Jason W. Smith, To Master the Boundless Sea: The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2018. Hardcover, 978-1-4696-4044-0, $35.00USD.
By Jack Bouchard
What tools do we use to control the Ocean? This is the central question which guides the naval officers and scientists in Jason Smith’s new “water history of American empire.(2)” To Master the Boundless Sea traces the rise of professional naval cartography in the nineteenth century and the ways hydrography was bound up with questions of empire, marine environments and science. It is a study of those who believed that “American sea power…was never far removed from knowledge of the sea itself. It derived, in important ways, from control or perceived mastery of the natural world.” (11) Charts and sounding machines share center stage with sleek new warships and their guns in this richly researched and compelling study.
To Master the Boundless Sea uses episodes in the history of mapping to show how “Hydrography … laid the foundation on which the United States attempted to build its oceanic empire outside the territorial waters of the United States (3).” To accomplish this, Smith has written a study of naval activity in the nineteenth century which tries to bring together several strands of recent historical inquiry. Not content with a study of naval scientists, the author goes further, showing how environmental history can illuminate the history of science, which in turn informs our understanding of the methods and theory of empire in the nineteenth century.
The complexity and at times precarity of Smith’s approach – is it a history of science? of the state? of the military? of maritime environments? – is a reflection of his chosen subjects. To Master the Boundless Sea focuses on individuals who themselves fit poorly into clear categories and roles. His description of Matthew Maury could stand for many of the subjects: “His [Maury] efforts can be more fully understood not as a scientist alone, nor as a naval officer, nor as a benefactor of the maritime community, but in the intersection of all three.” (76) Many of these officers-cum-scientists fit uneasily in their worlds, wholly trusted neither by the navy, nor merchant marine, nor scientific establishment. It is this ambiguity which allows Smith to write such a multifaceted history, but also one which makes the impact of his subjects sometimes difficult to assess.
Charts are at the center of this book, tools which were “malleable and versatile, if also problematic, instruments of power.” (3) Smith is able to link cartography to a natural history of maritime environments and the history of American imperialism. Smith situates himself squarely with a growing literature re-examining the methods and theory of US imperialism in the nineteenth century. The 1860s form a pivot in the book: before this, we see a new regime of scientific being constructed to replace older, informal systems of maritime knowledge. Afterwards, we see accelerating technological change and aggressive US expansion into the Pacific cementing the relationship between hydrographic knowledge and naval power. Smith’s decision to exclude the American Civil War is excusable, but leaves an important hole in the middle of the narrative – we see the profound consequences of the war (described as a “watershed moment” on page 109) without knowing what happened.
Despite the optimism of his subjects, running through Smith’s book is a note of failure. The efforts to produce more accurate charts across the nineteenth century both “hastened the emergence of an American empire and constantly reminded imperialists…of the inherent limits of their understanding and the tremendous challenges of conducting scientific work at sea.” (208) It is a study of ambitious dreams half-realized, both for individual scientists and for the United States as a whole, of inaccurate charts resurfacing decade after decade, leading sailors and soldiers to their deaths across the Pacific and Caribbean. Curiously, Smith does not make this failure as central a theme or framework as it should have been, and its remarkably absent from the introduction.
The book is concise, fast-paced and engagingly written. Smith’s careful attention to detail and willingness to engage with differing historiographical strands pays big dividends: this study makes a compelling case for more work which combines scientific, naval, and environmental history. To Master the Boundless Sea serves as a welcome and necessary accompaniment to other studies of maritime history in the nineteenth century.
Jack Bouchard is a postdoctoral fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and next year will begin teaching environmental history at Rutgers University. He studies maritime environments and fisheries in the pre-modern Atlantic world.