The Coastal History Blog 1: “What is the ‘coast’ in coastal history?”

I would like to thank the kind people @PortPTUC for hosting this blog and giving me an opportunity to think out loud about issues that have been puzzling me for twenty years now.  I plan to post every two weeks or so.  Later entries will not be this lengthy, but today I wanted to sketch out this blog’s mission and give readers a sense of what sorts of topics I’ll cover.

A Brief History of the Term

In 2007, I published a review essay, “Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History.” [1] Why this new term? In part, I hoped to tease out some (as yet nameless) tendencies in recently published work.  My appeal to the coast was also an expression of frustration with what recently published work did not do, notably in the maritime and oceanic subfields. Around the same time, Michael Pearson independently coined the term “littoral society.” [2] Last year, John Gillis published The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, which has received considerable attention, winning this glowing review in the Chronicle, for example. [3] It is, I think, a very good sign that scholars from different backgrounds have converged on the coastal as representing something important and necessary, even if we use it in somewhat different ways.  We are even seeing the first dissertations that fly a coastal history flag. [4]

I am not particularly interested in debating whether other scholars “belong,” or claiming earlier figures on behalf of the movement. I have no plans to blog about whether the late Greg Dening was really a coastal historian, or whether Judith Fingard’s Jack in Port counts as a coastal history classic avant la lettre. [5] I certainly do not see this blog as a way to impose orthodoxy or patrol the borders of what is “allowed.” A diversity of methods within a field is a good sign of intellectual health, and a diversity of priorities is the best sign of all.  I am a bit concerned, though, that coastal history may be defined too narrowly, particularly if we take The Human Shore as the standard for what it might include.

Going Palaeo

Make no mistake—Gillis is poetic, provocative, and amply rewards re-reading.  The Human Shore covers a longue durée indeed; prehistoric and ancient times take up the first 50 pages, and frequently reappear in what follows.  Like many other environmental histories, this narrative is one of decline. The authentic coast is one of “marine foragers” who gather the ocean’s bounty in a sustainable way. [6] This Edenic Commons gives way to overfishing, pollution, and congestion. New York City, which once routinely “dined on the harvest from its own shores,” must now fly in oysters from distant places. [7] The surreal estrangement of modern urbanites, attracted by ocean views yet increasingly ignorant of the coast’s natural rhythms, is Gillis’ great theme in the final chapters. He develops it with wit, and a fine fury.  The artificial beach, with its imported white sand, represents for him the ignominious nadir of a long process of decline.

What’s Missing Here?

Gillis chose his theme for good reasons.  There is no doubt that we need some articulate materialist historians if we are going to fully engage in the current debates about climate change.  Gillis’ approach does pose problems, however, for coastal historians who are not primarily concerned with pristine and “authentic” littoral societies, or with environmental degradation.  My own vision for the field would be much broader than an ecological or occupational one.

What is “the coast” in coastal history?  Let’s take a cue from cultural geography and allow it to encompass all of “the complexities that make real places interesting.” [8] That would include Gillis’ themes, but also:

The engineered coast.   The Liverpool docks; the Thames Barrier; Clydebank’s Titan Crane; even the most playful and exuberantly artificial 21st-century creations like Dubai’s artificial islands.  These are the “anthropogenic coasts” that Gillis both names [9] and doesn’t fully reckon with, because he sees them as inherently misguided.

The political coast.  There is the coast of the oyster bed, but also the coast of the customs house.  Coasts have also served as immigration chokepoints, complete with fumigation ovens and quarantine stations. Waterfronts supply a ready-made theater for ship launches and naval reviews. [10] The Statue of Liberty watches over one harbor, while HMS Victory—visited by schoolchildren—presides over another. [11] This is much more than window dressing; arguably, what we see along coasts is nationalism and governmentality at their most intense.  This is true even when they are challenged and thwarted, by smugglers and pirates for example, or by courageous waterborne migrants.

The cultural coast.  Today’s beach culture is about a lot more than beaches.  The iconography of palm trees and barely-there swimsuits has colonized areas quite remote from the seashore; in my landlocked Midwestern town, I can go to a Jimmy Buffett theme restaurant, hear a fun-and-sun soundtrack, and be served by “islanders.”  Yet earlier periods also read the coast in terms that cheerfully ignored ecology; urban districts like Cardiff’s Tiger Bay were represented as outposts of the foreign, Wapping was said to have its own language, and so on. The cultural coast cries out for theoretically sophisticated approaches. [12]

The urban coast.  This one is especially difficult for me to write about in this bullet-point format, but later blog posts will return to it frequently.  To adapt one of Michael Pearson’s terms, there was a “coastal zone” that extended well beyond those who reside on the shore or go to sea for a living. [13] Thinking about coastal zones rather than maritime spaces resolves an old problem about how to “do” gender history properly in this particular arena.  We know, for instance, that sailors’ wives could become entrepreneurs and culture brokers who advised others in how to cope with a slow-moving government bureaucracy. [14] Writing about a coastal zone also liberates us from an anachronistic model for what ports should do, or be.  Today’s redeveloped waterfront districts remind us that the death of “authentic” coastal pursuits in Bilbao or Baltimore does not actually mean that there is no longer a coast to study. [15] Broadly speaking, coastal approaches are friendly to the kinds of questions that urban historians like to ask. In my own work, I have offered a coastal reading of sailortown: “far from an oceanic aberration, [it] was where the city was most itself.” [16]

None of this is to suggest that Gillis completely ignores these possible dimensions of coastal history; indeed, he quotes a very instructive Swedish proverb, “one boot in the boat, and the other in the field” which speaks in a way to all of them. [17] The challenge, going forward, is to develop an analytical framework in which this expression can apply not just to part-time herring fishermen and paleolithic marine foragers but to the entire array of human coastal experiences.  It’s time to start a dialogue about how to do this.

I hope readers of this blog will join that #coastalhistory conversation.



[1] Isaac Land, “Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History.” Journal of Social History 40, no. 3 (Spring 2007), 731–743.

[2] Michael Pearson, “Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems,” Journal of World History 17, no. 4 (2006), 353-373.

[3] John Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[4] Louise Moon,“Coastal Approaches to Sailors and Sailortowns.” Web article pub. July 15, 2013 <accessed October 20, 2013>

[5] Greg Dening, Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power, and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Judith Fingard, Jack in Port: Sailortowns of Eastern Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982).

[6] Gillis, Human Shore, 29.

[7] Gillis, Human Shore, 113.

[8] Martin W. Lewis and Kären Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 11.

[9] Gillis, Human Shore, 170.

[10] For one facet of this, Margarette Lincoln, “Naval Ship Launches as Public Spectacle 1773-1854,” Mariner’s Mirror, 83 (1997), 466-472.

[11] For HMS Victory’s role as a school for patriotism, see Brad Beaven, Visions of Empire: Patriotism, Popular Culture, and the City, 1870-1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).

[12] For controversies over Tiger Bay, see Laura Tabili, ‘We Ask for British Justice’: Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).  For some different takes on cultural space and the work it performs, see Victoria Carolan, “The Shipping Forecast and British National Identity,” Journal of Maritime Research 13, no. 2 (2011), 104-116; Jo Stanley, “On Buffer Kissers, Bus-Station Skanks, and Mile-High Clubs: Sexualities in Transport,” Mobility in History: The Yearbook of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic, and Mobility (Oxford: Berghahn, 2012), 29-49.

[13] Pearson, “Littoral Society,” 355.

[14] Margaret R. Hunt, “Women and the Fiscal-Imperial State in Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” In A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, ed. Kathleen Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 29–47.  Also of great interest: Valerie Burton, “‘Whoring, Drinking Sailors’: Reflections on Masculinity from the Labour History of Nineteenth-Century British Shipping” in Working Out Gender: Perspectives from Labour History, ed. Margaret Walsh (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999), 84–101; Valerie Burton, “Boundaries and Identities in the Nineteenth-Century English Port: Sailortown Narratives and Urban Space” in Identities in Space: Contested Terrains in the Western City since 1850, ed. Simon Gunn and Robert J. Morris, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 137–151.

[15] Günter Warsewa, “Adaptation and Individuality: The Re-invention of the Port-City,” in Locality, Memory, Reconstruction: The Cultural Challenges and Possibilites of Former Single-Industry Communities, ed. Simo Häyrynen, Risto Turunen, Jopi Nyman (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 18-45.

[16] Isaac Land, “The Humours of Sailortown: Atlantic History Meets Subculture Theory,” in City Limits: Perspectives on the Historical European City, ed.  Glenn Clark, Judith Owens, and Greg T. Smith (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010), 325-347, quoted p. 344.  See also Isaac Land, “Patriotic Complaints: Sailors Performing Petition in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain,” in Critical Perspectives on Colonialism: Writing the Empire from Below, ed. Kirsty Reid and Fiona Paisley (London: Routledge, 2013), 102-120.

[17] Gillis, Human Shore, p. 75. For another discussion suggesting a “one boot on shore” approach, see Daniel Vickers, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers and the Age of Sail. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

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