Pacific history: Exploring a networked maritime space


FILE PHOTO: The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders by Donald Denoon et al.

FILE PHOTO: The Pacific History by Donald B. Freeman

In the context of historiography, the ocean serves as a medium used by some historians to reflect their concept of historical space and support specific research paths they advocate or follow. The academic “discovery” and study of ocean space, or maritime history, has emerged as a new field of historical research over the past thirty years. In the physical sense, historical research on ocean space gradually reveals that human civilization is intricately linked to both land and sea. In the conceptual sense, framing a new analytical framework centered on ocean space is an integral part of the “spatial turn” in historical research. This aims to promote a reevaluation and breakthrough in traditional historical research paradigms and contribute to the reconstruction of world history. The latter, known as maritime history as a research perspective, can more effectively emphasize the originality and value of its research approach.


The choice of research perspective and methodology often determines the direction of the researcher, which is a significant factor contributing to the diversification of maritime history research paths. This diversity, compared to fields with similar spatial conceptual characteristics like national/global history, environmental history, economic history, social history, as well as macro/micro-history research orientations, is much more pronounced. Among the primary branches of maritime history research in the current domestic context, Chinese maritime history research exhibits more of its natural extension as a study of national and regional history, while research on “world maritime history” such as Pacific history, Atlantic history, Indian Ocean history, etc., reflects distinct transnational spatial and experimental characteristics.

The spatial selection in the study of world maritime history is not simply a logical extension from land to the sea in order to explore new “edge spaces.” Rather, it represents the creation of an entirely new interactive space. Its emergence is largely influenced by global history. The ocean, due to its distinct features of de-nationalization and fluidity, as well as its role as a platform for interaction and exchange transcending political boundaries and cultural differences in human history, has drawn the attention of historians and become a part of global history research. 

At the same time, regional orders constructed on oceanic platforms, such as the East Asian maritime world and the Indian Ocean world, which differ from the European trade world, provide examples for global historians to reflect upon and to counter Eurocentric perspectives. However, if it were to stop there, maritime history would only be a part of global history research. Its independence depends to a larger extent on the replacement of the traditional land-centered perspective with a maritime perspective: using the ocean as the basis for spatial construction and restructuring the relationship between land and sea.

The scale of maritime space falls in between the levels of national and local space and global space. In this sense, Pacific history, Atlantic history, and Indian Ocean history can be considered as new regional histories under a global perspective. 

Networked study of the “pacific world”

The term “network” is one of the core concepts used by global historians to describe the historical landscape of global communication and connections. It is often referred to as the “human web” by scholars like the McNeils. Global history, from a perspective that transcends traditional spatial boundaries, focuses on interconnectedness and uses networks as a metaphor to systemically describe and carry the interconnectedness. This approach reflects the impact generated by the exchange of goods, people, ideas, and interactions among different groups and societies.

Similar to the networked approach in global history research, in the study of world maritime history, human activities are regarded as the fundamental unifying element for framing historical space. The ocean possesses a natural openness, prominently manifesting as a “public space” for human activities and a conduit connecting the globe. Once this openness is harnessed by historians through human activities, a structured global space becomes a reality. 

Among the various branches of world maritime history, Pacific history may not be the most influential, but it possesses significant potential for advancement and is at the forefront of research. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Pacific history research exhibited notable path confusion and a tendency to follow and imitate the field of Atlantic history, with Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders serving as a typical example of this trend. However, as the first decade of the new century drew to a close, Pacific history began to break new ground.

In 2010, Canadian scholar Donald B. Freeman published the English version of Pacific History. At the time, mainstream maritime history research was still heavily influenced by the origins of transnational historical paths, and this unconventional work by Freeman did not attract widespread attention from maritime historians. However, looking back from an academic perspective, the pioneering value of this work should not be underestimated. 

This book was the first comprehensive academic work on Pacific history from a truly global perspective. It laid the groundwork for studying the interconnected “Pacific World” on a large temporal and spatial scale. By utilizing a thematic structure and interdisciplinary approaches, the book explored the intricate roles and influences of the Pacific in human settlement, exploration, interaction, and development, spanning from prehistory to the contemporary period. It provided a model for subsequent researchers.

Admittedly, the book departed from the conventional chronological writing style, leading to descriptions of it as “not like a traditional historical work.” However, this approach emphasized the importance of “synchronicity,” which is a crucial means of achieving a global perspective. It is true that the book clearly lacked detailed historical facts and exhibited imbalances in the treatment of different time spans within various topics. There were also concerns regarding the accuracy of materials and historical facts. Nevertheless, the book managed to uncover numerous research threads within a new comprehensive perspective and problem awareness, providing a foundation for the expansion, deepening, and supplementation of future Pacific history research. 

Shift towards networked spaces

“Networkization” is not merely a description of interactive connections; it is also an integrated organic structure. Sebastian Conrad, a young German global historian, has pointed out that this challenge is not unique to Freeman. The pursuit of structural integration based on mechanistic explanations has always been a common challenge for researchers in the field of world maritime history. The overlapping structures that drive integration pose a formidable task in innovative spatial research areas such as Pacific history and global history. These fields encompass grand temporal and spatial structures, diverse and complex thematic areas, and multiple socio-cultural forms that seemingly act as barriers that researchers find hard to overcome. After Freeman, prominent maritime historians such as David Armitage co-edited Pacific Histories: Ocean, Land, and People, and Paul D’Arcy edited The Cambridge History of the Pacific, though none of them proposed effective solutions to this problem.

But it is comforting to note that in the field of Pacific environmental history, which has been significantly influenced by global history, efforts to integrate structures based on causal relationships have made significant progress. In 2013, Gregory T. Cushman published Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, successfully examining various environmental, social, knowledge, economic, and climate-related issues in the context of colonialism, scientific dissemination, and global development, thereby providing a networked structural foundation for specific environmental issues within the framework of global industrial capitalism development. The Cambridge History of the Pacific takes a political ecology approach to address environmental issues, attempting to explore the interactive relationship between humans and nature in the Pacific region within the context of politics, economics, migration, and culture, systematically presenting the role and significance of environmental elements in the historical processes of the Pacific as an integral part of global networkization. Although its degree of success is debatable, this effort itself has raised expectations among researchers for the comprehensive development of Pacific history and even world maritime history. Maritime studies, as a field of networked global spatial research, provides historians with richer options for innovative experimentation. 


Wang Hua is a professor at the History School of the University of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.




Editor:Yu Hui

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved