Building on the revisionist historiography of Latin American independence, Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory provides an innovative interpretation of the territories along the Caribbean coast of New Granada (roughly modern-day Colombia) at a time of revolutionary upheaval. Bassi begins with a peculiar story involving the legislature of the nascent Republic of Cartagena in October 1815. To retain Cartagena’s recently proclaimed independence from the Spanish monarchy, a group of political leaders endeavored to place the new republic under British protection. To their disdain, Britain refused to offer support, and the young Republic of Cartagena eventually surrendered to Spanish forces on December 6, 1815.
Although Cartagena’s attempt proved to be unsuccessful, Bassi sets out to reconstruct the political, economic, and geographical context that made Cartagena’s request possible and thinkable. Rather than dismissing the request as an aberration of no real consequence for the history of Nueva Granada, Bassi questions the insidious idea that historians should only study “successful” events. Instead, Bassi attempts to recover a set of options that, although ultimately unsuccessful, more accurately represent how contemporaries in Nueva Granada experienced their historical reality.
Bassi’s proposition leads to a series of innovative conclusions. He contends that the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, and consequently Columbia, had intense connections with the Caribbean. In fact, Bassi argues that the Caribbean coast of Nueva Granada was part of a “transimperial greater Caribbean” geographical space, which national and imperial historiographies have rendered invisible. For Bassi, contemporary historical actors in the Caribbean coast of Nueva Granada were not strictly bound by imperial borders. Quite the contrary, they crisscrossed imperial frontiers and created transimperial networks of exchange.
To explain the origins of the transimperial greater Caribbean, Bassi begins in the 1760s. Although the Caribbean had always been a space of transimperial interaction, for Bassi a key transformation occurred when in 1766 Britain instituted a free port system in its Caribbean colonies. The new system allowed the British Caribbean colonies to trade with agents of competing empires. As a result, subjects of the Spanish Empire, especially those of the Caribbean coast of Nueva Granada, flocked to the British Caribbean islands, Jamaica especially, to buy and sell consumer goods. In the process, participants of this transimperial greater Caribbean created a new geographical space centered on Kingston that defied Spanish imperial designs.
Given the existence of the transimperial greater Caribbean, Bassi demonstrates that Cartagena’s attempt to enlist British support in its battle against Spanish forces is hardly surprising. In fact, even Simón Bolívar, the Latin American liberator par excellence, initially sought to gain British support, especially from Jamaican planters, to carry out his liberation project in Spanish America. But Britain’s policy of neutrality during the Latin American revolutionary period eventually left political leaders like Bolívar disappointed. It was for this reason that Bolívar reluctantly turned to Alexandre Pétion’s Haitian Republic for support. Bolívar surely would have preferred the backing of the more “civilized” British Empire, but he nonetheless welcomed the military and financial support of the black republic. For Bassi, even though the center of Nueva Granada’s transimperial greater Caribbean shifted from Jamaica to Haiti, Colombia’s future was powerfully influenced and defined by this experience in the Caribbean.
Soon after the independence process, however, political leaders of the nascent Colombian nation began to decouple the country’s history from the Caribbean. Instead, they developed the idea of an Andean–Atlantic nation, creating a national myth aimed at fostering stronger links with Europe and the United States. In spite of his insight, Bassi does not explain whether these early political leaders were in fact erasing Columbia’s Caribbean history tout court or simply its previous link to Haiti. Nonetheless, Bassi’s innovative account provides a powerful antidote to the narrow and spatially fixed perspectives offered by national and imperial historiographies.
Tutino’s edited volume New Countries also starts from the assumption that to understand the birth of new countries in the Americas we must adopt a broader, even global, perspective. But New Countries is a decidedly more ambitious collaborative work that aims to explain the emergence of new national economies in the context of the global transformation of capitalism during the Age of Revolutions. At the heart of the volume is Tutino’s idea that global capitalism experienced a fundamental transformation from 1750 to 1870. Although the world economy before 1750 was polycentric—not completely dominated by any one center of power—by the end of the revolutionary cycle, the world economy was almost completely dominated by the industrial capitalism of Britain and the northeastern region of the United States. In a nutshell, this collection of essays seeks to explain how the political upheaval of the Age of Revolutions contributed to the emergence of an Anglo-centric industrial global economy.
According to Tutino, the polycentric global economy began with the discovery of vast silver mines in New Spain and Peru, particularly in Potosí, which became the world’s leading producer of silver from about 1550 to 1650. Much of Spain’s New World silver made its way to China, especially after the 1570s, when Spain gained control of the Philippines. This development, in turn, galvanized global trade, ushering what some historians have called the first age of globalization.
Notwithstanding this early story of success, decreasing levels of silver extraction from the mines of Potosí precipitated a loss of dynamism in the polycentric global economy during the second half of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, economic dynamism was re-ignited in the eighteenth century, when the Bajío region of New Spain (Mexico) replaced Potosí as the preeminent source of silver in the global economy. Much of that silver also ended up in China, although, this time, it first went through European intermediaries. But despite this minor change, the eighteenth-century world economy still lacked a clearly defined center, even if certain parts of northern Europe and the Caribbean islands had become more dynamic than before.
This polycentric system was brought to an end during the political upheaval of the Age of Revolutions, which dramatically reconfigured the world economy. At the conclusion of the revolutionary cycle, the extraction of mineral wealth in the region of the Bajío had almost completely collapsed. In the process, China and Spanish America slowly lost economic dynamism while Britain and the northeastern region of the United States, where industrial production was concentrated, became the centers of the global economy. Explaining this complex and multidimensional process is the main goal of Tutino’s edited volume.
In general, the individual authors and chapters effectively elaborate on Tutino’s proposal, although they could have benefited from a more explicit discussion of the book’s key explanatory framework—that is, the idea of a polycentric vis-à-vis an Anglo-centric world economy. The chapters are anchored around topics that unveil the relationship between political revolution and economic change: for instance, how the Haitian Revolution dismantled Haiti’s sugar economy and created a country of autonomous peasants, how Cuba remained loyal to Spain while galvanizing sugar production, how revolution and political contestation divided the United States into a southern slave economy based on cotton and a northern industrial economy, and how Brazil and much of Latin America turned to commodity exports to the industrial economies of Britain and the United States.
Both An Aqueous Territory and New Countries offer innovative and insightful accounts of the political and economic changes that occurred as a result of the Age of Revolutions. Unfortunately, both introductions provide scant help to readers who want to identify the essential arguments offered in each book. Bassi incorporates too many quotations from other scholars, making it difficult for readers to identify his own contributions. Tutino adopts a fact-heavy narrative form that obscures the key transformation that he is trying to explain. Despite these minor flaws, these innovative works will generate significant discussion among scholars of the Atlantic world for years to come.