When is an Ocean Not an Ocean: Geographies of the Atlantic World

James Taylor Carson. Southern Quarterly. Volume 43, Issue 4. Summer 2006.

Poetry is a nice place to start thinking about a different way to imagine the past, a way that can bring into focus an horizon scholars too often have turned away from in silence. “The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands,” Kamau Brathwaite mused more than thirty years ago in his poem “Calypso.” And behind that stone, in the middle of concentric rings that formed around the points where it had touched the water only to resume its flight again, he saw whole worlds rising to the surface: Cuba, Jamaica, Grenada, and Guadaloupe. Islands. Plantations. Masters. Sugarcane. Blood. It is easy and almost intuitive to hear the words Cuba or Grenada and imagine them as places on a map. Jagged little configurations of shades of brown and green and yellow that darken with the rising elevations they depict surrounded by counterpoint shades of blue reaching out away from the pale Caribbean basin past the continental shelf and into the azure of the open Atlantic. But if places have objective knowable qualities they also have their deeply subjective sides, and these tend to be easy to forget. We often take geography to be an immutable fact when in both its physical and cultural forms it is the product of dialogues, contests, and accommodations, contact between substances as disparate as eternal stone and the primordial sea.

The Atlantic World wound its way into many places. The ports of England bustled with cargoes from far away. Coffle trails snaked along the Senegal and Gambia rivers to the sea. Men burrowed holes in a hillside to seek the silver of Potosi. And the cowboys of Chota, Coweta, and Tallassee tended cattle in ways not dissimilar to the ways they had hunted deer once upon a time. Such places began in an ocean that afforded opportunities for the peoples of Europe, Africa, and what came to be called the Americas to become involved in one another’s lives. The same body of water has also given scholars an organizing principle around which to arrange the variety of histories of exploration, conquest, colonization and resistance that created the Atlantic World. But the meaning of the Atlantic and the way we understand its importance to the past rest on a particular view of geography. After all, who would dispute the question that David Armitage posed recently: “Is not an ocean,” he asked, “a natural fact?”

The answer, however, is not as straightforward as it would seem. To reply that an ocean is not a natural fact might beggar belief, but it is not. It is a cultural proposition that carries with it any number of insights, assumptions, and blind spots. All too often, geographers John Paul Jones and Wolfgang Natter have argued, historians relegate space to “an inert horizontality” and, in effect, substitute a seemingly natural understanding of space for the multiple cultural constructions that tied past people to past places. What the Australian outback was to the English and the Irish, for example, was to the Pintupi an enduring landscape that, like all life, had been born of the Dreaming. What was the Pacific Ocean to British navigators was, for the inhabitants of the island of Tanna, a road to other islands and nearby peoples. What agents of the Colonial Office in West Africa took to be trees were to other people the repositories of spirits and sacred charters to the land. And what we take today to be the Atlantic Ocean has been to other people in other times the salty seed of life, the river of the world, and the abode of the Leviathan. “It is only through culture,” anthropologist Bernard Cohn has suggested, “that we construct nature, not the other way around.”

Calling the Atlantic Ocean a natural fact obscures the degree to which it and the Atlantic world that surrounded it were different things to different people. To reconstruct the histories and geographies of the Atlantic World, we must set aside the inert horizontality of fact that Jones and Natter identified and confront the vastness of the cultural places and spaces that were contained within it. Nature, in this case the fact of the ocean, was not the setting for the creation of the Atlantic World but rather the basis of the differences between its founding peoples and the places they made for themselves. “Places,” philosopher Edward S. Casey reminds us, “not only are, they happen.” In this essay I will explore how acts of placemaking, in particular those related to water and to the sea, informed the colonization of, in this particular case, one small corner of the Atlantic World, the colonial American South.

My intention is not to supplant the concept of the Atlantic World but to make space for alternate conceptions of the ocean that made the creation of this world possible. But there is more to it than the simple recognition of past perceptions of landscape. J.G.A. Pocock, writing about British history some years ago, argued for the need to find ways to talk about plural or multicultural histories; to divest ourselves of ethnocentrisms and nationalisms that entailed, as he put it, “a high degree of commitment to a single and uniting point of view.” Any attempt to recover the variety of past peoples and their practices must therefore be implicated in the consideration of current debate about multiculturalism. Building on the work of such creole theorists as Brathwaite, Edouard Glissant, and Raymond Relouzat, Rex Nettleford has identified the Americas as a space uniquely situated in terms of its human past to challenge notions of exclusive authorship and to unsettle one culture’s claim to epistemological pre-eminence over others.

The founding peoples of the colonial American South—the first people, the invading people, and the enslaved people—held particular views about how the world they inhabited was constructed, how it operated, and what it meant. For first people the sea was a large body of water that held a place of particular significance in their cosmologies. From the Woodland peoples of what became the province of Virginia to the Mississippian mound builders of present-day Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, water was the primeval force of creation; the source of the chaos, decay, and life that made human existence so precarious and dangerous. Only the light of the sun counterbalanced the flow of water and provided people with the safety and the order they needed to go about their daily lives. Coming from across the sea placed Europeans in the world of water and presaged, for the first people at least, the turmoil and destruction that the invaders visited upon the land. The Spanish, French, and English adventurers who set sail to find their fortunes saw the ocean in a similar light. From Classical antiquity to the early Renaissance scholars and theologians had depicted the ocean as a world river that separated “civilization” from antipodean realms where men’s mouths were in their bellies, where people with the heads of dogs cavorted with cannibals and other beasts, and where so-called “ethiops” suffered their skin to be burned black by the rays of the equatorial sun. The founding of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana put the explanatory powers of Christian cosmology into play on the land and sustained the belligerent acquisition of land. And with the control of land came the need for labor.

The Africans and descendants of Africans who had labored in the West Indies brought their own conception of the Atlantic into the South. Like the other founding peoples, water was for them a marker of instability, transition, and alterity. Kongolese and other peoples of western Africa believed that the souls of the dead had to traverse the world sea to reach the afterlife on the other side. And it was not an easy voyage, for the white spirits that dwelled beneath the waves savaged whatever souls they could catch. With the disruptions of the slave trade, European factors came to be seen as predatory spirits who held the shore of the sea and threatened to consume all who disembarked from its shores. For those people who survived the middle passage from the land of the living to the land of the dead, they arrived in a world that for them was as close to hell as one could get.

Colonization in the South was as much a collision of competing geographies as it was of competing societies, and the existence of different kinds of geographical knowledge makes the modern historiographical assertion of an Atlantic Ocean as a natural fact difficult to sustain in light of recent work in epistemology, environmental studies, and humanist geography. What examples drawn from the early colonial history of the South can show is first, how different peoples understood the Atlantic, and, second, how such understandings influenced the course of contact. If cultural conceptions of the sea impelled the history of colonization then the assertion of an objective natural fact, the Atlantic Ocean, has the potential to efface such plural notions of ocean and to superimpose a normative or perhaps even hegemonic historiographical logic on the more variegated set of past beliefs and practices that made the places of the Atlantic World the historical “happenings” that they were.

The ocean or, even more generally, water, embodied for each of the South’s founding peoples strangeness, unpredictability, and danger—the source of life and chaos, wisdom and sin. Some years ago a landscaper in present-day Brevard County, Florida turned up human bones along with the sod he was excavating from a place the locals called Windover Pond. Eight thousand years before, however, the water hole had been a site of great and somber importance to a different group of people. For about one thousand years, humans wrapped their dead in cloth made from plant fibers, sank the corpses into the shallow pond, and staked the cloth to the pond’s bottom to ensure their loved ones stayed submerged. But no ancient stake could hold against the metal teeth of a Caterpillar. Clearly such ponds were crucial sites for hunting and living. But, in light of later beliefs about origins in mother earth, about the life giving powers of water, and about the bodies of the dead constructing claims to land for the present and future, it is possible that those who had left their dead at the bottom of the pond carried in their heads and hearts a belief system that would become more readily apparent in pottery motifs, ornamental designs, and public architectures in later millennia as their descendants learned to temper, to coil, and to fire clay; to hammer cold copper, and to heap the earth in the form of great mounds to mark their position between the sun and its sky and the earth and its waters.”

Such was the thinking that informed the layout of a site called Poverty Point in present-day northeastern Louisiana, the South’s first large mound center. The people situated their mounds and homes in reference to relationships between the sun, the earth, and the horizon that had probably preoccupied the people for ages. Six concentric sets of octagonal ridges encircled the village center and aisles radiated out from the center and cut through the ridges. From the sky it looked like the Sun had dropped a pebble in a pond or a spider had woven a great web. A giant mound in the shape of a bird dominated the skyline. The ridge sat seventy-five feet above the alluvial plain and suggested the broad outlines of a story that posited an opposition of sky and earth and which found expression in the ceremonial and burial mounds that placed the deceased in the watery underworld while bringing the living closer to the Sun.

Across present-day Georgia and neighboring portions of Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama, groups of people began marking their pottery with serpent designs embedded in counterclockwise spirals representing water and swirling in a direction away from the sun that moved across the sky in clockwise fashion. The placement of bird figures in spirals, perhaps figurative winds that turned clockwise, bolsters the notion that somehow snakes and water and birds and the sky constituted the endpoints of a complicated continuum of beliefs about place and space and where the people located themselves. Societies such as those that gathered at the mound sites we know today as Pinson or Kolomoki or McKeithen expanded and contracted over time owing to unclear fluctuations in trade and the food supply and the vagaries of political and social life. What is clear, however, is that new kinds of societies emerged out of the growing populations of this woodland world that were qualitatively different from anyone who had come before. The new people drew upon indigenous political models but the real impetus for their new social formations came from the mound builders and maize growers of Cahokia, a site near present-day St. Louis, Missouri.

Archaeologists call the new people Mississippians, and one of the most conspicuous symbols Mississippian leaders used to express their power was an equilateral cross enclosed by a circle. The motif appeared on all sorts of elite objects, from shell ornaments to decorative pots. The cross’s arms marked the four positions of the sun during the passage of each day, and the circle set off the orderly place of the cross from the disorderly, watery, space of the sea. The two arms that also divided the top half of the circle, the Upperworld of the sun, fire, and birds, from the bottom half, the Underworld that was home to the moon, water, and serpents, marked the space where the people struggled to live between the endpoints of their cosmos.

Across the waters that surrounded the first people’s world lived another people who also saw the cosmos in terms of circles and crosses and birds and snakes. As the seeds and the knowledge to grow wheat and other cereals moved out of the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers into southern and central Europe people began to write their impressions of the world on the pottery they used and the fetishes they honored. Incised or painted crosses depicted the four cardinal points of the world, the passage of time, and the rhythms of life while black snakes crawled across the curved surfaces of their bowls, connoting the mysterious powers of life and water. Depictions of birds brought to life the sky world that, in conjunction with the waters of life, brought health and prosperity to the world of humans. Babylonians looked beyond the Bitter Waters surrounding their land to the quarters of the sun, the houses of the winds, and the ends of the earth. And when they looked to the sky their eyes followed a great staircase that had descended from the gods to the earth they inhabited. Germanic craftsmen embossed circular sheets of gold to depict their own take on the cosmos while other societies projected vertical dimensions onto the sacred circle. From Mesopotamia to Scandinavia people imagined a great tree of life standing in the middle of the world with its roots sinking to the depths of the earth and its branches reaching toward the heavens while the sea encircled it all.

Greeks sat astride the great roads which carried the caravans, armies, and embassies that bound Europe and Asia. An astronomer in Asia Minor, Thales of Miletus, pondered many of the same mysteries that had preoccupied the Babylonians, and later generations of philosophers located in his teachings the first stirrings of something new, something outside of the circle that had expressed the perfection and divinity of their world for so long. They proposed that the one-dimensional circle which appeared in Babylonian rock carvings and Germanic dials, when taken together with such structures as the cosmic stair- case or the tree of life, may have in fact depicted the earth as a three-dimensional sphere. Aristotle added later that a spherical heaven revolved around the spherical earth. The size of the earth, however, was infinitesimal in comparison to the surrounding heavens. Other continents, beyond the sight of the known world, he surmised, probably shared the watery surface of the earth.

The thinkers of Classical and Hellenistic Greece gave way to the leading lights of Rome in due time, but the Greeks’ original works continued to set the parameters of cosmological and geographical thinking. Posidonius, a Syrian, opened an academy in Rhodes where he and his pupils revived and revised Aristotle’s work on climatic zones. Just as with the form of the world, Aristotle followed the early Pythagorans who had divided the terrestrial globe into five bands according to temperature and habitability. Two barren frigid zones covered the extreme ends of the world and one equally desolate torrid zone circled the earth at the equator. Only savages dwelled in these inhospitable spots. Between the northern and southern frigid zones and the torrid zone of the equator stretched temperate lands that were home to temperate people like the Greeks and Latins. At either pole, Pliny wrote, stood a polar zone that was so cold, wet, and dark that the inhabitants had “white skins and long light hair.” Around the center of the earth ran a torrid zone that was so hot, dry, and bright that its inhabitants suffered from scorched hair and burned skin under the unmediated rays of the sun. Perhaps it was these people Pliny had in mind when he ascribed to man the destiny to command all others.

While the Roman Empire crumbled, the dissemination of Classical knowledge did not stop. Conquests, population movements, disease, and recovery all had a hand in transforming a medieval landscape. At a time when trade caravans carried news of Cathay and when Christians battled Muslims over the walled cities of the Holy Land, however, the Great Chain of Being provided the means whereby European Christians could recall the ancient antipodes and situate foreign folk in a broader cosmos. Again, Classical authors set the precedent. Pliny the Elder, for example, pieced together the portions of his Historiae naturalis on exotic people and monsters from Classical accounts reaching back to the early fifth century BCE. His stories of Amazons, man eaters, and dog-headed people who lived beyond the sea captured the medieval imagination while it pulled the far transoceanic horizons into sharper focus. Solinus, who had relied heavily on Pliny, reported nations of monstrous people near Ethiopia and Arabia. The Blemmyes of Libya, he wrote, were born headless but could see and speak through the eyes and mouth in their chests while Alphonse de Saint Onge’s Cosmographie recapitulated Solinus’s recapitulation of Pliny. To the men with eyes and mouths in their chests he added a race of Cyclopes on the margins of the known world. Cosmas Indicopleustés reported in the mid-sixth century that in the unknown lands on the other side of the world, the antipodes, the “antichtoniens” lived upside down.

Christian scholars used tales of monsters and the explanatory power of the Great Chain of Being to map a kind of moral hierarchy over land and sea. A biblical genealogy supplanted the Classical division of world into three continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe—and imputed to the founding inhabitants of each region certain moral qualities. Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the argument went, had each colonized a separate continent. Shem traveled across the Caucasus Mountains where he sired the wild races of Asia while Japheth fathered the temperate people of Europe. Ham, though, who had been cursed for seeing his father naked, took his bane to Africa where he spawned a race of dark-skinned people. Classical authors had rarely associated dark complexions with monsters, but Church fathers read blackness, darkness, and sinfulness into the skins that, in the words of Bartholemew Anglicus, had been “roasteth and toasteth” by the sun. The antipodal people whom Classical authors believed stood upside down owing to their placement across the sea became, in Christian hands, people whose pigment and morality were also inverted. Classical explanations for dark skin persisted—proximity to the sun ranked high in various explanations for the blue or black skins of Ethiopians—but popular editions of the adventures of Marco Polo and John Mandeville added poor diet, nakedness, and hard toil to the list of the curse’s supposed symptoms.

Others projected the postdiluvian world in so-called T/O maps on which medieval scholars drew a circle, the “O,” a remnant of the Babylonians’ and Aristotle’s perfect sphere, and placed a tau cross within the circle, the “T,” that harkened back to the decorations on the first pots thrown by European farmers as well as the puncture wounds Christ suffered when he was fixed to the cross. The cross of the “T” divided the earth into the three known continents separated by three bodies of water, the Don and Nile rivers and the Mediterranean sea, while the ocean surrounded all three and provided the map with its perfect and self-contained circularity. When read through the genealogies of Shem, Japheth, and Ham, however, such maps established a chronological and moral encoding of what was otherwise a Classical formulation of the great land masses. It established the earth as the Father’s stage where the world’s ultimate salvation unfolded, a world ready to be staked out, carved up, and delivered to the Him. “And the fear of you and the dread of you,” the Book of Genesis told the faithful, “shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes in the sea; into your hand are they delivered.” What the Church Fathers had done was to replace earlier models of the world in which men and the earth were at the gods’ mercy with the Great Chain where men became as gods ruling the land and the sea as He ruled them from the heavens. In this way, those who possessed the power to control the earth became civilized while those who were a part of it became savages and barbarians. The promise of such domain, however, came at a steep price. “And surely your blood of your lives will I require,” the Father covenanted, “at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.”

The Crusades against the Muslim rulers of the Holy Land put such notions of space in motion and sparked important transformations in the medieval view of the Christian world and the seas that surrounded it. While abroad the nationalities of western and southern Europe projected a Christian identity, long-distance traveling and diplomacy, military strategy, and lines of supply required a kind of detailed navigational knowledge that the moralizing of the mappae mundi and the T/O maps could not provide. While the mapmakers of Christian Europe increasingly crafted exquisite depictions of their place at the navel of Christ’s crucified body, sailors and navigators in Italy and Catalonia crafted an entirely different set of maps born of a faith all their own in currents, winds, and promontories. Their charts afforded detailed topographic knowledge and place names along the Mediterranean coast, measured and scaled distances by sea between points, and charted various features that were necessary to the successful navigation of the Mediterranean, Black, and Red Seas. Portolan maps, after the Italian word portolano, “a collection of written sailing directions,” improved upon Ptolemy’s struggles with proper projection and scale and offered a less theological, more commercial vision of the Mediterranean world. As one sailor from Genoa boasted, portolan charts were “the true description of the world of the cosmographer…from which frivolous tales have been removed.”

The portolan charts that were so useful for navigating the inland seas, however, were useless in the uncharted waters of the open Atlantic that lay beyond the Pillars of Heracles. With King João I’s conquest of the Moroccan fortress Ceuta on the shore of North Africa in 1415, however, the Portuguese Crown began to gaze toward the open ocean for a way to circumvent the overland gold trade of the Maghreb that linked West Africa to the Mediterranean. The base at Ceuta emboldened the Portuguese, for their possession of the town put them in direct contact with Tuareg traders working out of Fez and scattered outposts in the Moroccan interior where slaves from Bilad al-Sudan—the land of the blacks—were purchased for service in the homes and courts of Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey. In addition to knowledge of the money to be made in trading West African slaves as well as ivory and gold, Tuareg merchants gave the Portuguese a name for the place. Where Greeks and Romans had discussed the sunburned Ethiops ofAfrica, the Portuguese set their sights on “Gineus.” Inspired by the Holy Father’s promise to repay one converted soul a hundred times over, Jão’s son, Dom Henrique, pushed his sailors past Madeira in 1414 to the Canary and Azores Islands, then to the Cape Verdé Islands in 1444. A little more than a decade after Henrique’s death, a Lisbon merchant named Fernão Gomes reached the land called Guinea and landed on a shore he named Costa da Mina where his crew sank a wooden cross into the surf that fringed this antipodean land.

The Africans who met the Christians and who enjoined them in various trade and diplomatic relationships, of course, possessed their own notions of how the world fit together and where the ocean belonged in the grander scheme of things. Clothing, for example, mapped the world and carried the cosmos into quotidian life. Yoruba-speaking women wore cloth the color of the soil and of the dark clouds that brought rain to the earth while their counterparts in the kingdom of Kongo agreed that black cloth marked the power to give life. Men across West Africa, however, wore white clothing; it evoked purity, rain, semen, the sea, or death to display their own complementary powers and place in the world. Where black and white came together life emerged. Before burying their ancestors, for example, Kongolese men put on white cloths to mourn the dead while women smeared their faces and chests with black dust to counter the power of death and to reconfirm their own powers of life.

Others expressed similar relationships through the symbol of the circle and the cross that the Mississippians and early Europeans had known so well. From the Gold Coast to the Kongo, people mapped the forces that structured their lives as an equilateral cross in line with the sun. Its four arms traced the fundamental relationships of the sun and the moon and the sky and the earth. Each arm of the cross marked one of the four positions of the sun during the day. Its upper half expressed masculinity while the lower half invoked femininity, and the horizontal line that bisected the cross, the kalunga line, marked the horizon where the surface of the undersea world that was home to powerful spirits met the sky and framed the world the people inhabited. They would either draw the map on the ground or form a circle around a wooden cross and dance counterclockwise around the figure in imitation of the sun that ordered their world. Women might invoke the moon in such dances by dancing in the opposite direction, and thus express the total system in which the people lived. The dances brought the land alive to send the spirits of the dead into the sea and onto the next stage of life, to offer aid in some way to the people of this world, or to reproduce the social and spatial order that made their lives meaningful. Others traced the patterns of the dances in their hair, shaving away all but enough to trace crosses or concentric circles on their scalps. Warriors too painted crosses on their bodies before going off either to defend their own sacred circle or to destroy the circle of another.

The trade in enslaved people altered the cosmologies the people of West Africa used to explain their world, and the ground began to reflect the new movements of people as they traveled out of the villages and into the cargo holds of the ships on the coast. People assigned the slavers a particular color, white, and a particular place of origin—the world of the dead. One German explorer of the Guinea Coast inquired as to why corpses were painted white before burial; he learned that their bodies would travel to a land of ”Whites.” Some years later, at El Mina, a local woman identified a European who was visiting the post as the reincarnation of her husband. “She said it was me,” the stunned visitor declared, “and I was her deceased husband, who had become white through death.” While in the Kongo two small white children from the land of the dead visited a young girl named Doña Beatriz Kimpa Vita. After her encounter with the twins Beatriz undertook training in the spiritual arts and captured people’s attention when the spirit of St. Anthony possessed her in order to redeem the kingdom and to restore the balance of the Kongo world that had been lost to civil strife and slaving. Beatriz framed the world of the slave trade in reference to her land. Whereas her people, she revealed, had come from an ancestral fig tree named n’sanda, the Europeans who had beset the kingdom had crawled out of fuma, a white clay-like mineral associated with the watery realm of the dead.

Before the slave trade, the spirits of the dead, Kongo people believed, descended a mountain and crossed the kalunga line into a body of water. After crossing the water, they reached the foot of another mountain where the soul passed into the afterworld. As slavers worked their way into BaKongo consciousness, however, they came to inhabit the bottom of the body of water and the lower slopes of the second mountain. By seizing the realm below the kalunga line that was home to the powerful forces of life and death, white spirits devoured African flesh, cut off access to the afterlife, and circumscribed the power and reach of the ancestors. Such spirits broke the circle, set adrift the cross, and ruptured the lines of kinship that had made Kongo society meaningful and whole. Adaptations to the presence of the slave trade were not, of course, limited to the Kongolese. Captives who passed through Ardrah in the Bight of Bénin believed that their captors were fattening them in the pens for sale to cannibals. Growing up in Fante country, Ottobah Cugoano remembered being told as a child that “white people” ate Africans. Olaudah Equiano of Igbo land recalled upon boarding the slave ship that delivered him to the Americas, “I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.” After fainting from fright, the young Equiano regained consciousness and asked his fellow captives “if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and loose hair [?]”

Christopher Columbus made possible the commingling of the South’s founding peoples as well as the clash of geographies that ensued. With the patronage of Isabella the Catholic, queen of Castile, and her husband King Fernando of Aragón, he carried Castile’s expansionist impulses into the west, an unknown but wholly anticipated region that medieval cosmographers had associated with health, happiness, and paradise. Indeed, as he tracked the expanses of the open Atlantic during the three voyages he made to the Indies, he thought himself closer and closer to a holy paradise that sat atop not the spherical earth of Aristotle and Ptolemy but one that was pear-shaped or, better yet, pendulous like a woman’s breast. The cyclopes, cannibals, and other inversions of the natural order that had inhabited the antipodal lands since antiquity, however, were another matter altogether. To his sovereigns, the “lovers and promoters of the Holy Christian Faith, and enemies of the false doctrines of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies,” Columbus pledged fealty and promised to continue across the seas what the assault on the Alhambra had finished on land. Whether with a bite of the pear or a grasp at the breast, Columbus promised to take ownership of a western paradise that medieval clerics had regarded as all but closed to any but the divine.

The great sailor navigated the western seas by dead reckoning, inferring what was not known—his actual position—from what was known—the speed at which he was moving and his ship’s relationship to the path the sun traced in the sky. The rhumb lines, compass roses, and meridians of the portolan charts he and others used to ply the Mediterranean and the shores of western Africa were of no use in the open Atlantic, and the farther he sailed, the more his own mind determined the relationships of wind, sun, and water that bore him westward over the waters. The same system of navigation showed him his way through the worlds he entered in the Indies. Only, to locate himself on the ground, he looked not to the sky but to histories, geographies, medieval compilations, and his own memories to position what he had found in relationship to what he knew. Marco Polo had already named the land for which Columbus sought in vain Cathay, Quinsay, and Chipangu. The dwellings he spied through his eyeglass reminded him of the tents Moorish soldiers pitched on their campaigns. Pliny the Elder explained for him why the trees he saw were so large while Ptolemy and Aristotle enabled him to correlate latitude and skin color. Pierre d’Ailly’s 1483 compilation Imago mundi provided a T/O map that forced Columbus to reconcile what he saw with what the Bible taught, and a host of other authors who crowded his shelves prepared him to believe that beyond the island that came to be called Cuba, he would find, he wrote, “one-eyed men, and others, with snouts of dogs, who ate men.”

But dead reckoning could only suggest links between fixed objects and fluid positions. The navigator’s most primitive craft could not weave new things and old referents into a meaningful order. Without the aid of a portolan chart to guide him, he simply could not take in the entirety of what he had seen. Just a few days after sighting trees unlike anything to be seen in the Mediterranean, Columbus confronted the limits of the world he had known. “But that I do not recognize them,” he confided to his diary, “burdens me with the greatest sorrow in the world.” Rather than yield to his own crisis of confidence, however, he made his own fate and his own world all the while believing that He had handed him both. Wherever his crews made landfall ringing axes felled trees, cross-cut saws hewed timbers, and carpenters assembled crosses to plant on the beaches as if to cower the forests, to bring order to the bays, rivers, and plains that opened before them, and to make real what they had imagined.

The wooden crosses, Latin prayers, and linen flags that accompanied each ceremony of possession situated the places he saw within a mental map of dominion that Columbus revised every time he rounded a point or sounded a shoal. And the knowledge he sustained through the names he bestowed on the land bent the unfathomable origins of the place he had entered to the known genealogy of the Creation and the Crown that he served. As the days passed into weeks, though, the world he crafted moved farther and farther from what he might have read in Pliny or Aristotle, seen in the mappae mundi that hung on the walls of churches of Genoa, Lisbon, or Seville, or measured in the portolan charts that stopped short on the near shores of the Canaries.

The people posed a particular challenge. He called them “Indios,” a term that reflected his own erroneous assumption about where he was and who he was seeing. But the meanings he attached to the term as he navigated the island seas came to denote so much more than a people who inhabited the Indies. The edenic qualities the navigator attributed to the islands he surveyed suggested that Columbus wondered whether or not the Fall or the Flood had ever happened there. If they had not, the Indians were an antipodean people who had lived outside of time as he understood it. And if they had their innocence, their poverty, simplicity, and, ultimately, degradation made them ideal candidates for redemption before the One True Faith in vassalage to the Crowns of Castile and Aragon. As he reported to his sovereigns, the Indians were “fit to be ordered about and made to work, plant, and do everything else that may be needed, and build towns and be taught our customs,” and, lastly, “to go about clothed.”

The men of Jamestown too sought to fashion a world on the other side of the sea that they could master, and their vision hewed close to Columbus’s original line. The land’s potential remained untapped for it had not been inhabited by, John Smith wrote, “industrious people” who could draw from the land both pleasure and profit. To begin to wrest the land from those he argued who “make so smal a benefit of their land,” Smith initiated a number of claims. The crosses he and his men erected on river shores and by waterfalls extended the grip of the faith across the wide sea. If no cross was to be had they improvised and carved them into tree trunks or secreted notes or small brass crosses into hollow limbs and trunks to demonstrate to all who followed that “Englishmen had beene there.”

More than a century and a half later, another group of invaders expanded upon General James Oglethorpe’s intent to dedicate the colony of Georgia to “a Christian, moral and industrious way of life.” Sir Robert Montgomery, an early booster of Georgia, described the colony as “Paradise with all her virgin beauties.” But the nubile garden did not belong to the people who had made her. Georgia was nothing less, Montgomery declared, than “our future Eden.” To erase any doubts in the minds of his readers, he calculated that the new settlements occupied the same latitude as the Promised Land. Even Oglethorpe remarked that the land which Creek women farmed would “produce almost everything in wonderful Quantities with very little Culture.” Another visitor to Georgia went so far as to applaud the “spontaneous” wealth that sprung from the soil. Abundant oak trees pointed colonizers toward champion land where they could produce raw silk, potash, flax, hemp, cattle, and fowl with little or no effort.

The notion of paradise on the other side of the sea, however, was unsustainable and led to the importation of Africans to do the hard work associated with pulling a living out of the land. The captives who were crammed between decks on slave ships suffocated in the reek of vomit, feces, urine, and blood. Such poor men, women, and children, one ship captain wrote, had “a more dreadful apprehension of Barbados than we have of hell.” In addition to the horrible living conditions, inhumane treatment, poor food, and bad water, the passage severed their connections to the ancestors, to the spirits, and to the worlds they had made together. Captives on the slave ships looked on in horror as the slavers, wise to local notions that only intact bodies could make the journey below the water to the afterlife, knowingly mutilated some captives to cow the others into submission. Captives watched with horror as one ship’s captain beheaded a man accused of killing a crewman and threw the body across the kalunga line into the ocean. Without his head the man had no chance of finding the afterworld where his ancestors awaited and with his death an entire family tree fell into the sea and sank to the bottom.

But out of these early fragments comes a story that, while taking different turns depending on where the enslaved people were placed, followed a fairly common narrative. Enslaved people stumbled out of the holds at the end of social life and on the edge of death. Relationships that reached back to their homelands or that had been forged in the holds could come undone in the sales. The effort to reconstitute their former homes or the homes of their forebears took place almost immediately, however, and was an important part of their broader struggle to make new families and new communities under the worst of circumstances. The cycles of the moon had to be recalibrated for both planting and birthing, new seasons had to be overlaid atop old calendars, new medicines had to be fashioned from unfamiliar plants, and the screeches of owls and colors and patterns of snakes’ skins had to be added to extant lists of omens. The Cooper river in South Carolina, for example, became home to a water spirit whose ability to read the future, alter the weather, and protect the people merited a number of gifts. On the bottoms of the pottery pieces that people threw into the river potters traced the circle and cross maps that both first people and enslaved people shared as a basic cosmological referent and that brought the kalunga line to the plantations of the South. People left similar pots filled with food in the graveyards that were adjacent to their villages. The water-borne spirits that relied upon such gifts to sustain them were thereby able to remain in the land and, within a generation, to transform the land of death into a land of life for the enslaved.

But this land of life was a hard place and the great cosmic endpoints of the Africans’ cosmos continued to inform their lives and the world they made together. In 1710 an enslaved man who lived in Goose Creek parish, South Carolina, claimed to have seen sin where before he had seen only slavery, and he foretold a day of judgment. To the man who owned him he prophesied that “a dismal time” was coming and that “the Moon would be turned into Blood, and there would be death and darkness.” The owner called in an Anglican minister to give counsel while fleet feet and colorful pettiaugers carried up the paths and waterways of the countryside word that an angel had come and spoken to a man, to one of them, and that the angel had revealed to him a book and would raise fires to signal the approach of the end. In his doom, however, lay the creation of something new, a world reserved for the righteous. In some respects, the man’s creed fit within the millennial traditions of Christianity, but the new place he envisioned also reached back to the towns and homes of both Africa and the first nations where people associated the moon with blood, women, the sea, chaos, and the creation of new life.

Far from simply representing discontent with slavery, such conspiracies and revolts actually represented the culmination of the enslaved people’s abilities to reconstruct out of their received African practices and the exigencies of their Atlantic world a place that had meaning and purpose for them. And that world was not the land of Shem nor was it a plane that held the middle ground between the Sun and the Earth. It was a hell inhabited by white cannibals who had seized control of the sea that the enslaved people made humane, to the best of their ability, by creating places for themselves in their homes, in their markets, and on the paths that connected them within a broader space of coercion, servitude, and inhumanity. Clearly the revelation of the blood moon that the Goose Creek man had seen was widespread and a regular feature of the enslaved people’s cosmology which parents and preachers handed down to the generations that followed.

When the prophecy of the blood moon reached the Cherokees, worlds began to overlap and merge. In 1751 a trader named Richard Smith reported to South Carolina officials that “some Negroes” had told Old Warrior of Keowee that there were far more enslaved people than free people in South Carolina. The logic of the situation, the men explained, was clear. “For the sake of liberty,” they argued, the Cherokees should join them in plotting against the colony. The Carolinians caught one of the ringleaders, Phillip John, who had offered the Cherokees the role of the sword wielded by avenging angels. “The Indians,” he informed his captors, “were to be concerned in the extermination of the white people from the face of this earth.” Did John believe, as had his forebears, that white people belonged at the bottomof the sea? The plot stunned the colony, especially when the invaders learned that the Cherokees planned to hold off until the maize was in before sending warriors to “assist in killing all the Buckraas.”

Eight years later Philip John made trouble again and was, Governor William Lyttelton wrote to his superiors in London, “tried whip’d & branded for endeavouring to stir up sedition among the Negroes.” John preached that the end was nigh, and he drew a kalunga line across Carolina and placed “the white people” under the ground where the dead dwelled. A sword he saw would slaughter the cannibals and shine “with their Blood.” “There should be no more White Kings, Governors or great Men,” he promised, “but the Negros shou’d live happily & have laws of their own.” Even being whipped and burned did not stop John from spreading his gospel as his vision shot through the backstreets and the urban markets and took its place in the culture of slavery.

The links John drew between African cosmology and the place of white spirits within it were not lost to the first people either. Rappahanocks had called the men who had come to found Virginia “strangers,” people who had “come from under the world, to take their world from them.” Powhatan cosmographers shared similar conceptions of the strangers that placed their origins in the world of water and chaos. After John Smith’s capture during a foray into the forest a party of warriors brought him back to a town where he was enclosed in a house. Seven men entered the dwelling one morning painted in the colors of their world, red for war and blood, black for death, and white for life and peace. Around the fire that blazed in the center of the floor, its smoke trailing out of a hole in the ceiling up to the Sun in the sky, they danced, shook their rattles, and sang, and at the end of the song one of them sifted between his fingers a line of ground maize with which he traced a circle around the fire. Beyond the circle of cultivation represented by the pale yellow grains of meal, the dancers laid concentric circles of whole kernels of maize, perhaps to stand for the fields that surrounded their towns or the towns that comprised their confederacy. The farther the mapmakers got from the fire, however, the less domesticated their world became, and they scattered small sticks amongst the kernels to connote the forests that bounded their world and that had also been the first thing the Company had felled in the construction of their fort.

“They imagined the world to be flat and round,” Smith concluded from the ceremony, “…and they in the middest.” But his own conception of his own people’s place was not so different. When the leader Opechancanough inquired after Smith about his ivory compass, Smith obliged him by drawing on an intellectual tradition that reached back to Pliny the Elder, Aristotle, and even old Thales of Miletus. The sun, Smith explained, ordered the universe and marked the predictable rhythms of time. It chased the moon in an endless cycle of days. If he understood Smith, Opechancanough probably nodded in agreement. Against the immutability of the sun’s celestial order, Smith went on, planets embodied change, mortality, and imperfection because of the erratic movements they followed through the sky. To emphasize the point, Smith traced their imperfect orbits across the sky with his finger, and Opechancanough followed. Each planet in Smith’s universe brought a unique mixture of heat, cold, dryness, and moisture to bear on the earth, which when combined with air, fire, soil, and water produced the variability of human life, and he related how the globe was covered with a variety of nations and people of different colors all separated by the sea.

The concepts of space and place enacted by the dancers who visited Smith that morning in Pamaunk or demonstrated by Smith in the conversation around his compass each made room for other kinds of people, albeit in different ways and for different reasons. To the dancers, Smith had a place in their world sitting on the edge of their map by the shores of the sea while, for Smith, the Powhatans and the English were bound to one another as antipodeans, forever locked in cosmological opposition across an ocean of water and a sea of civilization. The leaders of a first nation who met Oglethorpe in 1735, like those who had met Smith, pinned the newcomers’ origins in the sea. To the nokfilaki, “people of the ocean foam,” a group known as the Kasihtas mapped their world and instructed the English as to their proper place in it. They had crawled from out of a hole in the ground, they explained, a mother cave, the source of the world’s water, and had fought their way across many red rivers to arrive at their present home. While offering the Englishman a white token of peace to mark the opening of a clear bright path between the two peoples, they, at the same time, drew Oglethorpe and his followers into their own landscape so that they could share the same world. In pointing out to the Georgians how best to conduct themselves in this new relationship, the chief reminded Oglethorpe that in the past his people had never shirked from setting aside their white feathers when outsiders violated the balance of their relationship. At such times, the people had, the men informed Oglethorpe, painted their hatchets red and marched to war down crooked paths against former friends who, through their ungrateful behavior, had shown they truly were people from under the world, from beneath the sea.

Obtaining supplies of maize, beans, and venison required ongoing efforts at cultivating and maintaining relationships. Gift giving, smoking of the calumet, and pledging friendship enabled Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, to both integrate La Louisiane into broader regional networks of power and to situate first Biloxi and then New Orleans as important nodes in those networks. But it took practice and effort to make it happen. Under the deer moon, for example, the first moon of their calendar, a real and true people known as the Natchez welcomed Iberville to their country. The body of their leader, the Great Sun, mapped his people’s world in the blue tattoos of the sun and serpents that covered his arms, legs, and chest. As a group of men bore the Sun to meet Iberville, the visitors understood the degree to which land and power fused in the body and the lineage of the man before him. The living map welcomed Iberville to his world with gifts, a white cross to evoke the sun’s power and the sanctity of the chief’s place, and a pearl, an object from the watery world of the sea, that situated the explorers in the same in-between place that his people called home.

A sacred fire burned in the temple that sat atop a mound adjacent to the Great Sun’s home. Inside lay the cane boxes that held the bones of the deceased Suns that had preceded him, tying his family’s line to the original Mother, the earth. Wooden eagles perched on the roof, watching the world on behalf of the sky. Outside of the temple, the chief performed his own sense of place and space. The architecture of his home and the mound, his body’s markings, and the cross and the pearl came to life as each morning he shouted to the west, lit his pipe, and blew smoke to the four points of the cross. His visitors shared in the pipe ceremony letting their clear voices fly into the air to take wing toward the west, signaling their own concurrence, if for only a moment, in the poetics of his place and space, his in-between. When the Great Sun instructed his guests to blow smoke to the sky, the earth, and, lastly, the horizon that separated the two and that marked the in-between world where he and his guests lived, he held out the promise that they too could come out of the water and belong to this world.

The sense of belonging that each founding people extended to the other whether it was in chains, as cannibals, or at the stem of a pipe was rooted in each people’s notion of the world they inhabited. Without understanding the different cultural constructions of, in a narrow sense, the Atlantic Ocean, or, in a broader sense, the Atlantic World, it is impossible to understand how such cultures operated in space and produced the kinds of societies they did. Moreover, if we discount the meaning of different cultural constructions of past spaces then we discount as well the depth of their meaning. Asserting that the Atlantic Ocean is a natural fact is, then, more than just another instance of proclaiming the inert horizontality that Natter and Jones identified. It is a cultural position not unlike that taken by the Genoese merchant who characterized portolan maps as the truth minus the frivolous tales. When we consider the ocean to be a fact, then we risk characterizing water serpents, the kalunga line, and visions of Eden as also frivolous when they should instead be seen as foundational to the creation of the Atlantic World. When Brathwaite’s stone skipped across the water’s surface it left widening circles that then reached the limits of their energy, faded, and disappeared. The movement in the acts of creation he suggested in his poem “Calypso” was as integral to the making of places as they were to the making of history, and if we lose our sense of balance between the past and its places, then we risk silencing the voices that can tell us about the making of the Atlantic World. If we recognize the formation of Atlantic World societies in the processes of contact and colonization then we must also recognize the disparate geographies which brought that world into being as truths of their own kind.