Mark Shirk
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Boundaries in the sea
The production of political space in the early modern colonial Atlantic
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The sea is a political space. It is bounded and contested. While it cannot be reduced to land, it is no different in this regard. Traditionally the sea has been constructed as an open, natural space but this is a political construction. I demonstrate the sea as political space by looking at shifting constructions of ‘the line’ as a boundary in the Northern Atlantic from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. It was originally drawn in the fifteenth century to demarcate where the Spanish and Portuguese could explore. By the mid-sixteenth century it was the Tropic of Cancer and Spain claimed all south of it. This was contested by the French and English. The Spanish would hire privateers to attack ‘illegal’ ships below ‘the line’, while the French and English would hire privateers for retaliation and to attack Spanish Gold Ships. There was ‘no peace beyond the line’. By the late seventeenth century, the political economy of the region shifted from extraction to trade, and sea raiders who were once privateers were made into pirates. To deal with the ‘golden age of piracy’, England abolished the idea of ‘no peace beyond the line’ and pushed it south to the equator where it was no longer politically meaningful. The result was something akin to the ‘open sea’ that we see today. What this case shows is that the sea was a bounded, contested, and dynamic space, and that understanding political space means we need to understand the sea.

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