The Plantation of the Atlantic: Introduction
This is not a history of the Atlantic Ocean. People have written such things. Generally, they’re about boats and geography, important subjects here. But I thought that it was best to start with savage denial. Because what this is, is a history against the grain, and there’s very much a reason to put an ocean in a starring role in such a history.
It goes like this. In a German prisoner of war camp, long ago, a French scholar named Fernand Braudel found internal liberation in a work of defiance and denial. He defied his captors by making use of his time, notwithstanding his nation’s defeat, which ought to have allowed the German Reich the use of his time. And he took his research and his evidences and used them to create a history that denied and repudiated his teachers. (More or less; I won’t argue the details if you know them.) It is known in English as The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II,[i]and, again, it would be off point to explain why it was such an act of defiance. Take my word for it, and appreciate that there are arguments that could walk the claim back. I’m being too neat, tying up loose ends meant to be undone.
In the second act, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell revisited Braudel’s concept, writing The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History.[ii] The title brilliantly expressed the diffidence that Horden and Purcell felt as they came to the end of their study. It’s a reference to what Horden and Purcell call the common Roman observation that the ease with which people communicated by sea was profoundly disruptive of good social order.[iii] Their frontispiece, a Medieval map showing Africa and Europe as lovers, puts it more neatly. The two continents that God has set apart are being brought together by the Mediterranean Sea. The Strait of Gibraltar will be the site of their fatal kiss, and their fall into worldly sin will end on the Levant shore.
Except that the whole notion is confused. Another way to look at it is that the Mediterranean will be the marriage bed of a new social order. Hence this book: Atlantic history, I modestly propose, has up until now been told by disapproving parents looking on from the shore. I write as a friend of the couple, drunkenly celebrating the chivaree. If I have a moral, it is that the grandparents-to-be need to stop worrying about miscegenation, and start worrying about their grandchildren’s college tuition. If I have a subject, well, it’s a little raunchy.