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Port Cities in World History


Forum Introduction: Port Cities in World History

Mariona Lloret and Rubén Carrillo


     Across the globe and throughout history port cities have provided a vital space for cross-cultural exchange. Many became melting pots where interaction and innovation, but also conflict and mistrust took place. Port cities provide profoundly interesting case studies for world historians analyzing a wide range of historical phenomena. A number of recent publications have emphasized the relevance of this subject using a global approach. Lincoln Paine's The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World,1 Luís Filipe Barreto and Wu Zhiliang's Port cities and intercultural relations: 15th–18th centuries,2 and Carola Hein's Port cities: dynamic landscapes and global network3are just three examples. Kirsten Silva Gruesz criticized "how powerful the spread of continentalism and territorial nationalism, and the subsequent devaluation of ocean space, militates against our ability to see it as a coherent space of social interaction."4 Thus subverting continental and nationalistic narratives, the analysis on port cities becomes an important agenda for world historians as it serves to understand far-reaching historical processes in order to interpret them from a global perspective.

     This forum explores port cities as places halfway between land and sea that were gateways to the world. It draws upon six articles which began life as presentations at a celebrated World History Association symposium on this subject Barcelona in March 26–28, 2014 at which more than sixty specialists presented papers about the history of port cities around the world from a global perspective.  Now much revised, these papers examine how port cities not only influenced the lives of those inhabiting them, but spearheaded cultural and economic interactions throughout the world, organized in loose chronological order. Port cities from most continents are represented in the hope of appealing to a broad audience of researcher and scholar-teachers.

     In the first article, Ethan Hawkley seeks to contribute to the narrative of the emergence of globalization in the port of Manila by incorporating the role of Muslims and Chinese to the traditional emphasis on the influence of the Spanish empire on the archipelago. Through the analysis of the different historical "layers", as the author calls the distinct cultural imprints found in sixteenth century Manila, Hawkley shows how diverse actors shaped the far-flung commercial networks that transformed the city into a global hub. This article is a worthwhile piece for teachers seeking to demonstrate the crucial role of non-Europeans in the consolidation of imperial networks traditionally regarded as Western-driven.

     Núria Sallés Vilaseca explores the world of eighteenth century warfare, diplomacy, and trade through an analysis of the role of Hanseatic port cities in the development of Iberian strategies toward the Baltic Sea and Russia during the Northern War of 1717–1719. The author argues that thanks to the neutrality of cities such as Hamburg and Lübeck, secret information could flow through these havens making them relevant centers not only for trade, but also for the planning of diplomatic and military policies. Sallés demonstrates how port cities were tightly linked to their hinterland and to the State infrastructure they were tied to. A boon to those scholars who decry the dearth of world history writing on Spanish diplomacy in this period,  teachers will also find this text useful to discuss how seemingly separate spheres (trade, war, and diplomacy) overlapped and the intricacies of neutrality in the context of general conflict.

     With the help of several wonderful illustrations, Alex Zukas transports the reader to experience the travels of British royal geographer, Herman Moll, and encounter his cartographic representations of the world in the first decades of the eighteenth century. In his piece, Zukas focuses on maps of the East Indies, North and South America, and the world. Moll portrayed port cities as main features in his maps, a reminder of the importance of the maritime world in the eyes of the British. Zukas argues these maps helped elites appreciate the power of the British Empire. As author shows through a series of examples, this article can be used in the classroom to teach students about early-modern worldviews and how representations of the world and otherness developed in a context of imperialism and increasing global interconnectedness.

     Abou Bamba turns to the French African port of Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, in order to analyze colonial building of port cities and urban formations in the continent in the first half of the twentieth century. The author argues that before the arrival of Europeans and the subsequent decline of the former way of life, the region had prosperous cities that traded with other urban centers in Africa. Bamba uses contemporary newspapers and magazines to study their depiction of urban projects and infrastructure developed under colonial domination. The author also focuses on the "human impact" of the urban changes implemented by the French, such as segregation. He argues that the construction of the port of Abidjan, which began in 1903, was a reflection of the asymmetric pacte colonial. This text can be used in the classroom, among other issues, to talk about the concepts of "center" and "periphery", and modern colonialism.

     Howard Dooley explores Port Said and its transformations from the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 to the present. The author argues that the port evolved from "a single a single-row of barrack-huts planted on piles on an open beach" to a major node of interoceanic trade. The architecture of the city combined European and Middle-Eastern elements, creating a space that very clearly reflected its place in a vast network of exchanges and its cosmopolitan atmosphere. Italians, Greeks, British, Egyptians, and Jews intermingled in a town that came to be the "Wild East". Its importance made the port city a major target in conflicts between global powers, turning it into a global battleground. Dooley reflects upon how recent infrastructure development have placed Port Said in a good place to be reborn as a global cross-roads in the twenty-first century. The article is a valuable teaching resource for courses discussing urban history, frontier spaces and the ideas of "East" and "West", and the impact of mega-projects.

     Kelvin Santiago-Valles analyzes the development of 1890–1920s New York harbor to show how the development of infrastructures in this major global port city was connected to the increasing presence of the United States in the Caribbean. The author emphasizes how "1898 not only marked the rise of U.S. expansionism into the Caribbean [but] also marked the consolidation of all the five boroughs into "'Greater New York City.'" Thus Santiago-Valles highlights the interplay of local and global processes, and the parallel development of commercial, industrial, and military might. The emergence of New York as a global city mirrored and influenced the ascent of the U.S. as a global power. The authors explains this complex process by reconstructing the history of the Brooklyn Naval Yard, the emergence of Caribbean sugar businesses, and New York financial institutions. Educators of nineteenth-century American history will no doubt find this article useful.

Mariona Lloret is a PhD candidate at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. She is currently finishing her thesis on Huey Long in the context of the Greater Caribbean. She can be reached at

Dr. Rubén Carrillo can be found at the Information and Knowledge Society (History) program at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona.  He studies Asian migration in colonial Mexico and the emergence of a proto-globalized world. He can be reached at


1 Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).

2 Luís Filipe Barreto and Wu Zhiliang, Port Cities and Intercultural Relations: 15th18th Centuries (Lisboa: Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau, 2012).

3 Carola Hein, Port Cities: Dynamic Landscapes and Global Networks (London: Routledge, 2011).

4 Kirsten Silva Gruesz, "The Gulf of Mexico System and the 'Latinness' of New Orleans", American Literary History, vol. 18, nº. 3 (autumn 2006): 473.

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