Insularities and Littoralities Connected: New Trends in Research from the Moray Firth to the Mediterranean

Dr Michael Talbot, the author of this guest post, is a Lecturer in History at the University of Greenwich. He has a wide interest in Ottoman history between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. His research has focused on Ottoman-British relations in the eighteenth century, as well as on Ottoman ideas of maritime territoriality and maritime space in the same period in relation to threats of piracy and privateering. His most recent research examines Algerian merchants and commercial litigation in the eighteenth century as part of the ERC-funded Mediterranean Reconfigurations project coordinated at Université Paris 1. He is also a contributor to the Ottoman History Podcast, and its primary source blog, Tozsuz Evrak (Dust-Free Documents).

In the past few months, I have enjoyed two of the most stimulating academic gatherings that I have ever had the pleasure of attending, the first being the Firths and Fjords: A Coastal History Conference organised by David Worthington (University of the Highlands and Islands) and held at Dornoch in Scotland in April 2016, and the second being Insularities Connected: Bridging Seascapes from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and Beyond organised by Antonis Hadjikyriacou (Centre for Mediterranean Studies, Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas) and Sakis Gekas (York University, Canada) and held in Rethymno, Crete in June 2016. Not only did these gatherings provide wonderful papers and ideas, as well as challenging and thought-provoking methodological discussions, but represent, at least to me, an important moment in the study of both historical and contemporary seascapes and landscapes. I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the thoughts I have been left with from both of these exceptional conferences, and perhaps suggest some commonalities that should be developed.

Seinn an duan seo dhan Innis Àigh,

An innis uaine as gile tràigh.

Sing this song to the Happy Isle,

The green isle with the whitest shores.

IMG_3315 Dornoch, Scotland, 31 March 2016

For the past few years I have been thinking quite deeply about the relationship between the eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire and its Mediterranean waters, particularly in terms of asserting maritime power and territoriality. To begin with I was thinking from a purely territorial and legal perspective about different means of asserting territoriality that I shan’t bore you with here. Over the past year or so, the physicality of the relationships between state and subject, between centre and province, between imperial and local, have become increasingly apparent to me.  Above all, the role of coasts and islands in shaping and forming Ottoman ideas of dominion in the Mediterranean has lead me to rethink many of my earlier ideas about the conception of power, and has brought me to the conclusion that a huge discussion is needed about how we make sense of islands and coasts together. Insularity and littorality – the state of being an island and being a coast – are, I believe, greatly interlinked yet sufficiently different to require profound and in-depth discussion through comparative cases.

Let’s start with what I’ve learned about coasts and littorality. I’d like to mention two ideas that I encountered through the Dornoch conference that really got the mental cogs whirring. The first came from John Gillis’s keynote, addressed from the pulpit of the Dornoch Cathedral. In his wide-ranging and thought-provoking lecture, Professor Gillis described the importance of the ecotone, that is, a transitional area between two discrete biological environments. The coast therefore is the ecotone of the sea and the land, where the terrestrial and the maritime merge and clash, and create a separate yet entangled environment.  This makes the coast more than a frontier, a border, or a boundary, and more than a space of porousness, transience, and fluidity, but something somewhere in between. This links quite nicely with a blogpost published by Isaac Land on the Coastal History Blog that he was kind enough to direct me to in Scotland. There, he wrote of the somewhat insular, speaking of islands in a coastal context as ‘largely distinct and slightly inaccessible’. This fractional identity, as he calls it, allows us to think about coasts – and, indeed, islands – in a more nuanced way, with mostly, largely, partly, and slightly becoming useful adverbs to modify our descriptors and images of coast and/or island.

Ada sahillerinde bekliyorum

Her zaman yollarını gözlüyorum.

I’m waiting on the island shore,

I’m always watching out for you.



Rethymno, Crete, 13 June 2016

If the conference at Dornoch was an attempt – and, in my humble opinion, a successful one – to open and develop a comparative discussion on things littoral, then that in Rethymno brought the question of insularity into sharp and critical focus. Islands can share the features of coasts in being bridges and frontiers, outward-looking and inward-looking, isolated and connected. Yet one of the most important aspects of this conference was the critique of the island’s exceptionalism. This is something to be considered for the coast as well. In one of his many beautiful papers (I don’t think he’s even capable of giving anything less) given at the University of Birmingham in early 2016, Antonis Hadjikyriacou described his conception of insularity as the state and perception of being an island, in particular as a means– in his specific context of Ottoman Cyprus and beyond – to move away from centre-province binaries and to think of islands as stepping stones in a wider spatial connectivity. ‘The spatiality of islands’, he contends, ‘is neither obvious nor self-explanatory’.

This statement is really quite exciting. By complicating our understanding of insular space, islands, Hadjikyriacou argues, become connectors between land and sea. The papers presented in Rethymno by scholars of the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, provided their own evidence of connectivities, between historical spaces and times and between theoretical understandings of connectivity itself.  The verbal and spatial visualisations of these connectivities were sometimes quite breathtaking. We saw deep readings of documents of central and local archives and other textual sources joined by equally profound analyses of visual and material sources from a variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary angles, something that this conference shared with the Dornoch gathering.

This is why I believe we are at such an important intellectual moment. Both conferences in a way came to similar conclusions, that the complication of insular and littoral space shows the importance of these spaces as connectors within their landscapes and seascapes. Coasts are not simply boundaries or contact zones between land and sea, and islands are not just disconnected features in a liquid desert. Now, we need to bring these conversations together, to talk about the methodological connections between island and coastal histories. We need to foster an intellectual ecotone, to reveal our connectivities, to critique and (re)define our analytical tools. The task ahead is absolutely huge, and will eventually need to bring in maritime scholars as well as those thinking about wider historical terrae firmae. But the empirical and conceptual potential of the collaboration between insular and littoral interconnections to produce a really new and genuine way to think about global and regional histories and links is clear, as has already been demonstrated in Dornoch and Rethymno. The only question is, in which littoral or insular paradise should we hold such a necessary and exciting gathering?