Academic journal article Spatial Practices

Patterns of Global Mobility in Early Modern English Literature: Fictions of the Sea

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

Patterns of Global Mobility in Early Modern English Literature: Fictions of the Sea

Article excerpt

1. Introduction: "The Services of the Sea Are Innumerable"

In 1494, just one year after Columbus's return to Europe, Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff, the stultifera navis or Ship of Fools, was published. The design of the book was to identify all manifestations of human folly with the natural element, that is, according to Brant, as fickle, unpredictable, and treacherous as any man without reason (cf. Klein 2004: 94). The mad ship acts as "a floating body used to seclude lunatics, who were thus committed to the element that was in keeping with their unpredictable temperament" (Corbin 1994: 8). "Our barge," Alexander Barclay translates Brant in 1509, "[ljyke as a myrrour dothe represent agayne / the fourme and fygure of mannes countenaunce" (1509: fol. llr). Little wonder that the ship of fools embarks on a voyage with no clear destination: "We kepe the streme and touche nat the shore / In Cyte nor in Court we dare nat well auenter" (ibid.). It seems that only a cultural imagination that still conceived of the ocean as an inherently repulsive realm of unfinished matter and primeval chaos was amenable to associating the sea with the complete loss of control. "In a culture still steeped in both the Christian demonization of the sea and the antique notion of keeping within limits" (Kinzel 2002: 28), the ocean signified a marginal reality beyond a horizon that delimited the known, the secure and the governable.

Some one hundred years later - after circumnavigation had furnished evidence that all the seas of the world were really just one huge navigable ocean - the sea was no longer the symbolic habitat of madness but a space that could be seized, appropriated and controlled (Klein and Mackenthun 2004: 2). In 1613, Samuel Purchas could famously make the sea the centrepiece of his claims to a vision of global mobility, exchange and prosperity:

[T]he services of the Sea [...] are innumerable; it is the great Purveyor of the Worlds Commodities to our use, Conveyor of the Excesse of Rivers, Uniter by Traffique of al Nations; [I]t is an open field for Merchandize in Peace. (Purchas 1625: 28)

Here the sea is animated with a distinctive autonomy as it moves, flows and glides to bring along the desired change. The notion of the ocean as a deeply rational agent of cultural mobility, laying claim to the whole world, is a persistent constituent of the cultural imagination of the age. We see it further developed and extended in, for instance, John Denham's poem "Cooper's Hill" (1642). The sea, according to the poem,

Brings home to us, and makes both Indies ours;

Finds wealth where 'tis, bestows it where it wants,

Cities in deserts, woods in cities plants.

So that to us no thing, no place is strange

While his fair bosom is the world's exchange.

Penham 1709: 184-88)

It is difficult to imagine a greater conceptual difference between the spirit of this quotation and Brant's image of a mad sea defined by a lack of purpose, structure, and direction. For Denham, as for many other writers of the early seventeenth century, the sea was not the symbol of madness and disorderly anti-civilisation, but a force of unlimited expansion, a technically manageable but socially sensitive space, an arena for the exercise of global power. It is the sea that enables, even enforces global expansion, that serves as an agent of transnational links and that forges "the imaginative transition from an insular to an imperialist politics" (Brown 2001: 64). More than merely a symbol of imperial progress, the sea, in these writings, becomes the agent of change itself, an agent that sets up a global trading network, connects waterways, supports conduits and thus advances imperial capitalism (cf. ibid.). Of course, what these tropes of the sea repress, disavow or dissimulate is the 'guilty' knowledge that the obverse of imperial progress, and also the bases of Britain's prosperity, was transatlantic slavery and slave trade. …

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