But if environmental history is successful in its project, the story of how different peoples have lived and used the natural world will become one of the most basic and fundamental narratives in all of history, without which no understand of the past could be complete.

William Cronon, “A Place for Stories”[1]

I am trying to think, to see if I read anything more about Miami…I can’t tell exactly how far we are from there. There are no borderlines on the sea. The whole thing looks like one.

Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak![2]

In the year 1990, the Journal of American History hosted its first roundtable on the emerging sub-field of Environmental History. This academic forum included five short responses by a generation of established scholars to a centerpiece article by the historian Donald Worster, a man who had already become a founder of the field. Evident in the forum was an early tradition of disputing the intellectual boundaries of Environmental History, even while they were being formed. On the one hand, Worster called for practitioners to begin “Seeing Beyond Culture” and analyzing “modes of production as ecological phenomenon.” He called for scholars to collaborate with scientists and explore capital–m Man’s relationship to the environment throughout time as a set of “autonomous, independent energies that do not derive from the drives and intentions of any culture.” On the other hand, established historians used their responses to push back on this argument. Writers like William Cronon, Richard White, and Carolyn Merchant called for scholars not to lose focus on the “broader cultural systems in which [agro-ecological modes of production] are embedded.” They asked for us to avoid ignoring cultural categories that existed “below the level of the group” implied by Man, and they asked us not to forget how particular relationships to the natural environment depended upon social constructions like race, gender, reproduction, and class.[1]

Twenty three years later, in 2013, the Journal of American History followed up on its classic forum with a second roundtable and a whole new generation of scholars. This time the centerpiece essay was written by the historian Paul Sutter. He noted that, since the 1990 forum had been published “the field of environmental history has grown like kudzu on a hot July day.” Over the preceding generation, the discipline had become “one of the most vital subfields within American history and one of the fastest-growing approaches to the study of the past within the larger profession.” Among their successes, Sutter noted that environmental historians had successfully eroded the boundary between “Nature” and “Culture” that had loomed so large in the original forum. They had developed a wide range of theoretical concepts in an attempt to convey the hybridity of peoples’ unique relationships to the environment, concepts like “second nature,” “organic machines,” “creole ecologies,” and “industrial organisms.” Then, in his conclusion, Sutter made the argument that perhaps the field of Environmental History had come full circle, and was once again in danger of what Worster had called the “particularist squint.” Since 1990, historians had followed the white rabbit of hybridity down its hole. Now, they were getting lost in a “haze of moral relativism.”[2]

But even as Sutter advocated for a return to the bigger picture of Environmental History, his article hedged its bets and suggested that there was still much hybrid work to be done. In particular, he acknowledged that his own writing showed biases toward both the modern era and the terrestrial environment. For example, his centerpiece article for the forum “largely ignores a growing body of exciting marine and oceanic environmental history.” Indeed, Sutter’s respondents followed up on these acknowledged biases in several specific ways. One of them was arguing that the concept of “terrestrial bias” in Environmental History was very real. This particular critique came from the historian Helen M. Rozwadowski. In her brief response, “The Promise of Ocean History for Environmental History,” she underscored this “terrestrial bias” while simultaneously emphasizing the inherent irony in speaking about “moral relativism” when so many stories of marine environments had yet to be explored. The ocean, she observed, makes up 99% of the entire planet’s living space and covers three-quarters of its total surface area. Nonetheless, “Attention to marine environmental issues has lagged behind similar attention to land by a century or more.” The ecological hybridity of the ocean, as well as the many cultures that have lived both on and inside of it, have been largely ignored. How could we stop our “particularist squint” and start “seeing beyond culture” when there were so many environments that we never got around to looking at in the first place?[3]

The following essay is about one of these particular, yet overlooked, marine environments as it relates to work being done in the field of Environmental History. It may be called a brief and thematic environmental historiography, focusing upon the Florida Straits. It will demonstrate how a study of this unique geographical region, like other regions that have been examined, could offer an opportunity for environmental historians to meet some of the challenges, and to bridge some of the differences, that were articulated in both of the JAH roundtables. A case study of the Florida Straits could serve a threefold purpose: to reinforce a model by which historians can (1) integrate the ocean in environmental history; (2) explore global connections and material production without losing an emphasis on either particular places or local cultures; and (3) to engage in collaboration with scientists towards environmental advocacy. All of these desires were articulated in the classic JAH roundtables. Ultimately, my goal is not to argue that more environmental historians should study my particular region of interest. It is rather to use that region of interest to demonstrate how environmental historians can, in fact, have it both ways. As Sutter writes, they can “reengage and improve environmental advocacy” without abandoning “a hybrid world.” Or they can discover “A Place for Stories” that does not lose the “bigger economic and ecological picture.”[4]

Before beginning a brief discussion about how the Florida Straits can be approached by Environmental Historians, it would be good to define what they are. The Florida Straits are a navigable waterway through which the Florida Current passes.[5] This current is a river of thermal ocean water that flows outward from the Gulf of Mexico and into the Atlantic Ocean. It is actually a small part of a much greater circulatory marine system that is known by oceanographers as the North Atlantic Gyre.[6] This gyre is one of five systems of rotating ocean currents upon the planet’s surface. Many readers will be much more familiar with the Gulf Stream, which is also a part of this gyre. Yet the Gulf Stream is a much longer current than the Florida Current. It carries water all the way from the southern tip of Florida northward to Newfoundland Canada and, eventually, across the Atlantic Ocean, where it breaks into two different arms of the gyre: the North Atlantic Drift and the North Atlantic Current. The former arm will deposit water as far away as northern Scandinavia, while the latter will begin to take its now-cooled waters back toward the Americas. This water will pass along the Canary Current, North Equatorial Current, and, finally, Caribbean Current before ending back up in the Gulf of Mexico via the Loop Current. From here, the water will be warmed before beginning its oceanic journey, once again, by passing through the Florida Straits.[7]

Essentially, the Florida Current is a small portion of the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Gyre. It refers only to the section of these larger marine systems that passes through the chokepoint of the Florida Straits. As such, the current carries waters through a narrow passage that is bounded by the Florida peninsula and Florida Keys to the north, the coasts of Cuba and Cay Sal Bank to the south, and the banks of the Bahaman Islands to the east. The water of the Florida Current, like that of the Gulf Stream as a whole, is both warm and swift. At 4.5 knots, the velocity of the current is unparalleled. Overall, it is not an exaggeration to state that South Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas are bounded by one of the greatest natural highways on earth. Moreover, the terrestrial areas surrounding the Gulf Stream were contested regions during the early-modern era that have now become their own international boundaries. The nations of Cuba, the Bahamas, and the United States all border upon the Florida Straits. This makes the region an ideal place for studying what Stephen Aron and Jeremy Adelman have called “the transition from borderlands to borders.”[8]

How can focusing on the Florida Straits address some of the main issues expressed in either of the two JAH roundtables? First, the Florida Straits region is what historian Joshua L. Reid would call “a complex marine environment” that challenges historians to rethink the terrestrial biases of histories based upon nation states. Rozwadowski also suggests in her reply that histories of oceanic phenomenon like “gyres, or trade-wind belts, or seamounts, or the deep sea, or tides might produce insights that histories of specific places such as Long Island Sound or the Grand Banks cannot.” Indeed, the Florida Straits region is a natural environment that is especially unique for historical study because it is, first and foremost, a landscape in perpetual motion. Generally, historians have taken terrestrial communities as their landscapes for studying the phenomenon of settler colonialism. In our course, “Claiming the Land,” these terrestrial landscapes have included diverse regions like the Old Northwest, explored by Bethel Saler in The Settler’s Empire; the arid Navajo Country, explored by Traci Brynne Voyles in Wastelanding; and even individual American cities like Phoenix in Andrew Needham’s Power Lines or Miami in N.D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete. Nonetheless, the flow of people and products through oceanic gyres does suggests a nice metaphor to Needham’s work. Trans-Atlantic vessels in the Florida Straits, like the metal transmission towers in the American Southwest, have the ability to “connect people living far distant.”[9]

As Rozwadowski suggests, marine landscapes contrast sharply with most terrestrial landscapes. Currents, for example, shape dynamic environments where people are continually passing through yet are not necessarily interested in staying.  In this sense, they challenge the stereotypical, westward frontier movements that tend to dominate academic studies of settler colonialism.  Also, as a result of this perpetual motion, terrestrial points situated along the edges of those currents end up becoming outposts of far-flung industries. This relationship is apparent in the article by John Whitehead, in which he describes how the island nation of Hawaii became a nucleus around which such industries as sealing, whaling, and logging were based. Like others, Whitehead also observed the terrestrial bias of Environmental History in his work. It was in this context that he commented upon the work of scholars like Etulain and Malone, who argued “Hawai’i does not share a common history with the rest of the American West [because]…It was separated by water.”[10]

But Rozwadowski and Whitehead are not the only scholars who have expressed the notion that marine environments have been overlooked under a “terrestrial bias” of environmental history. Others like Jeffrey Bolster and Joshua Reid have made precisely this same observation. For example, in his first book, The Sea is My Country, Reid traced the history of the Qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌ natives, also known as Makahs or People of the Cape, from about 1774 to 1999. As he states, these indigenous peoples “shaped marine space in and around the Strait of Juan de Fuca, rather than terrestrial spaces, as the primary locus of their identity.” For Reid, understanding both the culture and history of a “marine-oriented indigenous peoples” like Makahs required reorienting the way that one sees the landscape, looking outward into the ocean as well as inward to the land. As Reid observes, the “ča·di· borderland” of Makahs defies the traditional terrestrial borderlands that have risen to demarcate between nation states. The Makah borderland stretches from roughly the Columbia River in the south, to the upper tip of Vancouver Island in the north, to the shores of Puget Sound. Like the Florida Straits, this marine borderland crosses areas that have become international boundaries. In Reid’s case, the international boundary is between Canada and the United States.[11]

Bolster engaged in a similar project with his most recent book, The Mortal Sea. This work is a longue durée environmental declension narrative of the Atlantic boreal region between roughly the years 1492 and 1930. In contrast to Reid, who studied an indigenous people enmeshed within a marine borderland as whale hunters, Bolster was writing about Euro-American sailors in a marine borderland as commercial fishermen. Nonetheless, these non-native peoples also “placed marine space at the center of their culture;” and, as such, they related to their marine environment in a way that ran counter to terrestrial biases. As Bolster summarizes, “the eventual colonization of North America by Europeans, and the subsequent creation of nations there…overshadowed the fact that for more than a century the familiar coastal marine ecosystem was the only part of North America of consistent interest to Europeans.” In this quote, Bolster says that European travelers had crossed the Atlantic Ocean to fish cod off the littoral of North America for many decades before they had begun setting up any sort of permanent colonies on land. To understand these historic relationships, we must overcome a terrestrial bias which has seen the ocean primarily as a highway, and not also as a destination in and of itself. We must also overcome the modern bias that Sutter had referenced. Reid and Bolster’s works do this by framing peoples’ relationships to the ocean in “long history.”[12]

Both Reid and Bolster help us to better understand the ways that different cultures, whether indigenous or not, saw marine environments as an integral part of their identity. The Florida Straits presents opportunities for a similar case study. For example, Cuban and Bahamian sailors lived on the southern side of the straits and had been crossing the current since at least the 1680s in order to engage in commercial activities. Like Makah or Kanaka Maoli sailors who hunted marine life off the coasts of Canada, these travelers came for a variety of reasons: to hunt game, fish, cut wood, collect turtles, kill seals for oil, rake salt, trade with or enslave natives, and wreck vessels that had crashed on the reefs during transit or had been torn apart during a hurricane. These groups lived in a marine borderland similar to those articulated by Reid and Bolster. Even though Florida, Cuba, and the Bahamas were owned by respective foreign governments, sailors crossed these boundaries fluidly and without much regard for international authority. As early as 1682, the Jamaican governor Thomas Lynch attested to this marine-oriented borderland by writing that the Bahamas “are peopled by those that intent rather the pillaging [of] Spanish wrecks than planting,” and they do it “upon the Coast of Florida.” Likewise those who were more invested in terrestrial society, like the plantation merchant John Darrell, called Bahamian sailors “lazy” because they liked to leave “non but old men, women and children to plant” while they ran “a-coasting in shallops.”[13]

Recently, scholars of South Florida have begun to pay attention to the Florida Straits region as a marine borderland. Traditionally, the Seminole Wars of the nineteenth century were perceived as a typical American story about native peoples and settlers facing off in an age of violent frontier expansion. The conflict was seen as a terrestrial struggle in much the same way as the Great Plains in Elliot West’s Contested Plains or Hawai’i in Noenoe K. Silva’s Aloha Betrayed. Now, however, scholars have started to see beyond nationalism and the “terrestrial bias” to the transnational connections of South Florida. In doing so, they have uncovered that Seminole natives were in constant, direct connection with Bahamians and Cubans who gave them arms, information, and transport in their fight against Americans. Not only did Seminoles and Bahamians frequently travel across the straits to meet, but Bahamian wreckers even helped to relocate refugee Seminoles during the wars. For example, in November of 1821, approximately 250 “negroes” were carried to Nassau by English wreckers out of Cape Sable and Key Tavernier. This is just one fascinating example that shows how, as Reid observes, the “terrestrial perspective” has overlooked “indigenous peoples.”[14]

The transnational connections of Southern Florida during the Seminole Wars have revealed another side of the American, settler colonial project. Scholars are starting to understand that dispossessing the Seminole people was not only about warfare with indigenous persons but also about the cultural assimilation and conquest of their non-native allies within the borderland. For instance, Americans saw Bahamian suppliers of the Seminoles as “unruly rascals” who must be punished. They sought to disenfranchise these sailors from the wrecking business through passing new laws; dispossess them through the creation of an anti-piracy patrol squadron; and Andrew Jackson actually had a Bahamians who traded with the natives executed. This kind of treatment echoes the way that American representatives behaved towards French habitants on the frontiers of the Old Northwest. Saler shows just a few of the many tactics by which the American government undermined the claims of these previous tenants. Like the Americans who judged Bahamian sailors, the frontier “army approached French habitants—similar to Indian nations—as foreign communities in need of cultural transformation before they could be incorporated into the domestic nation.”[15]

In her response to Sutter, Rozwadowski had called for environmental historians to continue exploring people who have made efforts to “create working and living spaces on and in the ocean.” Such efforts have been an inextricable piece of the history of the Florida Straits region, as with all marine borderlands. Not only can we see these types of maritime connections in the early-modern era with people like the Seminoles, Bahamians, and the Cubans, but we see it in the modern era as well. It is a theme that persists across time periods. American developers like Henry Flagler built industrial projects, like the Overseas Railroad, that traversed the marine borderland in the twentieth century. Likewise, urban historians have shown how the rise of modern cities like Miami depended upon migrations from Caribbean peoples. Once again, Bahamians crossed the Florida Straits borderland in order to seek work in the urban areas sprouting up in South Florida. As Connolly writes, “By the early 1900s…75 percent of colored people in Miami were born somewhere in the [Bahaman] islands.” Similarly, waves of migration from places like Cuba increased dramatically after that island’s revolution in the year 1959. Like the West Indian migrants who preceded them, these Cubans profoundly re-shaped the physical and cultural history of the city. The migrations shocked American officials across the country who had grown too accustomed to the existence of a “hardened” and “rigidified” international border across the fluid marine borderland of the Florida Straits.  Like these officials, historians cannot understand these modern migrations from the perspective of the migrants themselves unless they re-capture the fluidity of the marine borderland. Such a landscape has the ability to counter Sutter’s modern bias and terrestrial bias all at the same time.[16]

Another theme that comes out in Reid’s analysis of the marine borderland in The Sea is My Country is the frustrated attempts of colonial and national authorities to draw hard boundaries upon a fluid borderland. For instance, “When marking out the reservation at Cape Flattery, commissioners believed that borderlines drawn across the land and along the coast would keep Makahs in and non-Makahs—both natives and non-natives out.” However, this was not the case. Indigenous peoples constantly frustrated officials by moving in and out of these imposed terrestrial borders, particularly across the international border between Canada and the United States. This kind of frustration is a theme in the Florida Straits as well. In the colonial era, the English and Spanish empires drew hard boundaries around the Southern coast of Florida, yet pirates and wreckers continued to cross those imaginary lines whenever they saw fit. As a result, the empires were pulled into political debates over who actually owed the Florida Keys on at least two occasions: 1715 and 1763.[17]

Finally, Reid’s work suggests at least one more point of comparison with the Florida Straits that I would like to invoke here. In the ča·di· borderland of the greater Olympic Peninsula, Reid demonstrates how native groups used violence and theft to “maintain or reestablish their authority” and to compete “with each other to control space, resources, and people in the borderlands.” Any historian looking at the Florida Straits will notice similar informal means through which different groups, indigenous and non-native, maintained respective spaces. Consider the following quote by the English naturalist Bernard Romans, who traveled in the Florida Straits towards near the end of the eighteenth century. “The people of Providence, who came here for turtle or Mahogany wood,” Romans writes, “came always armed, and had frequent brushes with” the Indians “so that the dislodging of these fierce savages has been a service to navigation.” In quotes such as these, scholars can see glimpses of the violent world that actors negotiated in the marine borderland.[18]

Next, a study of the Florida Straits area would demand that environmental historians strike an even balance between global connections and material production on the one hand, and particular places and local cultures on the other. This balance between the local and the global has long been an important yet tricky theme to address in the field of environmental history, and it continues to be one of its core objectives today. For example, in her most recent work, The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing achieved this balance by focusing on a specific commodity: the matsutake mushroom. Tsing demonstrated how a capitalist commodity could be used to trace out global connections between some far-flung regions of the modern economy, like Japanese auction markets, where the mushroom was purchased, and the pinewood forests of the Pacific Northwest, where it was first picked. In doing so, Tsing revealed the linkages of a neglected supply chain—linkages that have been “alienated” in the context of global capitalism. As she summarizes, “simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production.” The cutover forests of Oregon and the atomic fallout of Hiroshima are just two spaces of the world where capitalist ruins are inextricably linked by global forces to faraway places.[19]

In his 1990 article, Worster called for more attention on capitalism as a mode of ecological production. Scholars like Tsing have taken this call to heart, focusing on narratives that establish links between frontiers where products are gathered and markets where they are sold. In his chapter contribution to Under an Open Sky, “Kennecott Journey: The Paths out of Town,” William Cronon has done the same. He has shown how an Alaskan outpost can rise and fall according to the material demands of one natural resource, in that case, copper. Like the Oregon forests, Kennecott is a town whose fate is “intimately entangled,” as Tsing would write, with distant markets. The frontier town “was called into being at the behest of such forces, and it was turned into a ghost town in much the same way.” Cronon reflects upon the red-mills that form the ruins of Kennecott in much the same way Tsing reflects upon the cutover forests of Oregon. Both are cases of particular areas that call together a diverse cast of actors, yet those regions are inextricably tied to global trends.[20]

The same case for the local and the global can be made with the Florida Straits. In the year 1519, the Spanish navigator Antón de Alaminos successfully guided the first West Indies treasure fleet back to Spain via the Florida Current and Gulf Stream. Ever since this expedition, the Florida Straits have been an integral section of the primary route by which ships travel between the American Continents and Europe. The geographical combination of the swift, northward moving Gulf Stream and the eastward blowing winds—known as the westerlies and northeasterly trade winds—made this the fastest route between the continents. Yet, throughout history, the route has also been extremely dangerous as a result of storms, jagged reefs, pirates, and other hazards for sea travel.[21]

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Florida Straits is this stark juxtaposition between the utter vastness of the Atlantic Ocean and the extreme narrowness of this bottleneck. Since 1519, almost all vessels sailed from the Americas to Europe through this chokepoint, which one naturalist described as being “anxiously compressed by the islands Cuba and the Bahamas on one side, and the promontory [of Cape Florida] on the other.” This irony between wide open spaces and confined channels recalls the work of Elliot West in Contested Plains. West argued that the apparent vastness of the landscape of the American Great Plains was an illusion and “unanticipated irony.” The reality was that humans could only inhabit the plains along narrow caravan routes that were determined by the geography and the conditions of the environment. The “twin limits—available energy and awareness—set the confines of power.” Like the Great Plains, the Florida Straits is an environment that shaped how and when people would come into contact with one another. [22]

The Florida Straits is an ideal location for telling stories that blend the global and the local. Like the out-of-the-way town of Kennecott, which became an outpost of the national copper trade, and the Cascades, which became an outpost of the international mushroom trade, the Florida Straits became a key link in the global transportation of products like Spanish silver and gold. The opportunity to profit from this trans-Atlantic transportation drew a diverse cast of historical actors to the region from across the colonial world. For instance, when a Spanish Plate Fleet smashed upon the Florida reef in 1715, half-a-dozen fat galleons dumped around 14,000,000 pesos worth of precious metals into the shallow waters of the Florida Straits. As people traveled from all over the Atlantic to “fish the wrecks,” entire towns, like Nassau in the Bahamas, sprang up like Kennecott to support them. In this way, the Florida Straits is a land that permits scholars to see the development of local cultures within the kind of “global supply chains” and “supply networks” described by Tsing. They reveal “large-scale exploitation” without losing the “human communities” at the center.[23]

One of the signal achievements of Tsing’s Mushroom was its ability to capture the freedom and irony of the foragers who lived on the edges of a capitalist, global supply chain. Pickers “navigate the freedom of the forest through a maze of differences,” Tsing writes. Even though they are an integral part of a very capitalist project, they are attracted to the specific task of harvesting fungi because it does not feel that capitalist in nature. By this, I mean that the work stands in contrast to stereotypical capitalist work relations. Foragers live within a “salvage capitalism” that opposes the regimented factory lifestyle. Pickers do not have to obey set hours for work; they have the freedom of moving about on their own terms, without the oversight of a supervisor. A scholar studying the Florida Straits will find this same irony in their subjects. Pirates and log cutters, for example, were enmeshed in a process of resource accumulation that was linked to global capitalist markets. Nonetheless, they chose these particular lifestyles in part because they offered a relative degree of freedom from alternatives, namely occupations in the Royal Navy and in plantation society.[24]

Like Kennecott or the Cascades, the Florida Straits is a special environment that allows for historians to study local cultures within global currents. In his piece, Cronon studied how migrants to Kennecott reinforced traditional roles while simultaneously creating sui generis cultures of their own. What emerged were unique cultural arrangements that adapted to their surroundings. Focusing on the global forces that brought people to Alaska did not mean that Cronon had to ignore the “intricate social geography between the mines and ridgetops, the processing mill in the valley, and the private town of McCarthy at the foot of the glacier.” Cronon was able to focus on the particular ways that people have arranged their lives within their new homes without downplaying the global forces that had brought them there in the first place. The same is true of Tsing’s work. The cultures of the motley crew of mushroom pickers—from disabled white veterans to Hmong refugees—are no less interesting because they are a part of a global supply chain that they do no control.[25]

As with these other borderlands, an historian of the Florida Straits does not have to sacrifice the global for the local, or the cultural for the material. This can be illustrated in the case of Mark Catesby, an eighteenth-century naturalist who traveled to the straits to chronicle its flora and fauna for the British Empire. Catesby was guided around the marine borderland of the Florida Straits by Bahamian pilots, many of whom were also persons of British extraction. Yet Catesby, like others before him, was careful in his work to differentiate between these creole islanders and his audience back on the continent. He writes that his Bahamians navigators would eat “poisonous” fish that no sensible Englishmen would touch; would speak in a vulgar tongue corrupting the King’s English; and yet, were the foremost authorities on the local ecology of the subtropical Caribbean. In short, contemporary actors like Catesby recognized significant differences between themselves and their creole subjects, even while their encounters were the result of global connections. To ignore these differences, and to conflate these subjects under what Cronon describes as “collective actors” with “monolithic interests,” is to lose sight of the human part of environmental history.[26]

Next, scholars can draw strong parallels between the kinds of capitalist ruination described by Tsing, Voyles, and Needham and the commercial enterprises that find expression in the Florida Straits. Consider that the metals dumped in the shallow waters of Florida were originally extracted by native peoples from Mexican and Peruvian mines. Just like the Colorado Plateau and the Four Corners region—where Navajo peoples suffer respiratory disease and high rates of poverty in order to satisfy the nation’s demands for atomic and electrical energy—these far-flung mines become like a “plundered province” of the trans-Atlantic trade. Coal and uranium strip mines on the Navajo Reservation mirror the silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia. Neither suburban residents of Phoenix, Arizona, nor the divers of the Florida Straits fully understand the true cost of the energy or the materials that they are acquiring. This is the true meaning of Tsing’s “puzzle of alienation” in the context of “salvage capitalism.” Also, there are extractivist industries that took place within the straits which recall the kind of capitalist deforestation Tsing refers to in her work, even though they happened before the modern era. As the American explorer Andrew Ellicot wrote:

“Some of the Keys or Islands, were formerly very well timbered, but the most valuable kinds, such as lignum vita, fustick and’ iron wood, have generally been cut off by the inhabitants of the Bahama Islands. [Now] Key Biscanio is much frequented by the privateers, wreckers, and turtlers.”[27]

Finally, the Florida Straits offers historians an opportunity to show, as Needham and Voyles have done, how capitalist projects of ruin and wastelanding are written not only upon land, but upon the bodies of those who labor to make accumulation possible. On this note, scholars can pay attention to the enslaved, native and African peoples who were forced to dive upon wrecks for treasure. As Kevin Dawson has shown, many of these enslaved divers worked in horrendous conditions.[28]

In the first JAH forum, Worster asked environmental historians to think more closely about the intersection between the capitalist mode of production and the agro-ecological components of how humans obtain their food. Not only is the Florida Straits an apt environment for studying this connection between food and capitalism, but such stories also lend themselves to this re-occurring motif of ruination. The American naturalist John James Audubon once wrote of a “gentlemen from Providence,” Bahamas. He claimed that “eight hundred green turtles were caught by [this] one man in twelve months” alone. Like sea otters within the ča·di· borderland, buffalo upon the Great Plaines, or spotted owls in the Cascades, these green turtles were pushed to near extinction.[29]

In terms of the connection between obtaining food and capitalist ruination, perhaps no better example exists than that of a marine environment. Worster was discussing mainly food production systems in the context of land-based agriculture, and so he was mostly interested in answering questions like how a given community manages to maintain soil “fertility under its contrived food system.” As such, he was studying the connections between capital-m Man and land through techniques like “fallowing, green-manuring, legume planting, or plowing human and animal excrement back into the soil.” At first glance, this terrestrial relationship seems like it has nothing to do with marine borderlands, yet the coastal fishery is an extremely important link in our global food chain. As Rozwadowski states, “fish are the only remaining wild-caught source of food for large numbers of people.” Therefore, any decline in coastal fisheries will put added pressure upon the agricultural systems that Worster refers to in his piece. This is precisely the fear that motivated Jeffrey Bolster to study the Atlantic boreal region in his work The Mortal Sea. He was incited by a recent publication in the magazine Nature that revealed predator fish populations in marine environments had collapsed by 90%; the realization led environmentalists to start asking “Are the oceans dying?” In his study, Bolster revealed the devastating effects of increasing industrialization and its relationship to capitalist impulses. He showed how new techniques like purse seining and bottom trawling have, in the words of Rozwadowski, “scarred virtually all the commercially reachable seafloor.”[30]

Just like the coastal fisheries of the Atlantic boreal region, the shallow waters of the Florida Straits are a landscape in serious danger of ecological collapse. Most recently, the marine species of this borderland have been under increasing pressure as nearby cities tear up coral reef habitat to enlarge the commercial cruise ports of places like Miami. Now, with the opening of international relations between the US and Cuba, the opposite side of the straits faces similar danger. Moreover, marine species like the green turtle and the West Indian manatee, to name a few, are endangered and losing their habitat every day. Also, just this month, effluents leaked from power plants stationed at Turkey Point, on the straits, exacerbating harmful algae blooms. The fragile marine ecosystems of the Florida Straits appears in the media quite frequently, and the news is never good.[31]

Rozwadowski argued in her piece that the world’s oceans have become a major flashpoint in the battleground of the Anthropocene. Unfortunately, this statement could not be more accurate. Any study of the Florida Straits as a marine borderland must draw people’s attention to the region’s increasing vulnerability. From the specific problems listed above to the more general problems of a collapsing marine food web and increasing levels of ocean acidity, temperatures, and sea levels, the Florida Straits has the potential to meet the environmental historian’s driving desire for advocacy in the modern world. The geographic region can only do so, however, if historians are willing to engage in sustained collaboration with natural scientists—the kind of collaboration that Worster called for in 1990. Bolster has already proven that such interdisciplinary collaboration is vital for addressing what ecologists refer to as “shifting baseline syndrome.” In order for us to help marine environments rebound to healthy levels, we must first measure the extent of ecological devastation over time. This task will require a combination of historical and scientific methodologies.[32]

In sharing the fictional story of a Caribbean refugee, crossing the aquamarine waters of the Florida Straits for the very first time, the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat once wrote, “There are no borderlines on the sea. The whole thing looks like one.” Reflecting back upon these two short sentences, they seem to be referencing the existence of a complex regional borderland—perhaps a borderland similar to the watery world of Makahs at Cape Flattery or even the arid world of the Navajos at Diné Bikéyah. Indeed, these are the exact kinds of places for stories that we need to find. They are the new places that can help us meet the special challenges of doing environmental history in the twenty-first century. They are the places for stories, as Cronon may say, that never fail to remind us of the most crucial lessons. Namely, we do not have to sacrifice cultural hybridity in order to address modes of production. Or, as I have tried to demonstrate in this brief and thematic historiography, that we do not have to sacrifice the small in order to tackle the big.[33]


Epigraph [1] William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative, Journal of American History 78, 4 (Mar., 1992): 1375.

Epigraph [2] Edwidge Danticat, Krik? Krak! (New York: Soho Press, 1995), 6.

[1] The following pieces are from: “A Round Table: Environmental History,” Journal of American History 76, 4 (March, 1990), 1087-1147; Donald Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” 1089, 1090-1091; Donald Worster, “Seeing Beyond Culture,” 1142; William Cronon, “Modes of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History,” 1129, 1130-1131; Carolyn Merchant, “Gender and Environmental History,” 1117-1121; Richard White, “Environmental History, Ecology, and Meaning,” 1111-1116.

[2] Paul Sutter, “The World with Us: The State of American Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100, 1 (June, 2013): 95-96, 114, 118-119; Donald Worster, 1143.

[3] Sutter, “The World with Us: The State of American Environmental History,” 99; Helen M. Rozwadowski, “The Promise of Ocean History for Environmental History,” Journal of American History, 100, 1 (June, 2013): 136-139. On the idea of terrestrial bias in History, see also Jeffrey Bolster, “Putting the Ocean in Atlantic History: Maritime Communities and Marine Ecology in the Northwest Atlantic, 1500-1800, The American Historical Review, 113, 1 (Feb., 2008) 19-47.

[4]  Cronon, “A Place for Stories,” 1347-1476; Worster, “Seeing Beyond Culture,” 1143.

[5] Please see Fig. 2 at the beginning of this essay for a color, aerial photograph of the Florida Straits.

[7] For more on the science of the Florida Straits, the Gulf Stream, and the North Atlantic Gyre, see Henry Strommel, The Gulf Stream: A Physical and Dynamical Description (London: Cambridge University Press, 1958); and see also the second edition from 1965; for more on the history of the Gulf Stream see Stan Ulanski The Gulf Stream: Tiny Plankton, Giant Bluefin, and the Amazing Story of the Powerful River in the Atlantic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008). See also a series of books by the maritime historian John Viele, called The Florida Keys: A History of the Pioneers (Sarasota: Pineapple Press, 1996).

[8] Stephen Aron and Jeremy Adelman, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States and the Peoples In-Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104, 3 (June 1999): 816.

[9] Joshua L. Reid,  The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 7; Rozwadowski, “The Promise of Ocean History for Environmental History,” 139; Bethel Saler,  The Settler’s Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest (Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of a Modern Southwest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 18-19; N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[10] John Whitehead, “Hawai’i: The First and Last Far West?” Western Historical Quarterly 23, 2 (May 1992): 156.

[11] Reid, The Sea is My Country, 4, 7, 12-14.

[12]Reid, 4, 45; Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2012), 6, 17, 265.

[13] The Governor of New Providence (Robert Clark) to Sir Thomas Lynch, July6, 1682, CO 1/49, no. 1; Michael Craton, History of the Bahamas, 68. Also quoted in Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People from the Aboriginal Times to the End of Slavery (Athens: University of George Press, 1999), 89.

[14] For some of this new work, see Rosalyn Howard, “Black Seminole Diaspora: The Caribbean Connection.” In Caribbean and Southern Transnational Perspectives on the U.S. South : Proceedings of the Southern Anthropological Society, 73-88 (Athens: University of George Press, 2006); and Toni Carrier, “Trade and Plunder Networks in the Second Seminole War in Florida, 1835-1842,” (MA Thesis: University of South Florida, 2005); Canter Brown Jr., “Sarrazota, or runaway Negro plantations: Tampa Bay’s First Black Community,” Tampa Bay History 12 (Fall-Winter 1990): 15; Reid, The Sea is My Country, 138.

[15] Charles Aranade “Florida Keys: English or Spanish in 1763?” Tequesta 15 (1955): 51; Bethel Saler; The Settler’s Empire, 50, 83, 122. The Bahamian subject that Jackson had executed in 1818 was Robert C. Ambrister.

[16] Connolly, A World More Concrete, 25, 222. In this sense, historians of South Florida must “look across the international border” and see the transnational relationships. Reid, The Sea is My Country, 289; Aron and Adelman, “From Borderlands to Borders,” 816-817.

[17] Reid, The Sea is My Country, 127, 133; for 1715, see Richard Copithorne, The English Cotejo: Or, the Cruelties, Depredations, and Illicit Trade Charg’d Upon the English in a Spanish Libel Lately Published…By a Sufferer (London: Richard Copithorne, 1739); For 1763, see Charles Aranade “Florida Keys: English or Spanish in 1763?” Tequesta 15 (1955): 43, 46.

[18] Reid, The Sea is My Country, 15, 87; Bernard Romans, A Concise Natural History of East and West Florida (New York: For the Author, 1775), 292; For a violent encounter in the marine borderlands that was initiated by native peoples rather than white sailors see Briton Hammon, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings (Boston: Green & Russell, 1760).

[19] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 5, 24.

[20] William Cronon, “Kennecott Journey: The Paths out of Town,” 28-51, in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past ( New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 49-51; Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 138.

[21] Ulanski, The Gulf Stream, 42; Henry Strommel, The Gulf Stream, 2.

[22] William John Gerard DeBrahm, The Atlantic Pilot, (London: T. Spilsbury, 1772), 7; Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Gold Seekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1998), 79, 232, 332.

[23] For more on this wreck, see Timothy R. Walton, The Spanish Treasure Fleets (Sarasota: Pineapple Press, 2002), 209, 223; Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 110, 118; Cronon, “Kennecott Journey: The Paths out of Town,” 48; William Cronon, George Miles, Jay Gitlin, “Becoming West: Toward a New Meaning for Western History,” 3-27, in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), 21.

[24] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 43, 86, 126.

[25] “Kennecott Journey: The Paths out of Town,” 45.

[26] Cronon, “Modes of Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History,” 1128; Mark Catesby, Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, volume II (London: the Royal College of Physicians, 1747).

[27] Andrew Ellicot, The Journal of Andrew Ellicot (Philadelphia: William Fry, 1803), 255; Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 126.

[28] Kevin Dawson, “Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World,” The Journal of American History 92, 4 (Mar., 2006): 1349-1350.

[29] Marie Audubon, Audubon and his Journals (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1897), 379; Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 18; Reid, The Sea is My Country, 39, 149; Elliott West, The Contested Plains, 20.

[30] Worster, “Transformations of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” 1096; Rozwadowski, “The Promise of Ocean History for Environmental History,” 136-137; Bolster, The Mortal Sea, 3, 228.

[31] Scott Wyland, “Miami’s Choice: Bigger Ships or Coral Reefs,” National Geographic, 24 February 2016; Tim Elfrink, “Turkey Point Nuclear Plant is Pumping Polluted Water into Biscayne Bay,” Miami New Times, 8 March, 2016; Ken Kaye, “New Report: Outlook grimmer on South Florida sea levels,” Sun Sentinel, 6 November 2015; “Inventory of Threatened and Endangered Species in Everglades National Park,” The National Park Service, accessed 13 March 2016: http://www.nps.g ov/ever/learn/nature/techecklist.htm;

[32] Bolster, The Mortal Sea, 10, 87.

[33] Danticat, Krik? Krak!, 6; Cronon, “A Place for Stories,” 1375.