The Coastal History Blog 18: “Offshore and Offshoring”

In her book Cornish Wrecking, Cathryn Pearce relates an incident from 1755 in which Customs Officers opened fire on a pilchard sloop caught in the act of fishing two casks of brandy out of the water.  The sloop fled, but was intercepted at the quay, where combat continued and blood was spilled.  It emerged, however, that the sloop’s crew had been claiming the casks of brandy for Lord Arundell, whose “right of wreck” extended from the shoreline out to “as far out to sea as a Hamborough Barrel can be seen on a clear day.”  The lord of the manor prevailed, and the Crown lost its case in court. [1]

As Pearce’s example suggests, the questions “who owns the ocean?” and “where does offshore begin?” are fruitful ones for coastal historians of any period.  In The Social Construction of the Ocean, the geographer Philip E. Steinberg develops these themes on a grander timescale, with particular reference to changing regimes of capitalism.  For most of human history, the deep sea could not be occupied, in the sense that cultivated or improved land was occupied in the eyes of the Western legal tradition, but new technology has made the question of ownership progressively more complex and urgent.  As early as 1869 the United States proposed, unsuccessfully, that the willful destruction of an undersea cable should be treated as an act of piracy. [2]

Territorial or coastal seas were traditionally defined in terms of “the utmost range of a cannon ball” fired from shore [3], but artillery kept improving; meanwhile, the development of offshore oil rigs brought the entire continental shelf into play.  Following World War Two, countries experimented with various formulations that might encourage merchant ships of all flags to ply the coast, while asserting some particular national rights over the seabed beneath them.  Mexico went so far as to claim that its continental shelf was now “incorporated into the national property.” [4] Steinberg notes that controversies continue over whether we should legislate some form of stewardship over a maritime commons, or participate in an “enclosure movement” that might involve deep-sea mining on a grand scale.

The sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino considers examples that are, in a sense, the opposite of Steinberg’s.  In Island Enclaves, Baldacchino shows how mainland authorities may choose to relinquish control, rather than push the limits of their jurisdiction ever outward.  He formulates a category called “idiosyncratic governance” and on page 4, offers a brace of “performative active verbs” to go with it:











He does not offer a deep historical perspective, but anyone familiar with the Japanese use of Nagasaki for Dutch trade, or with the proliferation of extraterritoriality and capitulations for Europeans in the nineteenth century, will see that Baldacchino’s list has a very general application.  It is important to notice that these locations are almost never remote ones; there is a particular utility to being located just offshore.  (In another blog post, I called these “necessary islands.”)

Island Enclaves could serve as a kind of Machiavellian textbook for nation-states: Every island you possess is a loophole waiting to be exploited, or a state of exception that has not yet been declared.  Premeditated “sovereign bifurcation” could mean dividing your territory into heavily and lightly regulated regimes—the Islamic Republic of Iran’s use of Kish Island is a fascinating example—but it can take more sinister forms, such as the Australian government’s decision that its island detention centers are “not-Australia,” so bad luck for the boat-borne migrants who wind up there. [5] It is possible for a well-ordered country that prides itself on the rule of law to deny justice in a portion of its own territory that it has “excised” from itself.  Chillingly, places like Guantanamo Bay are then referred to as “lawless enclaves” by the same lawyers who created that situation. [6]

As I have suggested previously, the question “where does the coast begin and end?” is not one that coastal historians should try to settle as a matter of fiat (we define the coast as thus-and-such).  Instead, the scope and function of a particular coast are, themselves, a matter for research.  This goes well beyond describing the physical extent and ecology of that coast.  As Pearce, Steinberg and Baldacchino show, portions of coast can be added, subtracted, and engineered into many different configurations—all with the stroke of a pen.  “Offshoring,” in short, has been part of coastal history for a very long time.



[1] Cathryn Pearce, Cornish Wrecking, 1700-1860: Reality and Popular Myth (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010), 167-168.

[2] Philip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 133.

[3] Steinberg, Social Construction, 136.

[4] Steinberg, Social Construction, 141.

[5] Godfrey Baldacchino, Island Enclaves: Offshoring Strategies, Creative Governance, and Subnational Island Jurisdictions (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2010), 5.

[6] Baldacchino, Island Enclaves, 128.

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