Rhumb and Rule: Mapping Sovereignties of the Sea

Monday, February 13, 2012
Jason Cohen

First, a quick introduction. Greetings, I am Jason Cohen, a visiting faculty fellow in the first cohort of Duke’s new Humanities Writ Large initiative. My work at Duke examines how early modern cartography reveals or obscures the social, commercial, legal, and historical premises undergirding the sovereignty of the seas. In the first month of the HWL faculty fellowship, my project has moved in a direction I could not have anticipated because of the archival strength at Duke in New World cartography and environmental studies. Given these fantastic holdings and resources, my focus has shifted away from an original intention to investigate Mediterranean and Islamic connections with early modern Europe. Ah, the pursuit of the archive’s riches and vagaries – I am happily traveling under that spell once more. But let me track backwards a little to give some context for this project. Of the three faculty brought to Duke for this year’s semester-long version of the fellowship, I am the only one striking out for essentially new territories. Obviously, Sharon and Tess were far more prudent in their projects, but I am incredibly excited by the possibilities this project holds for my research on emerging international law as well as for the classroom and research implications of digital humanities instruments for the study of Renaissance literature and culture.

The unexpected turn in my approach to this project has already had significant implications for this work, even though I have been building on research I’ve been developing over the last year. I came to my Duke proposal, “Mapping Sovereignties of the Sea,” through an interest in Francis Bacon’s strange and ineffectual intervention in British policy on the law of nations, circa 1621. His white paper, titled Aphorismi de jure gentium maiore sive de fontibus justiciae et juris [Aphorisms on the Greater Laws of Nations], attempted to lay out a taxonomy of legal decision and jurisdiction for new world encounters. I call it strange not only because it evinces a particularly Baconian style of legal policy written in aphoristic fragments, but also because of its timing. It was certainly written after his indictment for bribery in 1620 and still more than ten years prior to the publication of John Selden’s seminal Mare Clausum. (Pure conjecture here: given that Selden prepared his document c. 1619, and that Selden served as Bacon’s amanuensis, perhaps Bacon saw the Mare Clausum in draft? Impossible to determine.) In any case, Bacon’s untimely work had a very quiet afterlife: it was never mentioned in surviving correspondence or referred to in later policy tracts; finally it was lost until 1980, when Mark Neustadt discovered a fair-hand copy buried in the library of Chatsworth House, Derbyshire. So, I came to this project on the law of nations and the sovereignty of the seas by way of thinking about what kinds of hypothetical situations Bacon’s aphorisms were attempting to imagine, and for what reasons. 

The materials I’ve discovered with the help of Duke’s fine librarians and my excellent colleagues have been remarkable. I expected the ethnographic, nautical, and natural components of early maps, but the legal materials directly inscribed on maps produced during the 1650s and later are surprising, at least for me as a scholar of the earlier seventeenth century. The remarkable function these maps assume as instruments of statecraft complements the exacting relationship they describe between the commercial and legal worlds of these growing empires. [Note the description in the cartouche of fishery limits as well as national interests on the map above.] One recognition I have made recently involves the function of inquiring about longitude among captains and officers: because they were so literally lost at sea so much of the time, the verbal and mathematical calculus involving longitudinal ranges in which two ships met provided them with a platform for discussions that implied competition and negotiation without ever having to mention the language of nation or sovereignty. In this way, I think, the formal mechanisms of nautical sovereignty we might find in court documents is enriched by a proto-Lacanian discourse about the sea as Imaginaire, in which each ship projects itself as an image whose location and signification remains as yet under-determined. Anyway, that’s my working hypothesis for the day. 

One final note before I pass the mic: this project is working toward the development of an interactive and dynamic set of digitized maps that will feature layers, annotations, historical and spatial data, and perhaps a timeline. My interest in making this instrument accessible to undergraduate research as well as advanced scholarship remains one of my core commitments as a teacher and scholar of early modern literature, and for that reason I aim to make it interactive in ways that encourage others to use these maps, mark them up, export the markups, or import their own data onto the map interface. I am driven by a model of peer-use and -access involving undergraduate research, a model I began working with in another project, Apollon eJournal, online at www.apollonejournal.org. Let me know if you or your students would like to be involved, or if you can think of better ways to promote these kinds of collaborative endeavors to generate and disseminate knowledge.

I look forward to more reports on the progress of this project in the coming months. Ciao!

Referenced People

Associate Professor of English