Seascapes Conference Generates Interest

Brandon C. Schneider, April 2003

The AHA, the Library of Congress, and other organizations sponsored a conference entitled "Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges," which was held February 13-15, 2003, in Library of Congress facilities. The conference focused on oceans and seas, not as boundaries, but as unifiers of states, empires, and peoples. The second conference in an ongoing project funded by the Ford Foundation, it featured scholarship that moved beyond traditional area studies and crossed the usual national, geographic, and cultural boundary lines by taking explicitly comparative, cross-cultural, systematic, and global approaches. A major purpose was to explore contemporary globalization in historical context and the historical processes that drive globalization, as well as the way in which globalization and fragmentation affect the definition of areas and regions.

Three keynote speakers opened each day of the conference with a provocative paper that compelled the participants to reconsider and rethink such seemingly basic terms as "empire," "littoral society," and "islands." These speakers set the stage for the papers that followed, which examined everything from biological exchanges in Hawai'i to the role of port cities, laws of the sea, pirates, and the Hajj. Papers focused on the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Asiatic Pacific Oceans. A majority of these papers will be posted on the History Cooperative web site to give teachers and fellow scholars access to the cutting-edge research presented at the conference.

Conference participants included graduate students giving their first conference papers, postdoctoral researchers, teachers at community colleges and four-year colleges, as well as professors emeriti. Participants came from as near as Georgetown University and as far away as Hawai'i, Australia, Great Britain, and Switzerland. Even a looming snowstorm did not deter participants from a lively and engaging discussion of the issues raised by the speakers.

Four of the participants were graduate students whose presentations reveal that the themes and ideas behind this conference are actively in use by the newest generation of historians. Giancarlo Casale (Harvard Univ.) discussed the Ottoman "discovery" of the Indian Ocean around the same time the Portuguese were exploring this region. He argued that the Ottomans did not immediately make use of the Arab knowledge of the Indian Ocean and thus had a knowledge and map base very similar to that of the Atlantic European Powers. Jennifer Gaynor (Univ. of Michigan) is examining the divisions of space on the sea (water as well as islands) in Southeast Asia, focusing upon the coastal Sama people of Sulawesi. She concluded that the division of the sea as a body of water only came about with the arrival of the Europeans. Peter Shapinsky (Univ. of Michigan), who is studying sea pirates in the Seto Inland Sea, argued that they became a proxy government over trade across the Inland Sea that even the Japanese Government accepted and did business with. Wade Graham (UCLA), who is examining the transmission of biological life across the Pacific Ocean, discussed the biological history of the isolated islands of Hawai'i as enabling a parallel discussion of Hawai'i as a hub for trade and expansion by all types of people—Polynesian as well as European.

In July 2003, a four-week summer seminar for community college faculty, entitled "Trans-Oceanic Exchanges," will explore similar themes. The steering committee that organized the conference and will be planning the seminar includes—apart from the American Historical Association and the Library of Congress—representatives of the African Studies Association, the Association for Asian Studies, the Community College Humanities Association, the Conference on Latin American History, the Latin American Studies Association, the Middle East Studies Association, and the World History Association. This is the second scholarly conference organized by the committee, building on a 2001 project entitled "Interactions: Regional Studies, Global Processes, and Historical Analysis." In 2002, the steering committee also organized two four-week seminars for community college faculty, on globalizing regional history and on the theme, "Explorations in Empire." Members will continue to seek funding for projects that encourage research across national, regional, and disciplinary boundaries.

—Brandon Schneider, a history PhD candidate at Georgetown University, helped with the organizational work for the Seascapes Conference as a part-time special assistant.