- An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada's Transimperial Greater Caribbean World by Ernesto Bassi
During his famous travels through Spanish America from 1799 to 1804, the Prussian natural philosopher Alexander von Humboldt noted the connective nature of the Caribbean Sea and called it the "American Mediterranean." He thought of it as a distinct place, "formed by the shores of Venezuela, New Granada, Mexico, the United States, and the West India Islands" and distinguished by an "interior [Antilles] basin," whose colonial inhabitants shared features of racial demography, slave-based plantation economy, political relations, and cultural experience. Most important, they enjoyed extensive trade and communications with each other and with Europeans across the Atlantic.1 In An Aqueous Territory, Ernesto Bassi reexamines those Caribbean connections by looking at them from the perspective of the coasts of the Spanish viceroyalty of New Granada. He focuses on the critical period 1763–1824, when transatlantic commerce became liberalized and more frequent amid Europe's interminable imperial wars and the independence struggles of the Atlantic world's age of revolutions. He argues that border-crossing sailors and "other less mobile subjects" created a "transimperial Greater Caribbean" (4), a place of economic, political, and social interaction that defied cultural and imperial borders. Seamen, adventurers, indigenous peoples, bureaucrats, and nation makers all imagined the Greater Caribbean and constructed it in ways that made sense of the deeply fluid, multicultural, unstable, and multipolar space they inhabited outside colony, empire, and nation.
An Aqueous Territory is the latest monograph challenging nationalist historiographies by reexamining the entangled history of the Americas. Like recent scholarship by Michael Jarvis, Linda M. Rupert, Fabrício Prado, and Adrian Finucane, Bassi's book focuses on the interconnections between diverse peoples at the periphery of the eighteenth-century Euro-American empires.2 The chief contribution of An Aqueous Territory is its theoretical [End Page 781] justification for broadening our analysis of the Caribbean. Bassi designs his concept of the transimperial Greater Caribbean to account for the interplay of local, regional, and transnational dynamics in Atlantic history. He contends that it was both a place and a space, defined by "elusive[ness]," "fuzziness" (7), and the transformative social interactions that occurred there. As a place, it comprised not just the islands of the Caribbean but also continental coasts, estuaries, and the high sea. As a space, it was both real and imagined, simultaneously European, African, and Native American. Its diverse residents "constructed an evolving lived experience" (8) while developing a "geopolitical imagination" (11) that they used to inhabit their region, envision their future in global affairs, and understand their geography in ways that often contravened political boundaries. This geopolitical imagination, Bassi asserts, permitted "every person to be a geopolitical analyst" and "democratize[d] geopolitics" by affording "subalterns and other minor actors" (11) greater agency. Sailors and sea captains were thus the principal makers of the Greater Caribbean, for their mobility and circulation of news, merchandise, and rumors enabled others to create their own "geopolitical visions" (57) and inherently transnational "personal geographies" (58). This concept of the geopolitical imagination will be of particular interest to historians studying nonstate actors' roles in cross-cultural relations outside formal diplomacy.
New Granada serves as Bassi's lens to observe the region's complex of entanglements and examine the geopolitical imaginaries of historical agents who were neither imperial officials nor their surrogates. His model is showcased in four case studies, focused on maritime Indians, British colonists in Jamaica, the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar, and Colombia's founding fathers. Each analyzes linkages between the inhabitants of New Granada and other Caribbean peoples and investigates the sense of belonging to "multiple alternative communities" (12) that resulted from their entwined lives. Although many of these studies largely derive from the research of other scholars, Bassi deepens our understanding of, for example, the Haitian ruler Alexandre Pétion's role in aiding, supporting, and influencing the nation-making project of Spanish creole patriots such as Bolívar and...