Ideas with maritime boundaries

on Aug 1, 2019 in Hand Baggage | No Comments

The concept of the sea is a call to break free.

Many countries have an element of water. They are the sources of rivers, traversed by rivers, are the mouth of rivers. They contain lakes, canals and glaciers. And many others have borders where the sea begins. Now, the question is: what is there beyond that coastline?

The first observation is that the concept of “line” is illusory. The coast is an area of breaking waves, undefined and fluid. One of the most beautiful observations of 20th-century mathematics demonstrated that it is here that we find complexity, chaos, (in)determinism: the length of a coast is a convention; if we take a tape measure, we realise that to bring together a detailed morphology means we will always do so using smaller straight lines to measure things better… Paradoxically, measuring better means measuring more, it’s never stopping, precision is ever ongoing, endless… this being a key example of fractal geometry.

Beyond land there is also a sphere of interests regarding sovereignty and value for countries’ economy. There is an exclusive economic zone, there may be islands, there is the seabed, there are habitats, etc. As such, it is an extension of customs, laws, treaties and even the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

For an old Portuguese sea dog, a naval officer, commander of the training ship Sagres and author of the book Navegação à Vela / Setting Sail (CTT, 2018), the ocean is a half-way house, a place where there are channels, an area open to experimentation. António Manuel Gonçalves tells us about the boldness of breaking free, and the immense science involved in the technological adventure that is undertaking a voyage.

The sea connected countries like Portugal, São Tomé and Príncipe and Mozambique. Routes linked Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, and places like Goa and Macau. But those interconnections created languages, experiences and communities.

And that’s why British historian Andrew Lambert talks about “maritime identities” in Seapower States (Yale University Press, 2018). States like Athens and Carthage looked to the sea, unlike Sparta and Rome (to give historical counterpoints). These based their power on the idea of access, and not on the idea of possession. Their agenda was dynamic (geared towards trade and services) rather than static (based on possession and extraction).

Culture and knowledge meet at sea. To be successful on these adventures requires resources and organisation. Identity and science “have not occurred by chance”. The expression, which belongs to Pedro Nunes, the great mathematician of the era when the Portuguese discovered that they could excel overseas, is always timely… It reminds us that the sea is a major starting point for the great adventure that is imagination.


by Sandro Mendonça


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