Transatlantic commerce was the defining feature of the eighteenth century’s imperial economy. The ocean was the conduit by which goods, labour, and capital circulated—goods that included sugar and tobacco, labour that included enslaved men and women, capital that included the remarkable oceangoing ships themselves. On transatlantic circulation hung the wealth and fate of empires, and that in turn depended upon ships and those who sailed them. Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s new book, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (which Ben posted about a few weeks ago), does not tell those sailors’ story. Instead, it gives an account of the crucial relationship between sailors and states, and its remaking in the era of Revolution. As the empires and new republics of the North Atlantic world struggled to hold or wrest the reins of commerce, they had to invent new forms of power and identity—forms of power vested, like so much else we could call modern, in paper. Continue reading
For the past month, our eyes have been on the ball. Perfectly round, it flies and falls, across stadium skies through fields of grass, past fast, neon shoes and into goals, from Brazil to where we are. Our eyes follow. From Manaus and Fortaleza in the northern regions, traveling southward through Recife, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro, near the Tropic of Capricorn, downwards to Porto Alegre. The World Cup has been a feast of the sensory and the dramatic, from the Amazon basin, where bugs abound with sweat, where sometimes torrential rain soaks shoes; and where, last night, near the busied streets of Rio and the ecstatic fun of the Copacabana, the sun set before the Christ the Redeemer Statue, and over the final game. For a month, we have seen the omnipresent national flags worn on people’s clothes and faces, and the victory runs, leaps, and hugs; as well as the tears that give you a sort of palpable agony, in the post-goal and final moments of every match. Continue reading
“There’s just one question I have to ask,” said the pleasant young man at the US Embassy, reviewing my visa application. “You are aware that we won, right?”
As a Brit teaching early American history in the U.S., I get some version of this question quite a lot. And it’s something I play up to in my own classes, as well. Many of my courses begin with the warning: “If you learn nothing else over the next 15 weeks, you will understand what it is like to be subject to arbitrary British despotism.” When teaching the Boston Massacre, I jest that I’m worried to give too much information, just in case my students get ideas. And in teaching colonial history, I remind my students that the history we cover is as British as it is American.
In his recent review of Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution, Jack Rakove argues that in tackling the causes of independence, “Phillips deals with political loyalties more fundamental than the mere matter of party allegiance.” The inference is clear—deciding to be a member or an activist for a political party is one thing; but your nationality is something that defines you in perpetuity. Once revolutionaries chose to take on the label ‘American’, there was no turning back. It was who they were; while that American identity might be complex and multifaceted, there is something about “national character” that stands above the rough and tumble of party politics. Continue reading