The Sea Around Us

Bernard Bailyn
Bernard Bailyn; drawing by David Levine


Human beings, wrote the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, “are in a certain sense amphibious, not exclusively connected with the land, but with the sea as well.” Yet works of history are usually landlocked. Most historians write about particular states, nations, continents, or empires, and if they glance at maritime matters at all, it is in order to trace the naval, commercial, and imperial activities of their chosen territories. Terra firma still comes first. Abandoning this perspective, and approaching the past primarily by concentrating on stretches of water, is challenging and innately subversive. Just how challenging and subversive was shown by Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which was originally published in French in 1949.

Despite his title, Braudel gave limited attention to the most powerful Christian monarch of the sixteenth century, and to the other major political figures of the time. His aim was to embrace “in a unified conceptual framework an entire sea and the lands that bordered it,” and he accordingly gave priority to such matters as climate, ecology, ports, trade, migration patterns, piracy and corsairing, the ebb and flow of winds and currents, and changes in shipbuilding and navigational techniques.1 Instead of putting in the foreground rivalry between nations and conflicts between the western and the Ottoman eastern Mediterranean, and between Catholics and Protestants, Braudel showed how, for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, political, cultural, and religious differences and allegiances were sometimes less important than shared involvement in the same inland sea.

His extraordinarily ambitious work seduced and impressed historians, but also antagonized more than a few of them. Some readers and reviewers found his book excessively materialistic, and insufficiently attentive to the influence of creative ideas and powerful leaders. Others were simply unimpressed by his audacious disregard of detailed political narrative and of established national and religious history and ethnic stories. Unsurprisingly, it has proved increasingly easy over the years for specialists to pick holes in the book’s large-scale generalizations; and self-confessed admirers and emulators of Braudel’s work, especially in the United States, are now sparse.2 Yet, whether they recognize it, or are willing to admit it or not, American historians have proved to be among his keenest disciples, not in regard to a sea, but in connection with an ocean. “Atlantic history,” writes Bernard Bailyn at the start of his new book, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours, “…is a subject that certain historians have found strange, that others have said does not exist and if it does exist it shouldn’t, [and] that at best has no easy or clear definition.” Nonetheless, he insists, the “Atlantic world,” which he takes to be “Europe and the Western Hemisphere, profoundly linked to the peoples and cultures of West Africa,” is “not the aggregate of several national histories, but something shared by and encompassing them all.” Atlantic history, he believes, must seek…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.