Thinking about the port in the Mediterranean
Thinking about the Mediterranean there is an irresistible invitation to think about its ports. Painting an overall picture of them would be a banal, very ordinary exercise. However, even though we have good monographs on many individual ports and global analysis of the maritime space, there is no synthesis enabling or encouraging us to think about the Mediterranean port as just that. Does this mean the exercise is too risky, because we would have to include so many aspects – social, demographic, political, economic, cultural and urban? Without claiming to rise completely to the challenge, I think it’s possible to flush out certain elements which help us think about the port if we take just a single moment in the history of the Mediterranean as an example – a tiny moment certainly on the scale of the sea’s history, but it may shed light on the whole if it is correctly perceived. For me the moment to choose is the end of the 18th century and beginning of the following, when Europe took control of the Mediterranean and the ports represented a visible unifying force in this space.
However, unity should not be confused with uniformity. If the Mediterranean civilisation is first of all about towns, and often port towns, is there a model port which exists only in the Mediterranean? The diversity and complexity certainly provide keys to help us read this. At the risk of making a fastidious and ultimately sterile list, we could categorize this diversity according to different criteria. But would that get us to the root of what the Mediterranean port is?
If a general picture, probably unwise and certainly incomplete, needs comparisons, it should not be a catalogue, even less a list of winners. Not claiming to be complete, this panorama will inevitably leave many ports in the shade, some it will ignore entirely. My only ambition is to shed a little light on what a Mediterranean port is – mainly at the end of the 18th century, but also a bit before and a bit after – to flush out, as well as the diversity mentioned already, the possible common denominators. That is the central purpose of the present reflection.
To achieve this and before we even begin, we have to clear a way through all the organisations and mass of structures; naturally the setting and the role of men take second place to shipping and maritime activities, without which the ports would not exist.
A port is the classic interface between earth and sea – even sky if you include the role of the weather and the important part played by pleading for heavenly protection – and the port’s dynamics reinforce the diversity of the whole Mediterranean. A good measure of a port’s influence is to look at the extent and composition of the area it used in order to respond to the particular demands and business strategies of the time. Without claiming to be better than the others, Marseille is a good example to help us see the components of a commercial port. Elucidating the main links of its tightly knit spaces means taking readings at different focal lengths, and that will take us beyond the borders of the Mediterranean area.
However, the changes at the end of the 18th century deeply modify this general construct. Perhaps they underline the fragility of the inventory we tried to sketch? Perhaps they invite us to reassess the weakness, even the vanity of such an attempt? The reclassification and redistribution of roles at the beginning of the 19th century overturned the picture patiently built up. At the same time there are signs that another kind of Mediterranean port was emerging, another system beginning.
I- Diversity and weight of port...
II- Dynamics and influence of t...
III- Re-ordering: towards a new...
Thinking about the Mediterranean there is an irresistible invitation to think about its ports. Painting an overall picture of them would be a banal, very ordinary exercise. However, even though we have good monographs on many individual ports and global analysis of the maritime space, there is no synthesis enabling or encouraging us to think about the Mediterranean port as just that. Does this mean the exercise is too risky, because we would have to include so many aspects – social, demographic, political, economic, cultural and urban? ...
Professor in modern history, University of Aix-Marseille, TELEMME, MMSH.