The History of Capitalism Is Bathed in Saltwater

As a site of exploration, transportation, and acquisition, two new books on the history and politics of the sea show how capitalism extends from its nearest coast to its darkest depths.

Credit: Brent Durand / Getty Images

In January 1992, over 28,000 Chinese-made plastic animal toys—ducks, frogs, turtles, and beavers—were released into the ocean after the container that had been housing them was washed from the deck of the Ever Laurel south of the Aleutian Islands, in an area known during the age of sail as the Graveyard of the Pacific. These ‘Friendly Floatees’, designed to withstand 52-degree cycles in washing machines, travelled around the globe, much to the surprise of marine oceanographers who tracked their whereabouts to understand ocean currents.

The ‘Friendly Floatees’, a story of the extraction of resources, globalised manufacturing, wasteful consumption, and scientific research, encapsulates the central tension at the heart of recent cultural histories of the sea. Richard Hamblyn’s new book, The Sea: Nature and Culture, looks at the varied physical and cultural meanings the seas have been imbued with throughout history. The story of the animal toys, which Hamblyn uses to illustrate scientific studies of the ocean, blurs the distinction between culture and nature, pointing out that contemporary capitalist society exists within and upon the Earth’s saltwater spaces as much as it does beside them.

Hamblyn joins a growing number of authors troubling easy categorisations. For Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás, authors of Capitalism and the Sea, capital is ‘amphibious’. Citing Karl Marx, who acknowledged the two forces of the land-based exploitation of workers on the one hand, and the colonisation of overseas lands, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and maritime wars between European empires on the other as central to the rise of capitalist economies, Campling and Colás stress that both forces are intertwined. As they put it, ‘the complete capitalist circuit demands the smoothest possible coordination between production and circulation’, and so land and sea rely on each other.

This is keenly felt where the water meets the land, at ports, quays, promenades, holiday resorts, and the stations of border forces. As Laleh Khalili has written recently, ‘anything can be turned into a commodity. Humans and their labour, flora and fauna, livestock and crops.’ It’s at the meeting of land and sea that around eighty percent of the volume of these commodities is transported. It’s no surprise, then, that coastal regions are culturally charged places.

The European coastline of the early twentieth century was filled with meaning; a frontier between a nation and an unknown, hostile world. Roland Barthes observed a deluge of nationalist imagery on a visit to the beach early in the century. Over a hundred years earlier, soon after the beach holiday became fashionable in Britain, George III bathed in the sea at Weymouth whilst the national anthem was performed by a chamber orchestra discretely stationed in a neighbouring hut.

However, it was also a site of resistance to such national imaginaries which were inevitably bound to the state’s protection of private property. The shoreline has shifting physical and political resonances. Just as the tide moves the marker between water and land, ideas of what was common or private property diverged in law and practice. The people who took a range of items, from motorcycles, perfume, nappies, and car parts from Branscombe beach after MSC Napoli lost its cargo off the coast of Cornwall in 2007 were acting in a long tradition of beachcombing.

Despite nearly a thousand years of legislation, there is still the perception that things washed up on coastlines belong to anyone. ‘This is partly due to a perception that the shoreline itself is public property,’ Hamblyn writes, ‘or rather that it belongs to no one in particular, and so anything found there is fair game.’ This goes for the right to roam, too. It’s hard to imagine the public outcry against Jeremy Clarkson’s attempt to ban ramblers on the path around his property on the Isle of Man in 2010, for example, if it wasn’t a coastal route.

Back to the plastic animals. ‘Inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness were intimate bedfellows,’ John Mack, author of The Sea: A Cultural History, writes of European knowledge-seeking from the early modern period onwards. It made sense, then, that beachcombers were called upon to track the ‘Friendly Floatees’ across the globe. Two scientists, James Ingraham of the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a scientist for a private consulting firm, began collecting the data received from those on coastlines. A company even spotted a marketing ploy and offered a saving bond worth $100 to anyone who found a specimen along the east coast of the US.

Scientific studies from the dawn of capitalist economies onwards have been geared towards finding new things to sell, new land to occupy, and new routes to transport goods and information at greater speeds. The sea, perhaps more than anywhere else, should force us to rethink ideas that knowledge, including scientific knowledge, can be created with a ‘view from nowhere.’ The ‘Friendly Floatees’ saga demonstrates that research is dependent on a network of cultural contexts and players, from the market of plastic toys which it’s cheaper to manufacture an ocean’s distance away from buyers, to the historic independence and enthusiasm of beachcombers. The line between the cultural and physical qualities of the sea is obscured.

Cultural histories of the ocean can force us to rethink our relationship with places beyond our coastlines and reckon with the destruction we continue to bring upon the flora and fauna living within those depths. Hamblyn estimates there are likely two million species living in the ocean that we don’t know of. If the drive for research continues to be fuelled by the search for profits, it’s likely there will be little left to find. Ultimately, these books ask us to rethink our economy, social structures, and our relationship with the planet.

Richard Hamblyn’s The Sea: Nature and Culture is available from 25 October from Reaktion Books.

Liam Campling and Alejandro Colás’ Capitalism and the Sea: The Maritime Factor in the Making of the Modern World is available now from Verso.

About the Author

Nicholas Pritchard grew up in Warrington but now lives in France. He’s written on literature, activism, health, and technology.