Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory puts forth a perhaps simple, but interesting and easy to forget, premise that colonial Colombia was highly integrated into a a Caribbean world that he terms a transimperial territory.  It explores the connections between what became Colombia and the greater Caribbean, and is a worthwhile read for those looking to learn more about the late colonial and independence era.  Read on for a complete review of An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World.

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Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory:  Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World examines the interconnectedness of colonial New Granada (the name of the colony that later became Colombia) with the colonial Caribbean, including non-Spanish colonies, most notably Jamaica and, in the independence era, Haiti.

The map shown on the cover is indicative of Bassi’s larger premise.  That map is a colonial era map that shows an “upside down” view of the southern Caribbean, including the islands of the Antilles and the northern coast of New Granada.

Bassi’s central thesis is that the area, at least in the late colonial and independence era, should be treated as a region, and that is a mistake to see the histories and cultures of individual nations in the region, even those that were part of different colonial powers, as separate or disconnected entities.

He argues that the fact that the Caribbean became separate nation states, that the Caribbean coast of   New Granada became part of the Colombian nation state, or that the nation states of South America emerged at all should not be treated necessarily as forgone conclusions, although historians and geographers tend to treat them as such.

He does so by examining how, despite colonial borders, colonial maps made by the colonial powers delineating them, and legal trade restrictions, the borders of the colonial Caribbean were in fact quite fluid and studies only focusing on each colony or later nation-state miss aspects of their history that connected them to others in this “aqueous” territory.

Bassi’s first two chapters examine ships and sailors.  The first looks at ships and trade between the ports of New Granada’s Caribbean coast and the other islands in the Caribbean.  There’s some impressive archival research here to document the number of ships that moved between different ports that shows that despite official regulations on trade between Spanish and other nations’ colonies, New Granada still had a budding trade with other countries, in particular Jamaica.

The second chapter covers a bit more on sailors and where they were from, although the focus is on captains a bit more than the individual sailors themselves.  More on individual sailors and their ideas of identity would have been interesting here, given the title.

For a neat look at sailors around the independence era, I can’t recommend enough No Limits to Their Sway about Cartagena’s independence era privateer sailors.  See my review of it or check it out on Amazon.

The second section of Bassi’s work looks at what he terms New Granada in different actors’ imaginations.  Here he presents potential alternatives to the emergence of the modern nation-state and of Colombia as well as its national character.

Among these alternative visions of New Granada, he examines the the Cuna and Wayuú indigenous peoples, who he terms maritime and cosmopolitan Indians, and how they maintained autonomy through the colonial era and had extensive trade networks with the British in Jamaica, including the purchase of arms to resist Spanish attempts to conquer them.

The book then turns to the ideas of some British citizens promoting expansion of British colonial power in the Caribbean and South America following the independence of the United States.  He terms this a “turn to the south” as opposed to the “swing to the east” that actually occurred with British colonial power shifting to India and the Pacific.

He next looks at Simón Bolívar’s time in the Caribbean.  Bolívar, after fleeing New Granada with Pablo Morillo en route to reconquer Cartagena, first fled to Jamaica.  There he issued his famous “Letter from Jamaica” and hoped to receive support from the British.  

However, he received little support.  Instead, it was in fact from the recently independent Haiti that he received actual material support.  Bassi uses this as a transition into his final chapter, the most interesting on the history of Cartagena.

In it he examines how Bolívar and other criollo political elites sought to make the new republic an “Andean-Atlantic Republic.”  In so doing, they actively minimized the connections with the rest of the Caribbean, Haiti and the coast of the new nation-state included.  This was an attempt to associate the new nation-state with whiteness and “civilization” as opposed to blackness and anarchy.  

It went so far as to include the rebranding on maps of the Caribbean Sea as the Northern Sea or Atlantic.  Bassi presents a very interesting analysis of maps and early history books produced after independence.  He convincingly shows that these were an attempt to “de-Caribbeanize” the new nation-state, and are enlightening looks into attitudes that still pervade Colombia today.  

In this chapter, Bassi also proposes a potential Caribbean counter-narrative by looking at two pardo, or mixed race, politicians in Cartagena, José Prudencio Padilla and Juan José Nieto.  However, despite, this counter narrative, Bassi concludes that the 19th and 20th centuries ultimately led to the full de-Caribbeanization of the nation.

Who Should Read it and Why?

While readable, Bassi’s book is definitely more academic in nature than the more accessible No Limits to their Sway.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this book to those looking to learn more about this period of Colombia’s history.  In particular the chapter on the Cuna and Wayuú was immensely interesting and on a subject I had read little about.  You often may hear these tribes were never fully conquered by the Spanish, but their successful exploits in trade and international diplomacy are often not mentioned.

The last chapter on the de-Caribbeanization of the nation-state was also very well written.  This is something that I kind of always knew under the surface as things like Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence tend to be downplayed in national history or even the role of blacks like Pedro Romero and Padilla tend to be downplayed even in local history.

However, Bassi’s use of official maps, histories, and even the creation of the department of Atlantico help show how that was the result of a very subtle but intentional effort on the part of white leaders in the interior after independence.

Therefore, I’d definitely encourage those who are into history and/or identity to read the book.

Final Verdict

There were a few moments where I found Bassi’s work a bit dry, but overall, I enjoyed it, and it really picks up in the final 2 chapters.  It also shows an impressive amount of research and seeing the trade between cities was interesting, as well as the standout chapters on the indigenous peoples and the post independence de-Caribbeanization narrative.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend it to those interested in history and ok reading an academic study.

For those less academically inclined, I recommend they consider instead No Limits to Their Sway, A Brief History of Cartagena, and/or The Fortifications of Cartagena to learn more about Cartagena’s history.

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