Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Black Sea: A History

Book Cover

Book Title

The Black Sea: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press , 2005


King, Charles


Charles King's The Black Seas: A History, is a grand attempt at, amongst other things, a unified historical, political and social narrative of the various polities situated geographically around the protagonist itself, the Black Sea. Spanning 2700 years, from the early Greek period to the present activities of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation organisation (BSEC), the book is ambitious in reach, but also written in a lively and engaging manner. King presents four overarching narratives through which the history of the Black Sea can be viewed. First, he urges readers to consider the Black Sea as the defining character of the region that surrounds it, one that extends from the Balkans to the Caucasus mountains and from the steppeland of Ukraine and southern Russia to central Anatolia. Today, almost all the countries within this area are members of the BSEC, an international forum established in 1992 to strengthen commercial, political and cultural ties in the region that dates back centuries. Second, the book traces the transition of the Black Sea as one that has "slided" from an Asian to a European body of water, with the turning point coming in the late eighteenth century, when Russia made inroads into the Black Sea and eroded the Ottoman's monopoly on its ports and coasts. Third, King considers the efforts of every rising power in the region to convert frontier zones into more defined, and thus manageable, boundaries, first with the Romans, then the Ottoman, and finally with the Russians, through the projection of military might, but also involving the alteration of the relationship between the empire and the indigenous population. And fourth, King makes a valiant effort to chart the transformation of the socio-political entities that developed around the Black Sea throughout the ages, from early diverse communities, to clashes between empires fighting for dominance in the area, and finally to today's nation states, and how these entities leave their mark on the Black Sea and vice versa.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The Black Seas: A History is a book of enormous scope, both in terms of subject matter and time frame. It ranges from movement of various people, conflicts small and large, genocides, anthropology, ethnography, ecology, pollution, environmental consequences of modernisation and industrial activities, to oceanography, and many others. This means that in its execution, King has had to be extraordinarily focused in many aspect of his narrative, which necessitates the leaving out of much contextual details and information, such as contemporary events happening around the globe. The first and last chapters, functioning as a kind of introduction and conclusion, are named “An Archeology of Place” and “Facing the Water” respectively, the only chapters not following a chronological order. The five other chapters in-between (Pontus Euxinus 700 BC-AD 500; Mare Maggiore 500–1500; Kara Deniz 1500–1700; Chernoe More 1700–1860; Black Sea 1860–1990) are chronological and thematic in nature, titled after some of the names the Black Sea was known by, according to the dominant power in the region during that period (Greek/Latin, Italian, Ottoman, Russian and the present, respectively). The approach is clear and succinct, and likely one of the best way to make sense of almost 3000 years of history, but does limit the scope of the book rather severely, with little room for King to explore the importance of outside influence beyond the dominant actor of each period. Beyond the conventional sources of published materials and archival material, King's decision to draw heavily from traveler's and observer's accounts makes for an entertaining read, with humourous anecdotes such as Catherine the Great and the Austrian emperor Joseph II's encounter with what appeared to be an enchanted tent in the steppe. On the positive side, this approach greatly enlivened the book, providing readers with a vivid image of daily life in the Black Sea region throughout its history, under the rule of various empires. On the negative side, however, anecdotal sources provide but a glimpse of existing geopolitical tensions and dynamics, at least as employed by King. The short account of Catherine's quarrel with the Qing Emperor over China's harbouring of Kalmyks her forces had been in pursuit of, is but one such tantalising example.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

All four of the narrative traced out by King over the history of the Black Sea hold implications for scholars of empire and imperialism, particularly those studying the Ottoman and the Russian empire, which King focused much of the book on. The strength of Black Sea lies in the long time frame covered by the book, which allows for a comparative analysis of the historical experience of empire within one confined region, as well as the wealth of interesting examples he has pulled together on a little studied corner of the world, which just so happened to be part of an empire almost continuously for over 2000 years. The section on the relationship between the sea and the steppe (p141) is particularly interesting, for the contradicting views the Ottomans and the Russians held about the sea and the steppes, as well as for the detailed analysis of the determined Russian effort to absorb both into its empire, by first converting what was a frontier zone into a boundary, then turning it against the Ottoman empire. As implied by the book's title, the scope was never intended to be one of an in-depth analysis of the empires that dominated in the Black Sea region, but instead an attempt to draw together diverse experiences and polities into one narrative linked by the body of water we now call the Black Sea. However, for student of empire and imperialism, Black Sea would be a valuable companion to studies of Eurasian empires such as David Schimmelpenninck's Russian Orientalism: Asia in the Russian Mind from Peter the Great to the Emigration and Alfred J. Rieber's The Struggle for the Eurasian Borderlands: From the Rise of Early Modern Empires to the End of the First World War. This book can count as an amazing triumph for King in the way it linked history to a very real crisis that is still unfolding in the present, that of Russia's aggressive 'imperialistic' actions towards Ukraine. Shortly after its publication Ukraine experienced the Orange Revolution in November 2004, and in 2014, Ukraine dropped into crisis again over Russia's ostensible annexation of the Crimean peninsular, which remains unresolved as of this review's writing.

Annotated by Amelia Tan