The Coastal History Blog 3: “What Makes Coastal History Distinct?” (part 2 of 2)

In my last posting, I stated that coastal history already has some characteristic themes, concerns, and subject matter, and promised to offer examples.  This may seem an odd claim for a subfield that is so new.

The overall thesis behind this blog, though, is that plenty of people are doing coastal history already and don’t know it.

To some extent, that problem can resolve itself over time, as more people use the #coastalhistory tag, or adopt the keyword on  (It can be one keyword among many to describe your project; some will identify as maritime and coastal.)  My goal as a blogger is to speed up this process by profiling relevant work here, in a long series of book reviews, lit reviews, and historiographical essays.

The port effect

Prompted in 1970 to explain why Liverpool produced the Beatles, John Lennon began with a simple declarative sentence: “It was a port.” [1] Ports, apparently, are more than a convenient transit point for commerce and cargo.  The deceptive simplicity of Lennon’s statement, of course, belies a host of commonsensical assumptions about what must go on in ports, what sort of cosmopolitan climate they foster (or require), what sort of dialogues and exchanges must occur there as a matter of course.

In a similar spirit, David Sorkin has proposed that it was the “Port Jews” of trading centers from Trieste to London—rather than the Berlin-centered Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment—that led the way to Jewish modernity. [2]  This concept has provoked no less than two special issues of the journal Jewish Culture and History and a spirited discussion of how, or whether, the “Port Jew” concept is applicable to a long list of port towns worldwide. [3] Never far beneath the surface of this historiography are the troublingly half-resolved questions: Do we have an agreement how about cosmopolitan port towns are?  Do we really know what life is supposed to be like in the ‘typical’ port town? [4]

My aim today is not to summarize the large, growing, and varied Port Jew literature (although I hope to return to it in later postings).  For now, let me simply point out the unusual character of the original research question itself.  There is a difference between “let’s discuss how Liverpool was linked to Buenos Aires,” or “let’s compare Liverpool and Buenos Aires,” versus a discussion of what are the dimensions and vectors of a narrow waterfront coastal zone in relation to the life of a large city.

Inquiring into “port effects” comes naturally to historians with non-watery backgrounds; the term itself demands an explanation (“port effect on what?”) which puts sea-shore interactions at the center of the inquiry from the outset.  Refreshingly, the debate over Port Jews also retains a skeptical element: Sorkin himself rejected the proposition that all “Jews in ports” would be “Port Jews” in his sense, and it is possible that there is no port effect at all.

There’s nothing wrong with doing Jewish history that happens to be set in ports, gender history that takes place on beaches, or imperial history that includes a couple islands.  Coastal history may not be the ideal term or affiliation for every project that includes a little coastal scenery. Yet if the puzzle is why, or how, the location shapes the activity—if the work performed by the waterfront, the beach, or the island becomes analytically central to the project—then you are doing some kind of coastal history.

Asking the coastal questions

How do we know when we have a new subfield?  Typically, what justifies a subfield’s birth, or breathes new life into an old one, is not the subject remit as such, but a debatable thesis, problem, or puzzle.  Thus, “church history” as a subfield label gives little hint of the vibrant historiography and debates that led up to Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars. [5] By the same token, if our battle cry is “coasts are interesting, wouldn’t it be nice if historians wrote more about coasts,” there will be only a few takers, and deservedly so.

At the coastal history panel at the American Historical Association in 2010, I challenged the speakers to address coasts as an indispensable category of analysis, coasts as demonstrably making a difference.  Michael Pearson’s response was that Islam took a different form in littoral areas, so Indian Ocean Islam did not look like Islam in Central Asia. [6] What strikes me, in retrospect, about this response is that it mirrors the “port effect” debate that was emerging, independently, in Jewish history.

So “was there a port effect?” seems to be a clear example of a coastal question.  “What was the shape, depth, and influence of the coastal zone?” is another.  In my dissertation, I struggled with the issue of people who might be considered fractionally maritime:

  • Men who went to sea for a few years when young and spent the rest of their lives on land, albeit working on rivers, or in harbors and dockyards.
  • Seasonal fishermen who identified with a different occupational title (miners, shopkeepers).
  • Women in coastal areas, who were both engaged with and distanced from the maritime.
  • Sailor-autobiographers and sailor-pamphleteers who had a foot in both worlds, speaking fluent “Jack Tar” but also fluent “Chartist.”

History is full of people who might be considered “fractionally maritime.”  Yet describing anything (or anyone) as 1/8 maritime, or 40% maritime, is not very satisfying or informative.  We wonder about the missing 7/8, or the missing 60%.  We wonder about the uneasy coexistence of the two.  We wonder what it is like to be amphibious.

If we consider “maritime history” as an expansive umbrella term that addresses, in Sarah Palmer’s words, “man’s relationship with the sea in all its facets, with all its connections,” then certainly there is room for a mutually beneficial conversation. [7] Yet I hope I have made clear that to propose a coastal history that is truly, and fully, within maritime history probably misses the point.

The Janus-faced coast

In his history of the Beatles, Jonathan Gould refers to “the distinctive tension between provincial and cosmopolitan attitudes that had shaped the cultural life of [Liverpool] for more than a hundred years.” [8]  If, as I have suggested, coastal history is at least as much concerned with influences emanating from the shore as it is with the role of the sea, then many coastal history projects will focus on a “distinctive tension” of some sort.  Like the Roman god Janus, this kind of scholarship will face both ways.  The subject matter calls for it.

Recently I have seen some Twitter conversation about the uncertainty over which sorts of projects would be properly coastal.  Individual scholars will make their own decisions, but I can offer some thoughts:

  • Like the coast itself, the outer limits of coastal history are incremental and shaded in both directions.
  • “How far does the coast extend inland?” is a research question, not a matter of definition.  If we think of coasts as cultural spaces as well as material environments, the answer will vary in different countries and historical eras.
  • Many people who come to coastal history will begin with a sense of puzzlement over where their project does fit; successful coastal projects are likely to be exactly the ones that could fall “either way.”

I hope to transition to shorter and less ambitious postings for a while, but let me close with a final thought:

If you find coastal history ambiguous, that is not a bug; it’s a feature of the software.



[1] Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007), 36.

[2] David Sorkin, “The Port Jew: Notes toward a social type,” Journal of Jewish Studies 50, no. 1 (Spring 1999), 87-97.

[3] Jewish Culture and History 4, no. 2 (Winter 2001) and Jewish Culture and History 7, no. 1-2 (Summer/Autumn 2004).

[4] C. S. Monaco, “Port Jews or a People of the Diaspora? A Critique of the Port Jew Concept,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society n.s. 15, no. 2 (Winter 2009), 137-166. Monaco’s article seeks to put the whole Port Jew concept out to pasture on the grounds that the author has found one Caribbean port that was demonstrably less than tolerant and cosmopolitan.  This, it seems to me, is to expect rather too much from ports, and suggests that the whole concept of “port town” is under-theorized in this literature.

[5] Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

[6] This is mentioned briefly in Michael Pearson, “Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems,” Journal of World History 17, no. 4 (2006), 365.

[7] Sarah Palmer, “Seeing the Sea: The Maritime Dimension in History,” Inaugural Lecture Delivered at the University of Greenwich (11 May 2000), 9.

[8] Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love, 111.

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