In one of the essays of A World At Sea, author Matthew Raffety Taylor asks, “Does a ‘legal turn’ help, either in bringing coherence to maritime history as a field, or in breaking out of the parochial fetters of single-ocean categories like the Atlantic World?” (p. 70) While not exclusively focused on legal history, Benton and Perl-Rosenthal’s volume makes an excellent attempt to both bring coherence and break out of parochial fetters. Global history edited volumes and special issues can suffer from needing to cover the full range of global examples (or feel the need to explain when they don’t). In contrast, and drawing on the expertise of its editors, this volume’s approach is to demonstrate particular institutional, procedural, and administrative developments that made maritime life global, and global lives maritime.
The chapter structure of the book emphasizes that these were global processes, rather than specific innovations developed in Europe (or elsewhere) and then exported. The scattering of specific case studies amongst the wider thematic chapters, therefore, are intended to be representative of broader trends assumed to be taking place in a variety of contexts. At no point do the various authors claim anything special about their specific regions or moments, opening up the field for the pursuit of further examples in a variety of geographical contexts. For global historians, this makes sense. It is a generative approach that leans into the idea that, while expanding European empires and the slow emergence of capitalism often led to innovations, those innovations were not diffused, but explicitly developed “at the margins”, “on the ground”, and in practice and dialogue (or conflict).
This book makes three major contributions. It thinks about the ways that maritime practices created new patterns of change on a global scale. It adds a comparative dimension to the study of maritime commerce, war, and legal regulation in this period in ways that foreground these factors as agents of change. And it aims sustained attention these commercial-legal processes as they spanned land and sea. And this spanning of land and sea is fundamental to the editors and the wider collection: they eschew theoretical approaches that see the development of these as separate spaces in the early modern period. Nor were maritime practices simply exported from wholly-formed legal, scientific, and commercial worlds on (metropolitan, European) land. The definitional and regulatory arguments taking place in maritime spaces were fundamental to the shaping of those ideas back on land.
The relationship between commerce, war, and legal regulation is at the heart of the volume’s argument about the importance of maritime history in the early modern world. It was onboard ships and at the water’s edge that both European and non-European states found themselves defining sovereignty. As the editors ask, as global regulatory order emerged across this period, “how did diverse polities come to share so much - not just in their external relations but also in how they functioned internally?” (p. 9). States relied on merchant mariners in times of war; commercial treaties created the conditions for war; commercial regulations were translated into practices of determining the enemy (or potential conscripts) in times of war. As Matthew Taylor Raffety’s chapter argues, legal regulations were reactive, on the spot, and “cam both from within, as when a European crew mutinied, or without, as when colonizing and trade powers negotiated by force, compromise, or treaty” (p. 70).
Three chapters grounded “on land” – those by Adam Clulow and Xing Hang, Jeppe Mulich, and Catherine Phipps – highlight the ways that the maritime world seeped onto land. These three chapters especially explore the ways that centralized forms of authority were expressed in different ways at the margins of their power. In the case of Japan’s commercial sovereignty, keeping foreign trade at the margins was a strategy of control, while in contrast, marronage in the Caribbean demonstrated the limitations of European control over enslaved people in “maritime borderlands composed of multiple imperial polities” (p. 140) where maroons could take advantage of regulatory differences. Commercial competition at the margins of sovereign states, as between the Zheng merchants and the Dutch East India Company in Cambodia, could give those states power to play the companies off against each other. But not without reshaping, to some extent, local and regional politics. In all three contexts, the processes are dynamic, and the power of an agent, or the sovereignty of a state, are contingent. While these three cases are specific, the authors are careful to point out their broader applicability to other contexts.
There is a constant thread through the chapters and a regular reminder of the importance of the people at the heart of global history. Carla Rahn Phillips answers the question of what it was that drove or enticed mariners to sea in a variety of European contexts. Both Margaret Schotte’s and David Igler’s chapters explore the interplay of elite theories, the demands of the state in commercial competition and war, and the practical knowledge of “average” sailors – both European and indigenous – in the creation of nautical sciences. And Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s, Lisa Norling’s, and Jeppe Mulich’s chapters show the capacity of this kind of maritime global history to provide the perspectives and contributions of women and people of colour to ideas of sovereignty, boundaries, and maritime organization through the legal and commercial record. Maritime spaces were liminal and therefore crucial for defining modern order. But they also are therefore able to show how people at the margins of political power were actually instrumental in those same processes.
This volume is a clear example of an edited collection that is more than the sum of its parts. While the tone of each chapter is varied and individual – some are narrative, some are tightly focused on a particular region or event, others aim at broader theorizations – the variety does not detract from the argument, and in fact adds interest for the reader. It is an essential book for moving the field of global history in a direction that does not neglect power, while also pushing to provincialize Europe and examine the (unequally) shared role of non-European actors in the creation of the modern world.