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  • Seacoasts in History: An Interview with John R. Gillis
  • Donald A. Yerxa

“WESTERN CIVILIZATION IS LANDLOCKED, MENTALLY IF not physically.” So begins John R. Gillis’s The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Gillis challenges the “terracentric” orientation of most history writing and attempts to recover humanity’s 100,000-year coastal experience. Gillis, a professor of history emeritus at Rutgers University, is the author of several books, including Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Senior editor Donald A. Yerxa interviewed him in March 2013.

Donald A. Yerxa:

What has been your own personal relationship to coasts?

John R. Gillis:

Rachel Carson did not arrive at the shore until she was an adult and never learned to swim. I, too, arrived late, beginning with summers on a small island off the coast of Maine, becoming bicoastal when I became a permanent resident of Berkeley upon retirement. In researching this book, I discovered that I am part of that surge to the sea that began in the last half of the 20th century and continues today at an ever-increasing rate. Today it is hard not to be aware of the shore, even if one does not live near one.


Would you provide our readers with a brief summary of your argument inThe Human Shore?


Shores have largely been ignored by historians. Apart from Alain Corbin’s Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World (University of California Press, 1994) and John Stilgoe’s Alongshore (Yale University Press, 1994), they have been left to the sciences. The Human Shore makes the case for thinking of shores as central to the evolution of our species. It takes us back to the moment when Homo sapiens appeared at the southern cape of Africa about 164,000 years ago and follows their remarkably swift colonization of the world, making the case that, while we have made shores what they are today, shores have also played an important role in making us as a species. Shores are usually treated as the place history begins or ends, but I place them at the center of a historical narrative that is global in scope, a story that is by no means finished as we face the challenges posed by global warming.

Modern historical writing, the product of 19th-century nation building, has been relentlessly terrestrial. The sea enters in mainly as something to be crossed, an enabling factor but not central to the territorial narrative. It is therefore important to remember that the world was discovered by sea and that most of the world’s great empires, Rome being an exception, were seaborne in nature. Like all else, conquest moved faster by water than by land. From the Phoenicians and the Greeks onward, alongshore colonies gave access to political and economic power requiring little territorial conquest. This was also the case in the early modern period, when, with the exception of Spain, all the great empires were amphibious. The British, Dutch, and French were satisfied with alongshore or riverine enclaves that gave them access to inland resources by virtue of trade without the expense of territorial conquest. The gold and silver that justified Spain’s adoption of the Roman model proved in the long run a liability. Not until the 19th century were the interiors of continents conquered, and that was made possible by the Industrial Revolution and the railroad. Today, the great trading empires have again become seaborne, a prime reason why coasts have become so populated in the early 21st century.

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A detail from Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt, Vuë de Salem, 1770s. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-USZ62-41172].


You stress that coasts are special places known as “ecotones.” What does that mean? And why is it important to appreciate this fact?


I first took history offshore in 2004 with the publication of Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World, a history of the idea of the island in Western culture. Since then my interests have...


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pp. 15-17
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