Geographies of Power on Land and Water

Below you will find information about a network I co-ran with Dr Jessica Roney (Temple University), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Its full title is “Geographies of Power on Land and Water: Space, People, and Borders.”

A number of distinct and usually separate avenues of scholarship examine early modern border spaces, sometimes characterized as lines and sometimes as zones, including Atlantic history, maritime history, the ‘frontier’ or continental history of North America, hemispheric histories of the Americas, and Native American history. Each of these approaches is defined by a distinctive geographic perspective and set of questions. This network is innovative in challenging participants to bridge across space and methodology, reorienting perspectives and facilitating a comparative analysis of the early modern origins of and contests over the borders and bordered spaces that inform immigration debates today.

With the discovery of routes to and around Africa and the Americas from the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries, the map of the world seemed to be redrawn, in the process casting up for debate which borderlines would persist. A range of people–political officials, merchants, and ordinary women and men–drew, debated, and denounced boundaries, observed or ignored them, fought over them, and forged networks that transcended them. Boundaries were meant to demarcate sovereignty and political control, assert claims to natural resources and inhabitants’ loyalty, establish closed zones of economic activity, and in myriad ways determine who was in and who out.

Some borders today are readily visible: a concrete wall, a motorway barricade, an airport immigration officer. Early modern boundaries were more amorphous for three reasons: first, in a newly ‘Atlantic’ world, the definition and practice of trans-oceanic empires had to be reconfigured, involving perpetual contest between Natives and newcomers, centres and peripheries, and among imperial rivals. Native Americans, Britain, Spain, and the United States all claimed West Florida, for instance, during the eighteenth century. Second, and simultaneously, newly emerging notions of the nation-state provoked internal debate about who had the right to claim territory and what determined membership in a national community; the United States struggled with these questions from the 1770s to the 1860s. Third, on a practical level, such boundaries were often impossible to define or defend because they existed in places where people couldn’t see or enforce them, like the interior of a continent where Native Americans such as the Chickasaws marked out borders that Europeans did not recognise. These problems meant that however they were drawn, boundary lines were impermanent, particularly in places beyond the direct military and administrative oversight of European empires.

Our network brought together multiple scholarly conversations, to ask how early modern empires, on-the-ground inhabitants, and voyagers defined, defied, and took advantage of Atlantic World borders, be they on land or on water. The network expanded over time, bringing together scholars through three linked workshops. The first took place at the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, USA), and featured a select group of participants, each of whom attended one of the two remaining workshops. The next workshop took place at Cardiff University, and included participants from the first workshop and additional attendees chosen through a call for papers. The last workshop occurred at the British Library, and focused on early modern maps and mapping.

Information about the second and third workshops is available here and here. An edited volume is in progress.