For most of history, water transport has been more efficient than land transport. We are so used to good roads and before that, trains, that we think of that type of movement as the default human strategy. Water transport can certainly facilitate empire, but nationalism, the uniting of closely-related groups that are within a physical area, seems to have grown up just after slightly better roads, and then trains. I suppose canals should be included, as they are water transport, but internal, and bear a lot of similarity to land transport.
When you are trading by water you have city-states. When others are accessible by land we start to feel more connected to them. I'm sure historians have been noticing this and writing about it for years and I am just now picking up on it.
I just finished America's Forgotten Colonial History, which does a nice job of putting the various bits into context with each other and with the history of England/GB.
Opening up land _away_ from the rivers and upstream of the navigable bits came rather late.
That is a very interesting insight.
The British actress Fannie Kemble, who was an astute observer of America, traveled from Philadelphia to Georgia in 1838. Her description of the journey, which encompassed railroads, steamboats, and horse-drawn coaches, gives a good sense for the difficulties of travel in those days.
Miner's lady, stranger to blue water...
James Burke in "The Day the Universe Changed" talks of an innovation that greatly increased the industrial capability of England, that allowed the movements of vast amounts of new goods, that increased the pace of life and helped knit England together. You inevitably think of the train, but then Burke pans out to show a horse-drawn barge on a canal.
Piping in as the geographer among your readers, I'd suggest that the specific character of the water needs to be considered as well as the specific character of the water transport. It is useful to employ counterfactual thinking and imagine the likely outcome of an alternative physical geography. For instance, imagine the drainage of the central lowland of North America without continental glaciation, and therefor the St. Lawrence and not the Mississippi as the "father of waters." Or imagine the effect a very large eastward projecting peninsula would have had on the coasting trade of the seaboard states.
I recall that you have family in Houston, a city that cannot be understood without understanding the fact that the rivers here in Texas are "flashy"--forty feet deep for part of the year and two feet deep for the remainder. Buffalo Bayou was a branch of the Galveston Bay estuary, and so only "flashy" above Houston.
With respect to your main point, though, I think that roads reinforce the patterns of human geography (and hence nationalism) because they are deliberate. Rivers and coasts unite whoever happens to be settled along them, but roads unite whoever the road builder wishes to unite. Roadbuilding is always "social engineering."
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