- Oceanic HistoriesA Roundtable
Oceanic Histories opens a new series for Cambridge University Press. By bringing world history, maritime history and environmental history into one conversation, it presents the very latest work on the plural oceans and seas of the world, as well as analysis of a singular "world ocean." This edited book is intended as a state-of-the-ocean address and historiographical summary, setting a 2018 benchmark for the monograph series Cambridge Oceanic Histories.1 Like the series, this book covers multiple oceans and seas, over many historical periods and periodizations. The book, also like the series, is global in geography, ecumenical in historical method, and wide in temporal coverage, and it is intended as a key repository for innovative transnational and world histories. It brings maritime history into conversation with other strands of historical research, including colonial history, environmental history, legal history, intellectual history, labour history, cultural history, economic history and the history of science and technology. In time, the editors hope, the book will shape the teaching and research that will inform the monographs that constitute the Cambridge Oceanic Histories series.
In March 2018, Oceanic Histories was launched in Cambridge, UK, with a roundtable commentary and discussion, published here. The editors were joined by historian of the English Channel Renaud Morieux, historian of the Indian Ocean Clare Anderson, and historian of the Pacific Ocean Jonathan Lamb.
Comment: Renaud Morieux, University of Cambridge
The powerful metaphor of the wave, in the introduction, beautifully sums up the project of Oceanic Histories. Trying to "fix" the wave or the ocean, which is by definition and nature ever-changing, is impossible. There is a tension here that cannot be resolved, but precisely for that reason, oceanic history tests the limits of historical analysis, historical explanation and history-writing.
These contributions offer a reflection on time as much as on space. One of the many merits of the book is to give us a sense of the plurality of past, present and future approaches to oceanic history. One of these temporalities is the longue or very longue durée—although Braudel's Mediterranean features here more like an anti-model, than a model. There is a deep history of the Pacific or Indian Oceans, which we can uncover by using a broader variety of primary sources than those we are used to, such as oral history, legends, archaeological, geological or botanical evidence. By contrast, another temporality explored here is the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the age of colonialism, decolonisation, and the Cold War, when the first academic histories of oceans were written. The book demonstrates that it is impossible to understand the emergence of the field of oceanic history without thinking about redefinitions of the world order. It has been shown to be the case, by David Armitage among others, with respect to Atlantic history, but the book argues that the politics of academic knowledge are intertwined with geopolitics. If one turns to a "young" ocean like the Arctic, beautifully studied by Sverker Sörlin, it is the future as much as the past that is relevant. To quote Sörlin, the Arctic "emerges as a historical and meta-geographical entity through high modernity rather than high imperialism." Rather than the sailing ship, it is the ice-breaker and the nuclear submarine that we associate with this ocean. As Sörlin argues, the Arctic is not a "mediterranean" in the Braudelian sense: it was never a human whole.
As we know, Fernand Braudel has cast a long shadow on oceanic and maritime studies, and this is a genealogy that the authors of the book explicitly want to distance themselves from, with good reasons. Even historians of the Mediterranean, as Molly Greene demonstrates, should interrogate Braudel's assumptions, and question the Mediterranean as a legitimate unit of analysis—the category is, until late in the nineteenth century, not relevant in the Muslim or Ottoman worlds.
Definitional issues are at the heart of the book. While it is structured by examining separate oceans...