Early Modern Expansion and the Politicization of Oceanic Space [*]

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. The definition of oceans as international politicized space is an integral but little analyzed aspect of early modern European expansion, which took place between about 1450 and 1800. In this essay I explore the implications of thinking about the development of European imperialism and global dominance in oceanic terms. I argue that oceanic, rather than terrestrial, dominance characterized early modern European empires, particularly in relation to Africa and Asia, where indigenous political and economic control prevailed. The long apprenticeship in mastering oceanic space contributed to the ability of Europeans to build land-based empires in Asia and Africa in the nineteenth century. As well, the international relationships worked out by Europeans in the nonstate but militarized arena of the high seas contributed to an emergent global order. Keywords: colonialism, European expansion, imperialism, international relations.

According to the United Nations, sixteen colonies remain in the world. Great Britain has ten; the United States, three; and France, New Zealand, and Spain, one each. [1] In addition, these countries, as well as the Netherlands and Australia, have overseas dependencies that are not technically "colonies," a term of contested meanings. [2] Not incidentally, almost all of these dependencies are islands or islandlike enclaves, such as Gibraltar, Ceuta, and Melilla. Individually and in total, they represent the first and last outposts of modern European imperialism, territorial manifestations of the politicization of oceanic space. As well, they suggest that control of the world's oceans was a fundamental part of European empire building and remains a critical component of continued European and neo-European dominance in the postcolonial world.

Drawing on the rich historical literature that describes aspects of early modern expansion, I explore three broad implications of the oceanic dimensions of European imperialism. First, it engendered an expansive dynamic distinct from the dynamics of other seafaring peoples, whereby Europeans constructed a new kind of empire that differed significantly from land-based ones. Second, the centrality of oceanic control and the tenuousness of territorial control outside Europe forces us to reassess the agency of Asian, African, and American peoples in the history of the early modern world. Third, oceanic expansion reconfigured international relations, obliging expansionist powers to define the legal and diplomatic implications of interstate conflict in the extraterritorial arena of the high seas. This in turn elevated interstate relations in Europe from a regional system to a global one, which would come to define contemporary international relations.


The politicization and militarization of oceanic space, as much as its globalization, distinguished European oceanic expansion from that of other seafaring peoples. Austronesians had settled islands stretching from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to Madagascar but did not maintain the political ties with their hearth societies necessary for empire building (Finney 1994). Muslim traders used maritime routes to carry trade goods and Islam as far east as the South China Sea, and emporia from Japan to East Africa allowed merchants to establish dense trading networks spanning thousands of kilometers. Politically, though, the Indian Ocean Basin continued to comprise dozens of autonomous polities, from large empires to small principalities to tribal-based societies, and political control stopped, in most instances, at the water's edge. Fifteenth-century China demonstrated the ability, if not the intention, to establish an empire through long-distance oceanic expansion, until the government dismantled the navy and curtailed seaborne trade (Das Gupta and Pearson 1987; Ptak and Rothermund 1991; Pearson 1998). Thus when Europeans began their long-distance maritime ventures, trade and colonization were old processes in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. …