Conference Report: WHA Barcelona Symposium, 26-28 March 2014

WHA LogoBarcelona – not just a beautiful and welcoming city, but with its own rich maritime history and flavour (quite literally, in the excellent seafood) – was an ideal setting for the World History Association‘s latest symposium, on ‘Port Cities in World History’, hosted by the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. As is usually the way at large international conferences, with panels running concurrently, it is difficult to catch all the papers. As a result, this is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive report; you can find the full programme, with abstracts for the papers, here. Instead, this is a personal take on the conference, and some of its highlights for me.

On Wednesday evening, proceedings opened at the impressive Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya with welcomes and a keynote by UPF’s own Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, entitled ‘On the Waterfront: What Constitutes a “Port city” in Historical Perspective?’. In a wide-ranging talk, Ucelay Da-Cal considered a number of key aspects, noting the dual importance of cities within politics and culture, and of ports as hubs in transport connections. He also spoke about the common distinction in port cities between working dock areas and more affluent and powerful districts; and the linguistic evolution of terms like ‘port’ and ‘haven’, including into our own time, arguing that the older model of port cities (often defined by geography) is changing, giving way to a new model of artifical waterfronts integrated into ‘intermodal’ communication systems. Perhaps this scope was a touch too ambitious, as at times I found myself wondering how to achieve a useful definition of ‘port city’ that is both precise and flexible, but it was certainly a thought-provoking start to the symposium.The papers delivered over the following two days pick up on these questions with relation to port cities from across the word, and my selection here is just those which appealed to my particular interests. Predictably, this is mostly in the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries, but it is also thematic: these papers dealt with the presence and interactions of different communities in port cities, with commercial and cultural exchanges, which seem to me to be some of the most fascinating dimensions of ports throughout the world.

Songchuan Chen considered the clash of legal cultures in nineteenth-century Canton, describing how English merchants and politicians used the execution of European sailors by Chinese authorities to build a narrative of ‘legal despotism’, though in other cases the same authorities were rather more lenient. Looking at how these executions were reported in English publications in Canton, Chen linked them both to changing perceptions of ‘law’ in England, and to immediate worries amongst English merchants about the disruption of trade. Michael Harrigan also spoke about published discussions, though of a different kind. He focused upon the writings of the French travellers Jean Mocquet and François Pyrard du Laval, with a few other texts, specifically their descriptions of Goa in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Teasing out the points where these texts connected or contrasted, Harrigan showed how divisions and hierarchies – principally of religion and ethnicity – generate, but are also shaped by, narratives. In a similar way, Dolors Folch gave a detailed reading of two maps of China procured in Manila for the Spanish government. These, she argued, show that the ‘sangleys’, Chinese inhabitants of Manila, were not just ‘peddlers’ as they have often been described, but influential linguistic and cultural translators, and members of trading networks spanning China and Spanish America.

Three papers (two of them in Folch’s panel) approached the social role of foreign merchants in port cities. Jonathan López-Vera, founder and editor of, delivered an engaging overview of the history of Dejima Island, the Dutch trading post at Nagasaki and the only ‘gateway’ for Europeans into Japan from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Besides trade, Dejima had a profound cultural role after segregating rules were relaxed in 1720, which led to knowledge exchange, translations, and the emergence in Japan of rangaku, ‘Dutch studies’. Keerati Chenpitayaton tackled a historiographical tradition in Thailand which sees Ayutthaya as an ‘old’ inland capital, and Bangkok as a ‘new’ port city. Picking out similarities in their function as ‘gateway cities’, like Dejima, for commercial and cultural exchange, Chenpitayaton particularly pointed out the role of a substantial Chinese merchant community in both cities during their separate ‘golden ages’. Finally, in a separate panel, Siobhan Talbott spoke about the presence of British merchants in French ports during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Examining how social context shapes commerce, she demonstrated differing patterns of mercantile activity; Irish merchants were particularly strong in Brittany, while Scottish merchants dominated in Bordeaux, and both groups continued to trade even when Britain and France went to war. Trade crossed religious and political boundaries, but it was also influenced by them, and more particularly by social and personal factors.

The social context of commerce was also the theme of my own panel, and if it is indulgent to advertise my own paper (on sailors and maritime law in London), my copannelists deserve mention. Edmond Smith presented his work on the East India Company, and its impact on London’s overseas traders, using exciting network analysis and visualisation techniques to show how the EIC produced a more integrated community of merchants. Adrian Leonard described the practices of London insurers in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and how these practices travelled around and cross trading networks; he then took the example of a New England merchant’s activity in the Caribbean to show how insurers around the British mercantile world took up the same insurance practices, even while commercial connections developed independently of London.

The symposium was, as I hope this snapshot has shown, a diverse collection of scholars and subjects, as we should expect from such a broad topic. One thing they shared, however, was a clear conviction that port cities have been vitally important spaces in world history, balanced – sometimes precariously – between the local and global, sites of all kinds of conflicts, encounters and exchanges, and which deserve further study and discussion. One other conclusion I took away from these three days: if you’ve never been to Barcelona, you should go!

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