Happy who, like Ulysses, had a beautiful trip… Cyrille Poirier-Coutansais talks to us about these trips and the empires which have followed one another on the seas and on the oceans in his Atlas of Maritime Empires published by editions of the CNRS. The author, legal adviser to the Naval Staff, is an expert in maritime and geopolitical issues. He published last year at Ellipses Editions Geopolitics of the oceans, maritime El Dorado. The latter offers us in this work a journey through time and space and thus demonstrates that the seas have played a capital role in the history of the world.
A global and imperial history
Although very different in substance and in form, it is interesting to better understand this book to compare it to a brilliant book which also dealt with the imperial question (and not just the maritime empires) Empires, From ancient China to the present day by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper published by Payot editions. The empires selected are radically different in the two works. If, in that of Burbank and Cooper, they are few in number but analyzed in depth, it is the reverse in that of Poirier-Coutansais, which develops more than twenty in ten pages each. However, it should not be concluded that the Atlas of Maritime Empires only superficially addresses the question because the author's words are different: it is not a description or an in-depth analysis of imperial structures but of explanations on the advent of these powers, on the means by which they reached this privileged status and on the geopolitical and economic stakes which they had to face. In short, it is a geopolitical rather than a structuralist analysis. However, the succession of empires, sometimes very ephemeral, ultimately strengthens the continuity of these which succeed one another. The control of the Indian Ocean by the various empires is particularly enlightening in this regard: the author, over the chapters, demonstrates that the question of the control of relations between Asia and Europe via the oceans has been crucial for economic reasons. The integration of the Viking, Genoese, Venetian, Sriwijaya or Oman empires into these successions is therefore all the more justified as it allows the reader to discover very little-known spaces and powers that share certain common objectives. The book closes with contemporary perspectives: what will be the place of the seas in the 21st century and which country will have control of Asia-Europe relations?
A clear and accessible book not free from flaws
As we said previously, ten pages are devoted to each empire. The purpose is clear and synthetic and allows both the enlightened reader and the neophyte to find something to their liking. The language is very accessible and allows the reader to devour this work like a novel. However, it is not necessary to read this book from cover to cover: the reader can easily choose not to read a particular chapter or to read them out of order because each of them is sufficiently independent. so that we are not lost afterwards. The illustrations and maps, many varied, enhance the reading.
However, the book is not free from flaws. Minor errors can be detected here and there in the author's text. Certain choices made by the cartographer may also suggest that empires were more unified and homogeneous than they were. This can be particularly problematic when the map implies domination over certain spaces that were not. For example, at the end of the chapter on Rome, the author discusses the question of trade with the Indian world via the Red Sea. A map of the “Roman positions” in the 1st century AD. J.-C. p. 62 mentions different places with emblems of the Roman Republic. However on this map Alexandria, capital and important commercial port of the eastern Mediterranean, is placed on the same level as Ocelis, a port known and used by the Romans but which was never controlled by them (although we could find traces of the legions far beyond the limes). More serious still, the absence of bibliography and footnotes is even more problematic. The reader finds himself in the incapacity to be able to deepen such or such aspect of his reading whereas certain passages of the text are particularly interesting and little to treat in more traditional works.
Despite these reservations, theAtlas of Maritime Empires invites the reader to travel and discover these maritime empires. It is certainly less exhaustive than the atlases of the Autrement editions, but it is aimed at a wider audience. This book is not really an atlas in the sense that the text takes precedence over the maps and that some of them are not detailed enough because they are too small. This book is however a good introduction on the subject, an album on the empires that we travel through and an invitation to deepen the knowledge of these past maritime powers, European or extra-European, which have dominated this space of all possibilities that is the sea.
Atlas of Maritime Empires, by Cyrille P. Coutansais. CNRS Editions, May 2013.