Transatlantic commerce was the defining feature of the eighteenth century’s imperial economy. The ocean was the conduit by which goods, labour, and capital circulated—goods that included sugar and tobacco, labour that included enslaved men and women, capital that included the remarkable oceangoing ships themselves. On transatlantic circulation hung the wealth and fate of empires, and that in turn depended upon ships and those who sailed them. Nathan Perl-Rosenthal’s new book, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (which Ben posted about a few weeks ago), does not tell those sailors’ story. Instead, it gives an account of the crucial relationship between sailors and states, and its remaking in the era of Revolution. As the empires and new republics of the North Atlantic world struggled to hold or wrest the reins of commerce, they had to invent new forms of power and identity—forms of power vested, like so much else we could call modern, in paper.
The agents of this story are not the sailors who burned the customs schooner HMS Gaspee in 1772. They’re not the motley crew of Rediker and Linebaugh’s Many Headed Hydra. While Perl-Rosenthal notes that and other revolutionary works of seafaring labour history in an early footnote, inspiration for the early stages of his project more than a decade ago, the history he has eventually produced is very different. In place of the baroque and the prophetic, Perl-Rosenthal’s prose is neat, orderly, classical. In place of sweat, spit, tar, and tyrannicide, the world of Citizen Sailors is a smoother and cleaner one, with only the occasional disintegrating document or muscled torso to remind us of its physicality. Sailors were valuable and skilled labourers, the more so the longer they survived. But they could not transform their labour power into agency. Eighteenth-century states exerted a brutal control. As Samuel Johnson put it, being in the navy was like being in prison, with the added chance of being drowned.
Revolution in America threatened to undermine the British empire’s grip on its sailors. Up to that point, Perl-Rosenthal tells us, transatlantic empires had worked on the basis of a common sense of nationhood. If you spoke English, if your manners, your skin, and your face looked English (or Welsh, or Scottish, or even perhaps Irish), then you were to all intents and purposes a subject of the British king; and the same applied, mutatis mutandis, to Spanish and French subjects, to Danes, and Portuguese, and so on. United States independence made that common sense impossible, for now there were men on the sea who looked and spoke like Englishmen but called themselves Americans. More annoying still, the disruption created opportunities for individual sailors. They could desert the British navy or merchant marine for a foreign one—the American—without sticking out like sore thumbs. On the other hand, of course, once this began to happen, almost every soi-disantAmerican on board a ship began to look, to British captains, very much like a deserter.
In this new battle over sailors’ labour power, national identity was a weapon to be sharpened and adapted for use. Far from an “essential and unchangeable quality,” nationhood could be a choice. Or rather, it was a category open to competing claims and instrumental formulations. In their attempts to imbue themselves with unchangeable nationality, sailors sometimes went so far as to tattoo upon themselves the symbols of their country. Others adapted to the new confusion, shifting their identity as ships changed their flags, for the best advantage in each given situation. They remained, more often than not, at the mercy of the most powerful naval state, Britain. The well-known rallying cry of impressment and the War of 1812 hang over Perl-Rosenthal’s book from the outset. War in Europe gave the new, neutral United States a much-needed commercial opening. But it also put yet more pressure on the stock of maritime labour, making impressment and imperial bullying inevitable, exposing American naval weakness.
Citizen Sailors seems to want to tell a story of modernity. In this story, old-fashioned and essentialising notions of identity are swept away by revolutionary forces, and in their place there emerges that most iconically modern of institutions: the paper-based bureaucracy. By instituting new systems of individual identity-documents, the United States’ federal government helped to create something quite like modern national identity. Through their consuls in Britain and France they worked hard to recover sailors wrongly impressed from American ships. Keeping numbered registers of sailors who were U.S. nationals enabled them to offer proof, even when British captains contemptuously threw documents overboard. In the face of such arrogance, diplomatic and bureaucratic measures were the modern, rational response. Apart from the Americans, the hero here is Napoleon, who used his personal power to build the centralized French state. “A central part of that process was generating and then putting one’s faith in vast quantities of increasingly standardized paperwork,” Perl-Rosenthal writes. Historians and other archive-lurkers can surely share in his admiration.
But it was not identity papers or bureaucracy that stopped the British navy from impressing sailors on American ships. As Perl-Rosenthal points out, the American identity regime actually made matters worse, “contribut[ing] materially to the increasing tensions over impressment after 1800.” It was Napoleon’s defeat, and the end of the global imperial war, that brought those tensions to an end. In his epilogue, Perl-Rosenthal describes the U.S. identity regime as “a step towards the modern world of state-sanctioned nationality.” Perhaps he’s right. Certainly, today’s states are monuments to bureaucracy. They like to know who their citizens are and, as far as possible, what they’re doing and who they’re talking to. They also like to make sure citizens of other states—or of no state at all—cannot enter their territory freely. Meanwhile, of course, cosmopolitan billionaires maintain itinerant global lifestyles, and their money flies flags of convenience in secret tax havens. We need a history of citizens and states that can explain this set of problems. Whether that history is best framed in terms of the movement to modernity, I’m not quite so sure.