- Negotiating Waters: Seas, oceans, and passageways in the colonial and postcolonial Anglophone world ed. by André Dodeman and Nancy Pedri
Edited by André Dodeman and Nancy Pedri. Wilmington, Del.: Vernon Press, 2020.
The power of water—in the form of oceans, rivers and rainfall—has played a vital role in shaping the physical contours of our planet. Coastlines and islands, as well as flood plains and river valleys, have been moulded by moving water over aeons. The essays in Negotiating Waters remind us that waterways of all kinds have also had a huge bearing on human power structures and identities; they are contested and transformative spaces, rich with interpretive possibilities. In pointing to the oceans, seas and rivers of the world as spaces where identities are formed and calibrated, altered and challenged, Negotiating Waters makes a valuable contribution to what Steve Mentz has termed the "blue humanities": a discernible shift in academic attention, across a variety of disciplines, from the land to the sea. The editors' reflections on islands and archipelagos offer a useful example of the kinds of possibilities presented by this approach. Like many other oceanic contexts and spaces, islands "exist on the margins of dominant national narratives and discourses" (p. x), thereby facilitating more dynamic, complex and nuanced expressions of identity and power.
The editors make no claims for the collection as an all-encompassing study of the major themes that it touches on. Indeed, it would be churlish to expect a book that foregrounds the fluidity and complexity of the world's oceans, seas and waterways to be comprehensive and definitive. The collection derives from an academic conference and some of the chapters seem to be revised versions of the papers delivered there, rather than more fully developed contributions based on an initial conference paper. The interview with the Newfoundland author Lisa Moore is an intriguing and worthwhile addition, although one wonders if it is an approach that would have benefited the collection from being used more systematically throughout. This single example, while instructive and interesting in illuminating Moore's own work and approach, feels a little limited. Nevertheless, the historical, disciplinary and methodological sweep—exemplified in the variety of contexts and case studies presented here—represents an approach rather than a conclusive list.
In some instances, individual chapters would have benefited from relating their particular findings to those of other scholars working on analogous themes and subjects. Jean-Luc Tendil's detailed discussion of William Bradford's experiences in early seventeenth-century New England would have been enriched by Stephen Berry's work, A Path in the Mighty Waters, for example.1 In a similar vein, many of the chapters exploring the environmental impacts of the colonial and postcolonial periods on the sea and its islands might have considered the work of Richard Grove and especially his landmark study, Green Imperialism.2
Nevertheless, Tendil's chapter is a salutary reminder of the important and relatively underexplored relationship between religion and spirituality on the one hand, and humankind's engagement with the world's seas and oceans on the other. For William Bradford and his fellow settlers, travelling across the vast expanse of the Atlantic symbolised purification, sacrifice, trial and, ultimately, rebirth. This discussion is neatly complemented by Rhonda Semple's excellent chapter, which focuses on Protestant missionaries travelling to new tropical homes across Britain's nineteenth-century empire. Her work underscores the crucial point that things did happen on board ship, and that the sea was indeed transformative for those travelling on it. Semple uses letters written to the London Missionary Society and published in the Society's Missionary Chronicle. It would have been fascinating to explore unpublished letters because evidence from other sources, such as East India Company voyages, suggests that published letters and narratives significantly edit the account of the voyage.
One of the most useful features of the collection is its interdisciplinary character. For example, although it is quite narrowly defined, Alex Zukas's chapter still serves to demonstrate the value of relating the material culture of cartography to more abstract ideas about the relationship...