking about a project that became a dissertation that then became a book. At the very early stages of conceptualizing this project, I was thinking (without explicitly thinking about audience) of writing a local history of Caribbean Colombia. This would have been of interest to a limited number of scholars doing great work on Caribbean Colombia. As I read more and more Caribbean and Atlantic histories, it became clear to me that I wanted to write a dissertation and a book for people interested in Atlantic history. But I wanted to do so putting Latin America at the heart of Atlantic history. I also wanted to show the extent to which Caribbean New Granada (Caribbean Colombia) was connected with the Caribbean islands. Looking for these connections immediately made it clear that the project was going to be at the crossroads of several historiographical traditions. It was going to be Latin American history, Atlantic history, and Caribbean history. Then, the archives made sailors vital to the project, which meant that it was also going to be a maritime history. And, because fears of the Haitian Revolution and threats of British invasion were constant presences in the archival documents, I wanted to show how these fears and threats were central to the way in which people in coastal New Granada experienced their lives and understood the world they inhabited.

Essentially, the nature of the people I wanted to study and the questions about mobility and connections that I wanted to answer suggested the historiographies with which An Aqueous Territory could be in conversation. At the same time, it was clear to me that I could (and certainly should) choose what to emphasize. My own interpretation of the current state and future directions of the field of Atlantic history led me to conclude that it was there that I wanted my book to make its most important intervention. Following sailors made it clear that transimperial connections were a fact of life for sailors and those who stayed put on the shores of New Granada. I wanted the book to show this interconnected world in which imperial boundaries existed but did not function as impermeable barriers separating imperial spheres. In bringing together imperial spheres often thought of or approached (perhaps because of the ways in which archives are organized) as separated, I hope my book is of interest to historians who embrace the Atlantic from different shores.

Given my training and trajectory, I suppose that the book will get noticed more easily by Latin Americanists who look towards the Atlantic and by historians of the Spanish Caribbean. But I hope that it can find an audience beyond this somewhat obvious group. I hope that historians engaged in locating the early United States in a larger Atlantic (e.g. the #VastEarlyAmerica crew and readers of The Junto) will notice the book and recognize that the transnational connections they are increasingly exploring from the coasts of the early United States were also happening from the Caribbean coasts of South America. In addition, the book should also be of interest to scholars interested in questions of space, mobility, and other related matters that I discovered via cultural geographers.

JUNTO: To continue with another question about framing, you present the idea of a “region” as a way to work around imperial space or the geography of the nation state. Is this framing particular to New Granada? If not, could you explain how thinking about “regions” might be useful for Atlanticists more broadly?

BASSI: The framing (i.e. the use of “region” to think beyond separated imperial spheres and national frameworks) is not particular to New Granada; the type of transimperial geography that emerges is. It is specific to New Granada because I am facing the Caribbean and the Atlantic from New Granada’s shores. From this particular vantage point, places like Kingston, St. Thomas, Curaçao, the southern coast of Haiti become very visible and central to the workings of the transimperial Greater Caribbean. From other vantage points, other ports cities and islands can become more prominent.

But the key point I want to make by uncovering this regional space that I call the transimperial Greater Caribbean is that it is actually very important to think about regions. Thinking critically about regions (as opposed to simply using inherited or preconceived regional frameworks) makes it possible to think beyond regions. If we think of regions as habits or as received wisdom, then my book should be considered an invitation to think outside of entrenched habits of narration that naturalize a definition of the Caribbean as consisting only of the Caribbean islands and an understanding of Colombia as a country lacking strong historical connections with its Caribbean neighbors.

A central point of An Aqueous Territory is that just as men and women make history, they also make geographies. They make both under circumstances not of their own choosing. If men and women make their own geographies, then it is incumbent to us historians to uncover those geographies, to acknowledge that those whose lives we study did not live lives circumscribed to world-regionalization schemes that make sense to us in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Once we acknowledge this reality, we need to start letting the subjects of our studies show us the place they inhabited. My work following sailors across political borders in the Caribbean showed me their space of social interaction, the region they inhabited. This region, the transimperial Greater Caribbean, emerged from their constant mobility. It was, as I described it in the book, an amorphously demarcated aqueous territory.

JUNTO: The narrative that you weave together in An Aqueous Territory forces a rethinking about the history of New Granada and the future nation of Colombia, as well as the greater Caribbean as a whole in the late eighteenth century. Could you talk a little bit about the source base that allowed you to do this work?

Perhaps the most fundamental documents that allowed me to uncover this transimperial Greater Caribbean world were port records or shipping returns. Shipping returns contain basic information about the ships entering and departing specific ports. They provide a ship’s name, its nationality, the name of its captain, the date of its arrival into the port where the information is gathered, the date of its departure and its stated destination, basic information about its cargo, and, sometimes, information about the ship’s tonnage and its crew size. In Spanish records, shipping returns are called libros de entradas y salidas (books of arrivals and departures). These Spanish records (which I consulted in Colombia’s Archivo General de la Nación (National Archives) gave me very useful information about the commercial connections of the ports of Cartagena and Santa Marta. But they also raised many suspicions, because the commercial landscape they made visible did not resemble the commercial exchanges that many inhabitants of Caribbean New Granada (imperial officers, some merchants, and others) decried. Therefore, it became clear to me that I needed other sources in order to avoid reproducing the false image of a Caribbean world in which trade flowed neatly across legal channels.

British records offered a much needed alternative perspective. Because, starting in 1766 with the passing of the first free ports act, it became legal for Spanish (and other foreign) vessels to entered certain British ports in the Caribbean, British shipping returns are a very important source to understand the commercial connections of New Granada and other Spanish Caribbean ports. The first thing that became visible was that other ports, besides Cartagena and Santa Marta, were very actively engaged in trade with Jamaica, especially Kingston. Supposedly small and dormant ports like Riohacha and Portobelo appear in Kinston’s shipping returns as very dynamic. These records also give visibility to other ports—the ones I call “hidden ports”—that do not appear in Spanish records at all. Through this crisscrossing of Spanish and British records, places like San Andrés, Chagres, and Sabanilla (the “hidden ports”) not only become visible but also appear as dynamic commercial centers. Thus, a commercial landscape previously characterized as dominated by the main port of Cartagena became more complex.

JUNTO: So, your book obviously challenges historians to think about geography and framing differently. The historical actors in your book also force a reconceptualization of scale, especially in terms of the local understandings of your mariners compared to the expectations of imperial officials. How did you balance all of these perspectives during the researching and writing process?

BASSI: The question of perspective and balancing different ones is an important one, in particular because there is no explicit and clearly articulated transimperial Greater Caribbean perspective. It is somewhat easy to find clear articulations of an official Colombian perspective being articulated in the decades following independence in the 1820s. Even as the Spanish empire and its commercial codes were undergoing transformations (during the last decades of the eighteenth century), an imperial perspective or agenda is also identifiable. But it is hard to see what is happening from the perspective of those inhabiting the transimperial Greater Caribbean, because such a geographic space was not explicitly articulated. It was a lived geography that lacked the propagandists that make nation-states stick in the political imagination.

Another way to tackle this question is that a multiplicity of perspectives was at the heart of my approach to many chapters. In my uncovering of the transimperial Greater Caribbean I wanted to emphasize the multiplicity of ways in which different dwellers of this transimperial geography interpreted their present and envisioned potential paths toward the future. This is what I call the geopolitical imagination. Chapter 5, in which I follow Simón Bolívar as he sailed the Caribbean trying to get support for his dwindling independence struggle, offers a good example. Bolívar’s interactions with British authorities in Jamaica and Haitian authorities in Les Cayes and Port-au-Prince, as well as the epistolary exchanges between Spanish authorities and politicians and military officers in these two Caribbean islands, made the different perspectives evident. While Bolívar expected everything from Jamaica, this chapter shows, he was forced to settle for the aid of Haitian president Alexandre Pétion. His preference emerges clearly from his correspondence.

Another perspective or vantage point from which the transimperial Greater Caribbean emerges as a lived geography is that of maritime Indians, but I get to them in the next question.

JUNTO: You use the phrase maritime Indians to describe the Cunas and the Wayuu. Why is that phrase useful?

BASSI: The phrase comes from French traveler François Depons, who traveled through the Caribbean and South America in the first years of the nineteenth century. He used it when referring to the Wayuu, whom he, like Spanish authorities, called Guajiros. The Wayuu were one of many indigenous groups in Spanish America that, by the end of the eighteenth century, remained unconquered. David Weber said that these indigenous groups, whom Spanish authorities called indios bárbaros, dominated about two-thirds of the territory nominally ruled by Spaniards. Anyway, Depons, speaking of the Wayuu, said: “They have at all times been considered the most ferocious of the maritime Indians.” The sentence, which I use to open chapter 3, helped me think of Wayuu, Cunas, and Miskitos as a group, even though they were not united among themselves. In the minds of European observers, like Depons, all these indigenous groups represented a similar threat. Most important, the phrase allowed me to put indigenous people at the heart of a Caribbean narrative that, based on a long tradition started with Bartolomé de las Casas in the sixteenth century, has presented the Caribbean as a space without indigenous people. My take on the Wayuu, the Cunas, and the Miskitos—the maritime Indians—allowed me to uncover a Caribbean in which indigenous people were moving, trading, negotiating. They were doing all these things on their own terms. They were setting the terms of their relations with Europeans. For me, given the vast literature that presents indigenous people as mostly resisting (many times in futile efforts), it was very important to see the maritime Indians calling the shots and rejecting Europeans, as the Wayuu did, when they forced Spanish forces to retreat by displaying the latest military technology (British weapons that were far better than the ones Spanish soldiers in the Guajira Peninsula carried).

JUNTO: The appendixes of An Aqueous Territory display an impressive amount of research on how this maritime world functioned. How do you want future scholars to use this information? What are some of the limitations on what we can know about this world with the sources available?

BASSI: The short answer is that I want future scholars to use them in whatever ways they see fit. Just making it available for anyone interested, is important. Maybe someone needs information about a particular vessel or comes across one of the captains that appear in my appendixes but barely made it to the main text. One of the things that was frustrating about trying to reconstruct the trajectories of specific vessels was that, even putting together Spanish and British shipping returns, many holes remained. Information is not available for a long series of consecutive years. Even for vessels that appear both in the Spanish and British records, it is difficult to account for wholes in their trajectory. The lapse of time from departing a particular port to entering another one, what in an article I called “The Space Between,” varies a lot. With incomplete information one can only speculate about the paths of specific vessels.

One potential way in which I would like to see future scholars continuing my effort to reconstruct the transimperial Greater Caribbean is by doing similar work in Danish and Dutch archives. The port records of places like Curaçao and St. Thomas could potentially include many of the vessels that appear in An Aqueous Territory. A somewhat unrealistic dream would be to have my appendix be an input for a larger database of Caribbean vessels. In addition, it is also a nice dream to envision developing ways to visualize the transimperial trajectories of thousands of ships (things like moving maps come to mind).

JUNTO: An Aqueous Territory stemmed from your dissertation, which you completed at the University of California, Irvine in 2012. How much did the book change from the dissertation? What was the most difficult part about moving from dissertation writing to book writing?

BASSI: The book changed quite a lot. The book’s chapter 6 was a very short epilogue in the dissertation. The chapters on sailors as region makers and maritime Indians were conceptually and theoretically underdeveloped in the dissertation. The maritime Indians’ chapter, for instance, was only on the Wayuu. I did lots of new readings on indigenous-European relations in borderland settings in order to come up with the final version of the maritime Indians’ chapter. Chapter 1 “Vessels” was difficult to understand in the dissertation, because it was more packed with statistics. I had to do lots of readings on theorizing regions and on thinking of the sea as site of history in the process of turning the dissertation into a book. Even for the chapters that remained very similar (Chapter 4 on British projects to turn northern South America into a British colony and chapter 5 on Bolívar’s Caribbean adventures) I had to read new books, especially some of the newer work on cotton, slavery, and capitalism.

JUNTO: You are now teaching at Cornell, but what’s next in terms of research? Is there a project in the works that we should be looking forward to?

BASSI: Inspired by old (pre-grad school) questions on the absence of plantations (i.e. commercially oriented productive units characterized by the intense use of enslaved labor and monoculture) in Caribbean Colombia and by the growing literature on the rise of capitalism, I am working on a history of the rise of capitalism from New Granada’s shores. It is in many ways a history of unfulfilled projects and shattered dreams, because, unlike many other global locales that became key sites of capitalist development, the provinces of the viceroyalty of New Granada didn’t. Yet, many enlightened creoles (imperial officers, merchants, local savants, etc.) invested resources in trying to turn the viceroyalty into a key node of Atlantic capitalism.

I am also thinking a lot lately about small islands and the ways in which they can help us think the Caribbean beyond sugar and slaves.

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