Brian Russell Roberts &
Michelle Ann Stephens
TOWARD A VISION OF THE ARCHIPELAGIC AMER I CAS
Every grade- schooler in the United States is taught to view President Thomas
Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase as a landmark event in “American history.”
This purchase, as the famous narrative goes, doubled the size of the United States
and ousted France (and the threat of its power ful army) from continental North
Amer i ca.1 But consider the Louisiana Purchase’s fame in comparison to that of
the United States’ nearly forgotten 1941 agreement to build military bases on
six British colonial possessions in the Ca ribbean, which President Franklin D.
Roo se velt trumpeted as “the most impor tant action in the reinforcement of our
national defense . . . since the Louisiana Purchase.”2 Or consider the Louisiana
Purchase side by side with President Harry S. Truman’s seldom- discussed Cold
War instigation of a US trusteeship in Micronesia, which more than doubled the
size of the United States in terms of total land and water area, thereby constitut-
ing a massive geo graphical grounding for its emergence as the dominant Pacific
power (see figure I.1).3 Juxtaposing the Louisiana Purchase’s fame with these
enormously significant yet comparatively unknown events in the Ca ribbean and
Pacific, one must ask how the narrative of continental Amer i ca (which has been
a geo graph i cal story central to US historiography and self- conception) has so
completely eclipsed the narrative of what we are terming “the archipelagic Amer-
i cas,” or the temporally shifting and spatially splayed set of islands, island chains,
and island- ocean-continent relations which have exceeded US- Americanism
and have been affiliated with and indeed constitutive of competing notions of
the Amer i cas since at least 1492.
This archipelagic version of Amer i ca has spanned more than five centuries,
and hence the archipelagic Amer i cas are clearly not confined to the islands and
waters that have been appropriated by the United States via (to borrow a phrase
from Richard Drinnon) the United States’ dedication to “seagoing Manifest
Destiny.”4
Yet within the interdisciplinary field of American studies (which has
INTRODUCTION ARCHIPELAGIC
AMERICAN STUDIES
decontinentalizing
the study of american
culture
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