Natalia Duran, book review, Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory, AmeriQuests 14.1 (2017)
Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial
Greater Caribbean World, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017. 345 pp.
Illustrations. US$26.95 (Paperback). ISBN 9780822362401.
Considering the current emphasis on borders and walls, Ernesto Bassi provides a refreshing perspective of interpreting the world through the lens of “lived geographies.” An Aqueous Territory centers around the development of the Caribbean coast of New Granada from 1760 to 1860. In what he describes as an “effort to escape the prison of methodological nationalism,” Ernesto Bassi advances the idea of focusing on everyday interactions as an alternative method of organizing and interpreting the world. (205) He also questions examining history through the lens of the resulting nation-state, rather than considering plausible futures from the vantage point of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century subjects. Guided by the history, movement, and perspectives of sailors, merchants, politicians, and indigenous people, An Aqueous Territory analyzes the geographic area that he refers to as the “Transimperial Greater Caribbean”. This area encompasses the Caribbean New Granada and its nexus with the British, French, Dutch, Danish, and Spanish colonies and territories in the Caribbean, trailing their development into present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Jamaica, Haiti, Curacao, and the United States. While Bassi narrowed his focus on a specified temporal and spatial region, his arguments can be duplicated for other timeframes and geographic regions.
Lived geographies consist of individual and collective geographies that have been refined by social interactions. Bassi argues that more can be discovered about the history of an era, and a region, by analyzing subjects such as sailors, both as individuals and as part of a group. Individually the sailor has particular experiences and observations, which can shed light to the political and social climate of the time and place, whereas in a group, sailors can be instrumental in transmitting information across geopolitical borders, which shape diplomacy and international relationships. For instance, Pedro Perez Prieto, captain of the schooner San Fernando, was able to inform Santa Marta’s governor about the Haitian Revolution less than a month after it occurred. Prieto learned this news from a French schooner he had encountered at sea. Based on this information, Santa Marta’s governor began preparations for a possible influx of French Caribbean refugees. Sea captains transmitted information from port to port through printed and oral communications. During ship inspections, officers would often ask sea captains about any significant occurrence they had observed at sea, in an attempt to uncover the spread of revolutionary ideas, conspiracies, and uprisings around the region. Bassi provides several useful illustrations of the journey taken by several notable sea captains. As a captain, Pedro Perez Prieto’s experience of the transimperial Greater Caribbean was probably interpreted through his political allegiance to his empire, yet ordinary sailors on board were part of a “master-less Caribbean.” (57)
Reviewing the archival trail left by the schooners El Congresso and Altagracia, Bassi provides an in-depth illustration and explanations of the “existence of a space of social interaction where sailors of all colors and from many geographic origins sailing under different flags and frequently switching from one ship to another lived lives that were marked by both the risks and opportunities that circulation across the transimperial Greater Caribbean had to offer” (67). Juan Estevan, a former Venezuelan chocolate maker who was eventually charged as an insurgent corsair loyal to the Republic of Cartagena exemplified the “border-crossing, ship-switching, status-changing life” experienced by sailors in this era (69). Estevan began working as a sailor for the Spanish brig El Rayo until he was held as a prisoner for a Cartagena gunboat, and was able to escape and flee to Jamaica, where he again enlisted as a sailor for another Spanish schooner. While traveling to Puerto Rico, the schooner was captured by a Cartagena insurgent schooner. After the captain discovered Esteban’s previous escape, Esteban was forced to become a Cartagena corsair. With this new status, he helped capture Altagracia, a Spanish schooner, and attempted to navigate the boat to Cartagena. However, Spanish authorities in Portobelo captured the boat and interrogated Esteban and the other sailors. Bassi depicts the mobile life of Esteban and other sailors like him to reignite the idea that the sea is a historical site where history unfolds. Instead of analyzing the sea as an empty-space, Bassi pushes the idea of an aqueous territory, whose contours are created through personal geographies that have cut pass political geographies with sailor’s frequent movement from port to port.
The “transimperial Greater Caribbean way of being in the world” reflects on human interactions taking place under predetermined circumstances. (206) To advance his argument of an alternative method of organizing and interpreting the world, Bassi provides historical anecdotes of the region’s law, history, culture, race, and indigenous populations. In reference to the spatial configurations of the transimperial Greater Caribbean, the author provides an historical anecdote about the development of Kingston, Jamaica as the Caribbean’s commercial center. Following victory in the Seven Year’s War, Britain became the main Caribbean power; however, it developed a commercial crisis with its North American colonies when it tried to recover the costs of the war through taxes, such as the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act. Capitalizing on this political climate, Kingston merchants were able to pass the first Free Port Act, legalizing trade among the British Caribbean and Spanish America. However, warfare between Britain and Spain soon after created an uncertain future for Kingston merchants. It was only until the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, and the creation of a British-Spanish alliance that Kingston merchants experienced a golden age of free port trade.
Likewise, Haiti became an international revolutionary center by advancing a pro-republic ideology. In an effort to attain international legitimacy, Haitian President Alexandre Pétion began supporting pro-independence émigrés. Pétion believed that with a rise of republics there would be stronger support for republicanism over monarchical rule. Bassi provides a helpful illustration of several expeditions that were launched from Haiti. One such pro-independence émigré that received support from Haiti was Simon Bolivar. Bassi analyzes this pivotal moment in history by analyzing his personal geography, evaluating it through the plausible futures Bolivar saw in the moment, and considering the predetermined circumstances of the political and social climate Bolivar was in. Before receiving financial support from Pétion to fighting for independence, Bolivar believed he could attain British support. Following Napoleon’s defeat, he believed that the British no longer had an interest in maintaining a British-Spanish alliance, and would support the independence of Spanish colonies and territories. Therefore, he asked the British to accept Cartagena’s as part of the British Empire. However, Britain was steadfast on remaining neutral and Bolivar received no support from Jamaica (a British colony at the time). Bolivar’s “actions and calculations before, during, and after his stay in Haiti, as well as those of the Spanish officers who spied on him and Pétion, reveal the extent to which Haiti, Jamaica, New Granada, and many other locales of the revolutionary Atlantic were connecting nodes of an entangled Atlantic world” (171).
Bassi’s methodology of analyzing history through lived geography also involves an assessment of the role that linguistic matters played in the development of a Transimperial Greater Caribbean. Bassi illustrates how language was used both as a tool and a weapon during this period. While discussing Maritime Indians’ autonomy in a Spanish claimed territory, Bassi highlights how English was a “language of trade,” whereas Spanish was a “language of war” for the indigenous population. (96) To exert control over the indigenous groups, Spanish authorities attempted to utilize the common imperial strategy of imposing their language onto the group of people they have oppressed. However, maritime Indians were able to maintain their political autonomy through their own linguistic skills; the Cuna Indians, for example, were able to engage in transnational trade with British colonies by speaking English. Having a common language helped the Maritime Indians preserve their independence by trading tortoiseshell and local produce for weapons, ammunition, and gunpowder. Bassi also illustrates language as a weapon used to segregate and subjugate groups of people. Even though Haiti played a large role in supporting Colombia’s independence, Colombia actively attempted to distance itself from Haiti and the Caribbean during its development as a new republic. By reviewing geographical sources, including maps, geographic treatises, and geography textbooks, he explains how Colombia’s new leaders employed a project of “decaribbeanizing” the republic. Following their independence from Spain, Colombian leaders engaged in a renaming process.
Bassi argues that leaders renamed the region to erase any connotations linking Colombia to the Caribbean, because of their support for Enlightenment tenets. Prominent Colombian leaders advanced a division in society through a rhetoric of “civilized” versus “barbarism”. The word “civilized” implied Europeans, white, enlightened, and prosperity, whereas, “barbarism” implied Caribbean, black, ignorance, and negative. Colombia further separated itself by renaming the sea to the north of the new republic as the Mar de las Antillas (Sea of the Antilles), instead of using the traditional name of Mar Caribe (Caribbean Sea). This project of “decaribbeanizing” Colombia was adapted by politician-geographers in maps, geography textbooks, and primary education. Bassi provides illustrations in his book to help emphasize the extent of this campaign. Further segregating the republic, Colombian nation-makers promoted European theories of environmental determinism through national newspapers. Francisco Jose de Caldas endorsed the narrative that people living in the tropical lowlands suffered from “degenerative effects of climate” and were inferior. Conversely, those above sea level were superior.
Overall, An Aqueous Territory makes a strong argument for an alternative method of organizing and interpreting the world. While Bassi illustrates his methodology by focusing on the transimperial Greater Caribbean, he encourages others to utilize lived geographies as a tool to learn even more about other timeframes and regions.
Natalia Duran, Vanderbilt Law School