February 02, 2010

A Frontier

Whenever I imagine a frontier, I imagine the borderline say between France and Belgium. Everyone knows where it is, there are checkpoints and border guards, there is the administration of the state and 1 cm that way, you are in the land of croissants and Voltaire, a cm the other way and its Tintin and Hercule Poirot. Of course that is not how frontiers actually work. In the United States one of the fundemental points in John Elliot's recent study is that in both British and Spanish empires the frontier was not a place but a zone. The zone might fluctuate- it might extend- in the British case normally through trade or colonisation, in the Spanish through the movement of missionaries particularly those associated with the great orders- the Franciscans, the Dominicans etc- or it might contract- as the Spanish or British abandoned places too expensive to defend and too exposed. There were pressures outwards like population pressure in the Eastern US seaboard, or pressures to contract like the Portugeese who moved on Spanish allied Indians in the Amazonian rainforest to recruit slaves for the plantations in India. Whatever it was though, we are incorrect to ever feel that the frontier was here and moved westwards or eastwards forever until European colonisation was complete: rather than being a neat line on a map, it was a zone, a status of uncertainty which permeated American life with the fear of conquest and the exhileration of religious expansion or agricultural opportunity.

5 comments:

James Higham said...

Certainly an interesting subject in itself and many anecdotes.

goodbanker said...

The nerdy comment would be to point out that Belgium and France are part of Schengen, which means there are no longer checkpoints / border guards! But the bigger point is a really good one, and begs a follow-up question: at what point did land frontiers become precise borderlines, as they (pretty much) are in most contexts today? Was it when maps could be drawn precisely? Was it when military technology had developed to such a degree that the precise borderlines could be plausibly defended in (almost) all circumstances? Was it a combination of these two - and other - factors? I'd be interested in your thoughts on this.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Goodbanker- Schengen, I should have remembered!!!

On your wider point I think that its an interesting one- my impression is that actual frontiers form when you have organised states which front each other- so for example modern Europe. When you have a migratory society, there may be a territory but no neccessary frontier between two group's territories. Partly it must be determined by population density as well- so I'm pretty sure classical cities had real frontiers between them whereas say the Spanish and Portugese didn't on the Amazon.

edmund said...

good post and comments. My impression is that a lot ofi t is map's when you lacked precise maps (I think into the early modern era even in western europe ) it was hard to have precise borders- it tended to be this community is ki9ng X and that commu8nity Y. I do think it's not juyst the modern state as well-but it's increasing demands for men, money etc

Gracchi said...

Edmund you are right about maps- but even those can lend a spurious line to what is actually fuzzy. The Spanish Portugese boundary in Brazil was afterall a straight line where the Pope had drawn it but on the ground noone knew where they was. An interesting question I suppose coming out of that is that its not merely the existence of maps but whether people understand them and whether they are widely dispersed.