- An Aqueous Territory: Sailor geographies and New Granada's transimperial Greater Caribbean world by Ernesto Bassi
By Ernesto Bassi. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016.
Where do regions come from? In this compelling and provocative book, Ernesto Bassi argues that these notoriously fuzzy units of geographical analysis emerge through human mobility. By tracing the paths followed by people in the past, we can uncover our historical subjects' mental maps and gain insight into their geopolitical imaginations. Bassi offers this "lived geography" (8) as an antidote to what he views as static, stable and ahistorical geographic concepts like empires or nation-states. He focuses his study on the Caribbean coast of New Granada (now Colombia), arguing that social interactions wove into existence a region he calls the "transimperial Greater Caribbean" between the 1760s and 1860s. Bassi's subjects, he writes, did "not live lives bounded by the political geographies of the time nor were their lived experiences circumscribed by geographical frameworks defined after their own time" (9). Instead, they "literally lived between a variety of imperial projects and national dreams" (13). Theirs was a world in flux, in which lines traced by a personal itinerary mattered as much as—or more than—lines traced on a map.
Bassi presents the book's theoretical underpinnings in the introduction, where he adroitly synthesizes scholarship in history and geography to argue that space is socially constructed—not a predetermined container that people fill, but a canvas on which human societies project different possible futures. Mobility creates an "aggregation of innumerable lived geographies," he argues, giving rise to regions that are "amorphously bounded, flexible, malleable, multicultural, geopolitically unstable, and both personally threatening and liberating" (8). Where other scholars of the Caribbean variously define the region as shaped by slavery and plantation economies, environmental forces like hurricanes or human modifications of the natural world, Bassi foregrounds social interactions. People, he argues, "make their own geography" (11).
His study is organized into two parts. In the first, "Spatial Configurations," Bassi shows how the movement of ships and people created a region. Chapter One uses vessel movements to argue that, starting in the 1760s, the Caribbean gradually became a free-trade area centered on Kingston in British Jamaica. Chapter Two argues that circulation of sailors and captains, and their communication of information as they moved, brought the transimperial Greater Caribbean into existence by creating a "sense of regionness" (115). The sea itself, far from being an empty space between places, brought into existence an overarching sense of place.
In the second section, "Geopolitics and Geopolitical Imagination," Bassi explores what this region meant to people. He presents four case studies, each demonstrating how different historical subjects used the transimperial Greater Caribbean to imagine different geopolitical futures. Chapter Three argues that maritime mobility enabled Indigenous peoples like the Cunas and Wayuu to successfully challenge Spanish authority, maintain territorial autonomy and advance their political goals, creating a lived geography not apparent on European maps. Chapter Four details how, after the American Revolution cut off Britain's Caribbean colonies from trade with the United States, British loyalists, planters and merchants in Jamaica saw northwestern New Granada as a possible replacement source of food, wood and cattle. This spurred New Grenadian authorities to promote the region's economic development through cotton cultivation as a bulwark against British encroachment. Bassi uses this case study to argue that Britain's imperial pivot from the Atlantic World to India was "neither obvious nor uncontested" (117). Chapter Five examines Simón Bolívar's Caribbean voyages in 1815 and 1816, before his revolutionary successes, arguing that Alexandre Pétion's Haiti emerged as a pro-revolutionary Caribbean political center, in much the same way that British Kingston had earlier emerged as an economic center. Chapter Six traces the early nineteenth-century attempts by Colombia's political elite to create an "Andean-Atlantic" nation by emphasizing the new republic's links to the Atlantic World while minimizing its Caribbean connections—a deliberate turning away from the transimperial Greater Caribbean. Ultimately, Bassi concludes, investigating alternate historical geographies gives us insight into...