Symposium: Thalassography and Historiography

Monday, October 19 and Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Symposium: Thalassography and Historiography

6:00 pm - 8:00 pm and 9:00 am - 5:00 pm

Lecture Hall, 38 West 86th Street, New York, NY
RSVP required to or 212.501.3019

This two-day symposium will bring together scholars of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean, China, and Black Seas, to address the following question: "Has - or does - a thalassographic frame open up methodological and historiographical questions or horizons that have been - or will be - important for new ways of studying the human past?"


6:15 pm – Nicholas Purcell
Faculty of Classics, Oxford University
Beach, Tide and Backwash: the Place of Maritime Histories.

This paper is concerned with the relationship between terrestrial and maritime history and in particular with the ambiguities of orientation toward land or sea, and the transitions or shifts of polarity between the two, in social and cultural history. It aims to illustrate the place of these questions in  larger historiography. Its evidence is drawn especially, but not exclusively, from the Mediterranean.

9:30 am – Willem Klooster
Department of History, Clark University
Towards an Integrated Approach: the Atlanticist Focus on Comparison, Entanglement, and Hybridity
Prior to the emergence of the field of Atlantic history, historians of the areas that make up the Atlantic world privileged local, regional, and imperial perspectives. The thalassographic frame enables practitioners of Atlantic history to introduce a comparative perspective both within and across imperial boundaries. It also makes it possible to investigate the entanglement of neighboring empires in the Americas as well as the construction of cultural hybridity across the Atlantic world.

11:00 am – Nicola Di Cosmo
School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University
Connecting Maritime and Continental History: the Black Sea Region Between Mediterranean and Steppes During the Mongol Empire
In the 14th century goods, peoples, money and deadly viruses were carried across the Black Sea from Asia to Europe, foreshadowing the worst and the best of the "Columbian exchange," across land and sea routes. Called by early historians the "table tournante" of international trade, the Black Sea and its cosmopolitan emporia, teeming with Asian goods, Mongol armies, and European merchants, in precarious balance between eastern deserts and western seas, provides an excellent example of a thalassic history that is not constituted as a closed system.  The historical role played by these communities disputes the notion of the coastline as a boundary, or as a liminal contour that defines and contains the thalassographic plane. Without these connections between two or more separate and internally articulated systems those human circuits that revolved around sea or land routes would have remained largely sealed off.  And yet the thalassic orientation of maritime powers constituted in itself an objective limit that prevented the full realization of those connections and eventually contributed to their demise. Likewise, land-bound powers found in their unfamiliarity with the sea a formidable obstacle to their ambitions. In this “tale of two histories” we see a model of interaction between sea and land empires that, albeit limited in scope, was possibly the most sophisticated and complex expression of  human networking prior to oceanic navigation.

12:00 pm – James Francis Warren
Department of Southeast Asian Studies, Murdoch University
The Metaphorical Perspective of the Sea and the Sulu Zone, 1768-1898

  The centrepiece of this paper is the opening of China to western trade and the causes and consequences that this new market played in the emergence of the Sulu Sultanate as a predatory regional power after 1768. The effects of technological and social innovation on the economy and society of the Sulu Zone helped fashion complicated interconnected and interdependent patterns concerned with the politics of the global economy and regional economic development, long-distance maritime raiding, slavery, and the formation and maintenance of ethnic identity. In this paper, I propose to use the metaphor of the sea to frame, describe and analyse how entangled commodities and patterns of consumption and desire were linked to slavery and slave raiding, the manipulation of ethnically diverse groups, the meaning and constitution of ‘culture’,  and state formation in the Sulu and Celebes seas between 1768 and 1898.  

2:00 pm – Roxani Eleni Margariti
Department of Middle Eastern and Southern Asian Studies, Emory University
An Archipelago of Cities? Port Cities, Insularity, and the Historiography of the ‘Medieval’ Western Indian Ocean

In the past forty years, a thalassographic approach to the history of the discrete parts of the Indian Ocean world has placed increasing emphasis on port cities, and case studies have revealed both the contours of urban and maritime material cultures and the political, institutional, and economic structure of specific ports and their societies.  In the past two decades, the evidentiary basis has been greatly expanded, thanks to archaeological investigations of port stratigraphies and topographies on the one hand, and textual, epigraphic, and numismatic studies of the mercantile networks hosted and fostered by port cities on the other.  A survey of all the known ports on the western shores of the Indian Ocean in this period reveals that many exhibit what I call an “insular configuration.” I outline the evidence for this insularity and then discuss the usefulness of a broader concept of insularity in describing the interconnected port cities of the Indian Ocean.  Ultimately I hope to show what a thalassographic lens, and particularly a focus on port cities as insular constructs, reveals about the political economy of the region and its transformations through time.

3:00 pm – Angela Schottenhammer
Department of Asian Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität
The East Asian ‘Mediterranean’ - A Medium of Flourishing Exchange Relations and Interaction in the East Asian World

Already at the beginning of the first millenium BC the sea as maritime space had its definite place in Chinese “ideology”. In the course the centuries the understanding of “sea” (Ch. hai ?) underwent certain conceptual changes. The sea was a border region, an area where heaven and earth would converge. It was also the area of the uncivilized, the unknown and foreign, even of mysticism and imagination. Finally, it was seen as a zone that facilitated rather than obstructed contact.  The concept of an “East Asian Mediterranean,” borrowed with modifications from Braudel, can be applied in order to underline different forms of political, commercial and cultural exchange between China, Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands, Japan, and Korea. This can in turn yield a macro-history that is about exchange: economic, social and civilizational rather than a strict antagonism, which is in fact superficial,  between a “centre” (China) and “peripheries”.


4:30 pm – Peter N. Miller
Dean and Chair for Academic Programs, Bard Graduate Center
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Peiresc

The title is an obvious allusion to Fernand Braudel’s famous work of 1949. But it also refers to an unknown near-miss between the pioneering thalassographer of the twentieth-century and his seventeenth-century predecessor. Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) investigated the natural history of the Mediterranean, and wrote about the medieval Provence-based empire of the Angevins. Peiresc’s decade-long pursuit of antiquities and manuscripts from the Levant was entirely executed through Marseille merchants who maintained stations in modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. The objects and knowledge Peiresc accumulated were shared with scholars across Europe and helped contribute to the birth of scholarly oriental studies in the middle of the seventeenth century. Much of this story is now known. That he achieved these by working through and with merchants is not. Yet nearly all the letters to this merchant world have survived. Through them we can reconstitute the everyday life and practical knowledge of a great scholar—a story that scans as the “material culture of cultural history.”

For additional information contact Alex Phelan,


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