My previous article introduced two historical approaches to the Mediterranean: that of early modern European travel writers and the more academic, scholarly approach. This article will extend our understanding of the Mediterranean as a source of (or barrier to) unity over time, focusing on the same period, from roughly the 16th to the 20th century. By focusing on the sea's role in economic growth, colonialism, and imperialism, we can better appreciate the role of the Mediterranean as a historical actor itself.

Although I neglected it in my first article, no discussion of the Mediterranean is complete without reference to French historian Fernand Braudel's massive study, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949). Braudel drafted the text while being held as a prisoner of war during WWII, without any access to his notes (putting many of our quarantine accomplishments to shame).

The Mediterranean put forward three scales of historical change. Braudel writes that the slowest measure of time—geographical time—describes the relationship of humanity with its environment. If we examine the Mediterranean according to this measure, we see populations gradually moving away from the coastal area and into the hills and mountains during the Little Ice Age (ca. 1300–1850). We will likely see a similar migration occur in the coming centuries with the rising sea level of the Mediterranean. This type of historical change is almost imperceptibly slow (la longue durée), but, as Braudel writes, inevitable.

The second measure of historical time is through cycles of political and economic change; this is a quicker pace that sees the rise and fall of rulers and city-states. In the context of the Mediterranean, we can consider the period from the 16th to the 19th century, in which the rise of trans-Atlantic trade and European immigration to the Americas affected the importance of the Mediterranean in the world economy. Specifically, the emergence of the Atlantic as a major trade network began to usurp the Mediterranean's role as a center of trade and commerce. With the rapid development of ships and navies, trans-Atlantic trade also became much easier than trade in the Mediterranean region, with its frequent storms, minimal natural harbors, irregular depths, and challenging overland routes. While the Mediterranean before this period was often referred to as the "Inner Sea" (referring to its position at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa), it soon became a part of the periphery of the world economic system as the focus shifted to the western hemisphere.

The third and quickest measure of historical time is that of events and important people. The pace of time, therefore, depends on what subject we're studying. Examining geology? You're likely looking at a glacial, geographical time that moves so slowly that it's imperceptible to human eyes. Studying the impact of propaganda immediately after Pearl Harbor? Your historical time will move much quicker and appear quite dynamic.

It's widely accepted among historians of the Mediterranean region that there was a period of decline from roughly 1550 to 1870 during which trans-Atlantic trade and immigration flourished and the Mediterranean appeared to have been left behind. Further, some have argued that the economic unity of the Mediterranean was lost as the spice trade declined and modern nation-states emerged.

There are three things that happened during this period, however, which demonstrate that the Mediterranean maintained its unity and coherence during the period of decline:

  1. Manufacturing, particularly textiles, increased in importance.
  2. Merchants (particularly Venetian and Genoese) became increasingly able to transport crops from the east to southern (and, later, northern) Europe.
  3. The centre of trading relocated from the Mediterranean basin to northern, inland routes.

These three processes further contributed to the decline of the Mediterranean as a center for economic trade. However, they also illustrate the unity of the sea, as these developments affected the region as a whole. The resurging importance of crops and bulk products represents a re-emergence of what Tabak (2008) has called "the trinity of the Mediterranean": wheat, tree crops, and small livestock. Of course, networks of affiliation and trade routes were more instrumental in maintaining unity than were major battles over frontier lines, which were far more common in the pre-Atlantic period. Therefore, while the Mediterranean did wane in terms of global importance from the 16th century onwards, it did not lose its characteristic unity or economic coherence.

Another historical development that affected the regional importance of the Mediterranean was the French colonization of Algeria from 1830. It’s been argued that the re-emergence of the Mediterranean in the 19th century was partly due to its importance for French colonial authorities in reaching their "overseas" territories such as Algeria and, later, Morocco and Tunisia.

Blais and Deprest (2012) suggest that the Mediterranean was a "dividing sea" before the French conquest of Algeria, after which point it became a "junction sea" between two pieces of French territory. They reference geographical surveys, travellers’ logs, settlers’ handbooks, and tourist guides as their supporting materials, emphasizing visual representations of the new relationship, particularly through maps. The colonial link between France and Algeria was reinforced by commercial mappers, who simply coloured the borders of the two countries in the same colour toindicate an imperial connection. These works reveal the authority of visual representations of space in exerting power over colonial regions.

The colonial experience shaped both the colonizer and the colonized. Africa and Europe were brought closer together and the identities of both (at least in the minds of Europeans) were constructed in relation to each other. Edward Said, author of Orientalism, writes explicitly that "knowledge of the Orient... creates the Orient." This is because "the Orient" itself doesn’t exist; it’s a made-up term that groups together foreign and unfamiliar elements.

The idea of the Orient as the home of "the Other" both preceded and followed colonialism. It advocated for the European imperialist project by encouraging the spreading of European values and systems of government, and it also retroactively justified colonialism by suggesting that indigenous populations would not be able to rule themselves. This illustrates the links between knowledge and power, particularly how knowledge of the “other” has been used by Europeans to reinforce the latter's position of superiority over peoples geographically south or east of them. As is made clear by the maps that legitimated French colonial territories, discursive representations (whether maps or rhetoric of the colonial experience) buttress and perpetuate the identities of both societies (colonizer and colonized) in an extension of imperialism itself.

Said wrote on the British colonial campaign in Egypt, which similarly relied on the Mediterranean as a transit route and space for naval dominance. British mastery of the sea and of foreign populations contributed significantly to the creation of its identity as a global power and British populations' sense of self (at least within Britain). As a result, the Mediterranean became a structure of both the French and British empires, resulting in a heightened European awareness of the region and its rhythms.

In summary, the Mediterranean is at the center of different measures of time, which affect the way history is written and the subjects on which it focuses. From the 19th to the 20th centuries, the sea became complicit in the colonial and imperial administration of North African polities by European powers whose influence was beginning to wane in the face of rising trans-Atlantic trade and the emerging superpower of the United States.


1 Blais, Hélène and Florence Deprest. 2012. “The Mediterranean, a Territory between France and Colonial Algeria: Imperial Constructions”. European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire 19:1, pp. 33-57.
2 Braudel, Fernand. 1972. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. New York: Harper & Row.
3 Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.
4 Tabak, Faruk. 2008. The Waning of the Mediterranean, 1550-1870: A Geohistorical Approach. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.