- An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World by Ernesto Bassi
In An Aqueous Territory, Ernesto Bassi explores the everyday and lived construction of a space he calls the transimperial Greater Caribbean during the Age of Revolution. By steeping his study in geographic theory, Bassi informs his fellow historians what geographers have long known: that spaces are not pre-determined but continually made through social interaction and material processes, and that geopolitical imaginations reflect mental maps that people create to understand their place in the world and envision their future. I especially appreciated how Bassi demonstrates the necessity of viewing the world from the point of view of historical subjects, a position that exposes the problems inherent in what he calls “methodological nationalism,” the unquestioned use of today’s national borders as spatial units of historical analysis. For Bassi, the uncritical use of geographic terms such as Caribbean can “result in the production of historical narratives that unconsciously silence key aspects of the lived experiences of the subjects we study and, unconsciously or not, tend to transform history into a teleological narrative that forecloses [End Page 167] the possibility of thinking [about] geographical spaces (and history) otherwise” (p. 9). The book’s many spatial insights will not be surprising to geographers, and so the work’s overall strength may lie with its introduction of a rich body of geographic thought – from Soja and Massey to Agnew and Ó Tuathail – to a broader audience of historians of Latin America.
Following an introduction, the book is divided into two parts and six chapters. The bulk contains a series of stand-alone chapters that illustrate how the transimperial Greater Caribbean was made and imagined by sailors, ship captains, planters, merchants, indigenous leaders, revolutionaries, and politician-geographers of a newly independent New Granada – without exception all of them men. In Part I, Spatial Configurations, Bassi covers routes, cargos, and frequency of travel for vessels arriving at and departing from New Granada in the last quarter of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries. Besides Cartagena, Bassi is careful to include what he calls “minor” ports such as Santa Marta, Riohacha and Portobelo, as well as “hidden” ports such as Chagres, Sabanilla, and San Andrés. Ports trading with New Granada include Curaçao, St. Thomas, Les Cayes, Havana and, above all, Kingston. In this way, Bassi shows that the transimperial Greater Caribbean was simultaneously Dutch, Danish, French, Spanish, British, and Anglo-American.
A separate chapter in Part I covers the sailors on these voyages whom Bassi calls the “border crossers and region makers.” The focus here is on the mobility of six Spanish captains. He shows how the circulation of people and information, for example spreading news of the Haitian uprising, reached New Granada and other Atlantic ports. The combination of personal geographies, including the routes and networks these sailors traversed, constructed a space of social interaction, a process Bassi calls “everyday acts of region formation” (p. 81). It is important, however, to understand that neither the sailors, nor anyone else, saw themselves doing this: it was the everydayness and aggregation of their acts that made possible the emergence and consolidation of a geographic space that we can describe in hindsight as the transimperial Greater Caribbean.
In Part II, Bassi shows how less mobile subjects used the transimperial space as a figurative whiteboard on which they imagined potential futures. Bassi explores these individual and collective mental maps and geopolitical imaginations in the final four chapters, each covering a different theme: maritime Indians (Cuna [sic] and Wayuu); Jamaican planters and Loyalist adventurers; Simón Bolívar’s Caribbean travels; and politician-geographers of New Granada who imagined Colombia an Andean-Atlantic nation.
Maritime Indians is a term Bassi takes from a nineteenth-century French traveler, but he uses it to imply indigenous transimperial mobility, multilingualism (including Spanish and...