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Atlantic History The Idea of Atlantic History
by
Trevor Burnard

Introduction

Atlantic history is a kind of historical analysis that historians have used since the late 1980s to organize profound transformations in the societies in the four continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean in the early modern era. It is, as John Elliott notes, “the creation, destruction and re-creation of communities as a result of the movement across and around the Atlantic basin, of people, commodities, cultural practices.” As well it is the analysis, as D. W. Meinig opines, of “a sudden and harsh encounter between two old worlds that transformed both and integrated them into a single New World.”(Meinig, 1986) At its simplest, Atlantic history is a contemporary updating of a traditional historical problem—the settling of the Americas by Europeans and Africans and the displacement from those lands of Native Americans—to take account of late-20th- and early-21st-century sensibilities. Advocates of the utility of Atlantic history as an interpretative paradigm argue that Atlantic history is a full-blown field of study that can encompass older fields, such as European, North American, Latin American, and African history. It might also encompass imperial history and diasporic studies. Other scholars envision Atlantic history less as a field than as a means of conversation, a device whereby scholars interested in common problems throughout a loosely defined geographical region can talk to each other. What unites most of the emerging scholarship is a concern with movement and an unwillingness to be confined to national boundaries. It is also a field of inquiry that attempts to remove historiographical barriers between the early modern and the modern periods and between colonial- and nation-state-centered history. Atlantic history is mostly concerned with making connections rather than comparisons. Critics argue that Atlantic history is merely a made-up topic with no coherence except that which has been retrospectively imposed upon it. They also suggest that the proper frame of reference is global, imperial, or hemispheric rather than Atlantic. Nevertheless, Atlantic history is flourishing, not just intellectually but institutionally as well, with more and more work published with “Atlantic” in the title, with an increasing institutional presence in the academy and in public life, and with specific posts appearing on the subject at university history departments.

Textbooks

As befits a relatively new intellectual subject that has only been taught to undergraduate students since the 1990s, textbooks on Atlantic history are few and of recent origin. One of the earliest textbooks was the collection of essays Karras and McNeill 1992. Butel 1997 is a conventional but comprehensive treatment. More recent collections of essays with an Atlantic theme are Games and Rothman 2007 and Klooster and Padula 2004. Egerton et al. 2007 is the first history textbook, one of high quality written by a first-rate team of scholars. Benjamin 2009 is a single-author textbook that provides both full coverage and a slightly more traditional approach than Egerton et al. 2007.

  • Benjamin, Thomas. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians, and Their Shared History, 1400–1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    First single-author textbook on Atlantic history. Well illustrated and well balanced. Major theme is Atlantic history as multiple cross-cultural connections and conflicts.

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  • Butel, Paul. Histoire de l’Atlantique: de l’antiquité à nos jours. Paris: Perrin, 1997.

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    Somewhat pedestrian and very maritime treatment of Atlantic history that nevertheless covers, with particular reference to French history, a wide chronological and temporal period. Sees the Atlantic Ocean as having itself a historical presence.

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  • Egerton, Douglas R., Alison Games, Jane G. Landers, Kris Lane, and Donald R. Wright. The Atlantic World: A History, 1400–1888. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2007.

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    A pioneering multiauthor text in Atlantic history that places English America in a broader Atlantic context.

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  • Games, Alison F., and Adam Rothman, eds. Major Problems in Atlantic History: Documents and Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

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    Part of a successful teaching series that includes primary sources and analytical essays and that pays particular attention to such topics as migration and the origins of the Atlantic system.

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  • Karras, Alan L., and J. R. McNeill, eds. Atlantic American Societies: From Columbus through Abolition, 1492–1888. London: Routledge, 1992.

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    Early textbook on aspects of Atlantic American history. Slightly dated but still valuable.

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  • Klooster, Wim, and Alfred Padula, eds. The Atlantic World: Essays on Slavery, Migration, and Imagination. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

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    Short collection of eight essays by distinguished contributors. Useful and comprehensive introductory essay defining the Atlantic world.

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Reference Works

As Atlantic history has become a more recognized historical subdiscipline, it has begun to attract an Internet presence. Some of these Internet sites reflect the institutionalization of the subject in higher education. In 1996 Harvard University established its International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, 1500–1825. Other historydepartments have followed suit, including the Atlantic World Workshop at New York University. Scholarly organizations such as the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction have established networks of scholars interested in Atlantic history issues. Interested participants can share ideas and seek information at the discussion list H-Atlantic. The number of websites devoted to providing resources in Atlantic history is expanding rapidly. Two of the larger and better sites are the Archive of Early American Images and the Library of Congress Global Gateway: World Culture and Resources. A few websites, notably the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, are contributing considerably to the expansion of knowledge in the field. The Bibliography of British and Irish History contains a wealth of properly referenced bibliographical entries on all sorts of historical topics, including many connected to British imperialism in the Americas.

Journals

Given that Atlantic history is a purposefully diffuse subject, seen either as a conversation or as a unified field, articles on the topic can be found in a multitude of journals. The only journal expressly devoted to work on Atlantic topics is Atlantic Studies, an explicitly interdisciplinary journal with more work on literary and cultural topics than on history. Itinerario: International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction is the closest to a journal specializing in Atlantic history, although it also contains work on global imperialism outside of the Atlantic World. Both the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History and the Journal of Global History have a wider focus than just colonial history, whereas the International Journal of Maritime History and the International History Review both approach Atlantic history from particular specialist perspectives. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History tends to concentrate on British imperialism only and on imperialism outside the temporal boundaries of this bibliography, but it provides good reviews of Atlantic work. The William and Mary Quarterly reflects the interests of early American scholars and in the first decade of the 21st century has taken a decidedly Atlantic turn, setting much of the direction of current scholarship.

Pioneeering Works

Atlantic history has a prehistory, as outlined in The Concept of Atlantic History. Much of the initial impetus came within French scholarship. Chaunu and Chaunu 1955–1959 is probably the most influential early work in Atlantic history. Verlinden 1966 and Mauro 1960 are French histories with greater reference to wider historiographical currents. Significantly, Charles Verlinden and Frédéric Mauro wrote during the internationalist period of the Cold War, when ideas of Western civilization were large influences on scholarship and undergraduate education. Kraus 1949 is an important early contribution to these issues. Palmer 1959 is an especially distinguished entry into these debates, setting an agenda for transatlantic comparisons in the age of revolutions that still influences contemporary scholarship. These early conceptualizations have been questioned in more recent manifestations of Atlantic history. Atlantic history was relatively unpopular during the late 1960s and the 1970s, although Curtin 1969 was an important precursor of black Atlantic history. Canny and Pagden 1987 was an early indicator of new developments in conceiving Atlantic history, which still continue.

  • Canny, Nicholas, and Anthony Pagden, eds. Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500–1800. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

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    Significant contribution to debates over creolization that explores colonial, as opposed to colonized, identities in various places in the Atlantic world. Distinguished list of contributors. Uses Atlantic world concepts to critique traditional notions of nationalism.

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  • Chaunu, Pierre, and Huguette Chaunu. Séville et l’Atlantique, 1504–1650. 8 vols. Paris: Colin, 1955–1959.

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    A prodigious work of scholarship on European sources that places Spanish colonization in a wide context. A classic example of Atlantic history written before Atlantic history really existed.

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  • Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

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    Seminal study of the dimensions and volume of the Hispanic, British, and French slave trades that gave the first defensible numbers of people involved in the Atlantic slave trade.

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  • Kraus, Michael. The Atlantic Civilization: Eighteenth-Century Origins. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1949

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    Emerging, as Bernard Bailyn notes, out of the post–World War II flourishing of interest in North Atlantic internationalism that argued for a distinct shared western European–North American form of civilization. Designed to provide a prehistory for this impulse.

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  • Mauro, Frédéric. Le Portugal et l’Atlantique au XVIIe siècle (1570–1670): Étude économique. Paris: SEVPEN., 1960.

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    Traditional maritime and colonial history with a strong economic focus. Valuable in that it pays particular attention to Iberian Atlantic connections.

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  • Palmer, R. R. The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760–1800. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.

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    Indebted to Fernand Braudel’s concept of a Mediterranean culture. More influential over time than when it was written, when it was seen unfairly as an attack on Marxist versions of French exceptionalism and American notions of American uniqueness. Assigned to the American Revolution a key role in creating an Atlantic revolutionary community. Now seen as a pioneering classic that introduced Atlantic ideas into historical discourse. Volume 2 was released in 1964.

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  • Verlinden, Charles. Les origines de la civilisation atlantique: de la Renaissance à l’Age des Lumières. Paris: A. Michel, 1966.

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    Short essay, first enunciated in 1953, on the roots of what Verlinden thought was a contemporary Atlantic civilization that saw a link between colonial developments in the Mediterranean world in the late Middle Ages and colonizing enterprises in the Atlantic Ocean in the 16th and 17th centuries. Introduced a wide geographical notion of the Atlantic that is close to how Atlantic history is currently conceived.

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The Concept Of Atlantic History

As Atlantic history developed from the late 1980s into the first decade of the 21st century, practitioners began to reflect widely about its origins; about various ways of conceptualizing different Atlantics; about whether Atlantic history is connected to other kinds of history, such as global, diasporic, and imperial history; and about the connections among various periods of Atlantic history. These reflections have resulted in large-scale treatments, mostly as monographs, roundtable discussions, and scholarly articles in important academic journals.

Large-Scale Treatments

The growth of Atlantic history as a field has encouraged scholars to attempt to summarize what Atlantic history is and to speculate about what it could be in the future. Meinig 1986 is an important early statement, seeing Atlantic history in terms of conflict and exchange, modulated over geographical units. Curtin 1990 is another early statement about how the Atlantic world developed and was articulated, looked at through the perspective of the plantation complex. The most important syntheses of Atlantic history and prolegomena about where Atlantic history is going have come in the first decade of the 21st century. Armitage and Braddick 2009 provides both a vindication of the approach and several definitions of how Atlantic history might be done. Bailyn 2005 summarizes the author’s belief that Atlantic history emerged out of a combination of contemporary events and historiographical trends and makes a strong statement about how Atlantic history can unify and transform several historical subjects. The general principles enunciated in Bailyn 2005 are shown working in practice in the essays in Bailyn and Denault 2009. Pietschmann 2002 offers European views on the development of Atlantic history. The best survey of Atlantic history as it is currently practiced is Greene and Morgan 2009. It is a sign of how far the field has progressed in the first decade of the 21st century that some of the limitations of Atlantic history are also discussed in this volume.

  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

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    Although only about the British Atlantic, introduces for that area a series of concepts applicable to Atlantic history as a whole. Excellent collection of articles on themes in Atlantic history with a powerful introduction by David Armitage that distinguishes among three types of British Atlantic history: cis-, trans-, and circum-Atlantic history.

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  • Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Context and Contours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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    Concise but powerful articulation of what a leading practitioner of Atlantic history considers to have been the major themes in Atlantic history. Makes a strong case for Atlantic history as an outgrowth of a certain kind of pan-Atlantic internationalism in the aftermath of World War II and an equally strong case for Atlantic history as a unified field.

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  • Bailyn, Bernard, and Patricia L. Denault, eds. Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

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    A strong set of statements by a series of important scholars of various areas and time periods of the Atlantic world, supporting Bailyn’s oft-expressed belief that the Atlantic world is a coherent whole that can be studied as a single unit.

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  • Curtin, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    Important synthetic work by a pioneer in black Atlantic history that outlines the growth, importance, and global reach of this Atlantic social and political institution.

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  • Greene, Jack P., and Philip D. Morgan, eds. Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Wide-ranging and up-to-date collection of essays on Atlantic history that not only looks at Atlantic history from a variety of regional, imperial, and conceptual angles, but also gives space for cogent criticisms of Atlantic history as a concept.

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  • Meinig, Donald William. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History. Vol. 1, Atlantic America, 1492–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

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    Massively influential historical geography of the British Atlantic that envisions the European discovery of America as a sudden and harsh encounter between two old worlds that transformed both and integrated them into a single New World.

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  • Pietschmann, Horst, ed. Atlantic History: History of the Atlantic System, 1580–1830. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2002.

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    A series of essays from a Hamburg conference in 1999 with strong Continental European participation that sees Atlantic history as a way to both connect various regional histories of people on either side of the Atlantic and examine early modern global transformations.

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Roundtables

As Atlantic history becomes more established, its fundamental assumptions become more debatable. Editors of journals have increasingly invited scholars to discuss and debate the utility of Atlantic history. A particularly interesting example is Epstein et al. 2007, which links Atlantic history with international history. Slauter 2008 introduced historians to the impact of Atlantic paradigms in early American literary history, whereas the Ghachem 2003 collection of essays on Atlantic history in the age of revolutions shows how younger scholars have been influenced by Atlantic history. One concern is how to transplant the insights of academic scholarship into the classroom. The Organization of American Historians devotes an issue of its magazine on teaching to how to teach Atlantic history (Games 2004). Potofsky 2008 is an important exploration of Atlantic history from a French perspective.

  • Epstein, James, Rafe Blaufarb, Eliga H. Gould, and Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra. ”Entangled Empires in an Atlantic World.” American Historical Review 112 (2007): 710–799.

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    Focusing primarily on Atlantic and imperial interactions in the South Atlantic, offers three articles and one comment about late-18th- and early 19th-century Spanish–British interactions in the Caribbean and Latin America that argue that the way to see imperial relations is through the concept of entanglement. This concept is best explained in an important article on the English Atlantic as a Spanish periphery by Eliga A. Gould.

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  • Games, Alison, ed. “The Atlantic World.” Organization of American Historians Magazine of History 18.3 (April 2004).

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    A series of articles and discussions in a forum designed for teachers that discusses how Atlantic history can be a useful way of connecting various historical fields in the classroom.

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  • Games, Alison. “Beyond the Atlantic: English Globetrotters and Transoceanic Connections.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 63 (2006): 675–692.

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    One of a series of provocative essays that tries to see how far the concept of Atlantic history can be extended, from the Pacific Northwest, to South Asian history, to the history of the globe.

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  • Ghachem, Malick W., ed. Special Issue: Slavery and Citizenship in the Age of the Atlantic Revolutions. Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 29.1 (2003): 1–188.

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    Special issue of a Canadian journal, edited by Malick W. Ghachem, that looks at slavery, citizenship, and sovereignty through an Atlantic perspective. A contemporary updating and extending of Palmer 1959 (see Pioneering Works). The original papers were presented at the Harvard Atlantic history seminar.

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  • Potofsky, Allan, ed. “New Perspectives on the Atlantic.” History of European Ideas 34 (2008): 383–455.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2008.08.006Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ambitious French-influenced set of articles on the historiographical implications for studies of the early modern French Empire and new trends in Atlantic history.

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  • Slauter, Eric. “History, Literature, and the Atlantic World.” William and Mary Quarterly 65 (2008): 135–186.

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    Lengthy article on how an increasing body of work on Atlantic literary history has yet to be incorporated into historical works in Atlantic history. Excellent historiographical note and spirited responses by historians and literary critics.

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Journal Articles

Much of the best work in conceptualizing Atlantic history comes in the form of scholarly articles. O’Reilly 2004 skillfully outlines the historical roots of the Atlantic history phenomenon in a way that is subtly different from that of Bailyn 2005 (see Large-Scale Treatments). Canny 2001 traces how Atlantic history developed out of more traditional forms of scholarship. He also distinguishes the subject from global history. From the same year, Marzagalli 2001 places Atlantic history in a longer perspective, doing for French Atlantic history what Canny 2001 does for British Atlantic history. The most positive recommendation of the merits of Atlantic history comes in Games 2006, whereas both Emmer 2003 and Greene 2003 express some reservations about the utility of Atlantic history as a means of looking at Dutch and American hemispheric history, respectively. Vidal 2006 is a succinct summary of the relationship among contemporary events, historiographical trends, and the influence of American patterns of scholarship on intellectual and institutional currents in European (in this case French) scholarship.

  • Canny, Nicholas. “Atlantic History: What and Why?” European Review 9 (2001): 399–411.

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    Useful summary of how studies of exploration and discovery have given way to studies termed Atlantic history. Explains how, although Atlantic history can also be considered global history, the latter concept is more applicable to studies concerning 19th- and 20th-century topics.

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  • Emmer, Pieter. “The Myth of Early Globalization: The Atlantic Economy, 1500–1800.” European Review 11 (2003): 37–47.

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    Skeptical, economically influenced article on the limits of globalization and the Atlantic world in the early modern era.

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  • Games, Alison. “Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities.” American Historical Review 111 (2006): 741–756.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.111.3.741Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Enthusiastic recommendation of the merits of Atlantic history as a field of inquiry that inclines to the perspective that it is a unified field rather than a means of conversation among varying specialists. Argues strongly for the centrality of Africa as the place uniting both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

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  • Greene, Jack P. “Comparing Early Modern American Worlds: Some Reflections on the Promise of a Hemispheric Perspective.” History Compass 1 (2003).

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    An argument from a leading practitioner about how a broad hemispheric perspective provides a better kind of Atlantic history by concentrating on comparisons rather than connections. Also argues for scholarship that transcends national frameworks.

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  • Marzagalli, Silvia. “Sur les origins de l’Atlantic history: Paridigme interprétif de l’histoire des espaces atlantiques à l’époque moderne.” Numero Especial: L’Atlantique. Dix-Huitième Siècle 33 (2001): 17–31.

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    An incisive analysis of the origins of Atlantic history in a special issue, dealing in part with Atlantic history arising out of an early French conference on the subject.

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  • O’Reilly, William. “Genealogies of Atlantic History.” Atlantic Studies 1 (2004): 66–84.

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    Strongly historiographical article that provides a different genealogy of how Atlantic history emerged from that in Bailyn 2005 (see Large-Scale Treatments). Stresses that the development of the field was not especially coherent; that it emerged less out of politics than out of the inner impulses of scholarship and that key developments came in the last decade of the 20th century.

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  • Vidal, Cécile. “The Reluctance of French Historians to Address Atlantic History.” Special Issue: Imagining the Atlantic World. Southern Quarterly 43.4 (2006): 153–189.

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    Seeks to explain the intellectual, institutional, political, and cultural reasons behind this French academic reticence toward Atlantic history by reference to the crisis faced by the “French historical school,” which remains nationally oriented, and the nonintegration of colonization and slavery into French collective history and memory.

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Atlantic World/Atlantic Worlds

The size of the Atlantic world and its long temporal dimensions means that there is a multitude of transatlantic topics that can be pursued. Moreover, there are a variety of ways the Atlantic world can be conceptualized, exercising historians’ imaginations. Vidal 2009 is a useful guide to the proliferation of different kinds of Atlantic worlds now under consideration. Roach 1996 examines the Atlantic as a place of performance. One feature of the Atlantic world that knit that world together was imperialism; Pagden 1995 explores changes in imperial ideology over the course of Atlantic history. Law was another means whereby different parts of the Atlantic were both integrated with each other and differentiated. Benton 2002 argues that the Atlantic experience played a significant role in changing Atlantic legal cultures. Not all people experienced the Atlantic equally. Black people and Africans had a quite different experience than did other ethnic and racial groups; Gilroy 1993 argues, in an influential interpretation, that different experience may have led to a distinctive black Atlantic culture. A significant distinction needs to be made between North Atlantic worlds, centering on the activities of the British, Dutch, and French in North America, and South Atlantic worlds, dominated by the Spanish and Portuguese. Alencastro 2000 and Morelli and Gómez 2006 are useful guides to South Atlantic worlds.

  • Alencastro, Luiz Felipe de. O trato dos viventes: formaçāo do Brasil no Atlântico Sul séculos XVI e XVII. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das letras, 2000.

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    Comprehensive South Atlantic–focused consideration of Brazil as a South Atlantic region and then nation. Useful to counterpose against a more dominant North Atlantic perspective.

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  • Benton, Lauren. Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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    Argues that institutions and culture—and not just the global economy—serve as important elements of international order. Uses case studies to trace a shift in plural legal orders from the multicentric law of early empires to the state-centered law of the colonial and postcolonial world.

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  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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    Extremely influential statement about the role of black people and the cultures they created in all parts of the Atlantic world in defining and integrating an Atlantic world. Both postcolonialist and postmodern.

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  • Morelli, Federica, and Alejandro E. Gómez. “La nueva historia Atlántica: un asunto de escalas.” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos 6 (2006).

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    Well-referenced and incisive web-based article with a good bibliography that approaches Atlantic history as primarily a South Atlantic phenomenon.

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  • Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain, and France, c. 1500–c. 1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

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    Shows that the three great colonial powers of Spain, France, and Britain espoused radically different imperial ideologies until the early 18th century (Spain emphasized evangelization and military glory, France concentrated on agriculture, Britain concentrated on trade). By the late 18th century, people in each empire were beginning to see empire in negative terms. These convergences led to agitation to replace empires with federations of independent and equal states.

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  • Roach, Joseph R. Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

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    Artfully interweaves theatrical, musical, and ritual performances from the 18th century to the present in London and New Orleans. Complemented with fifty-five illustrations, including spectacular photos of the famed Mardi Gras Indians. Concerned in particular with how performances in such arenas as festivals constantly reinterpret the past. A major work on the literary and cultural history of the Atlantic world.

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  • Vidal, Cecile, “L’Atlantique français,” Outre-Mers. Revue d’histoire 97 (2009): 7–139

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    Comprehensive series of articles by leading French scholars placing the French Atlantic into a wider context and interrogating the various ways in which Atlantic history can be defined.

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Pre-Columbus, Discovery, And Contact

The usual start date for Atlantic history is in the 15th century, somewhere close to the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Caribbean or the Portuguese explorations of the African coast. Yet events before 1450 were important in shaping the contexts in which Columbus made his voyages. In the 21st century, we seldom write in terms of a superior and stable European civilization’s moving unexpectedly across the ocean. As Cunliffe 2001 describes for history over the longue durée (long term) and as Bartlett vividly describes for Europe during the Middle Ages, Europe was not a stable construct before the Columbian encounter. The themes that animate Atlantic history—the movement of people, ideas, and things and the process of colonization and cultural encounter—marked European interactions well before Europeans moved outside the western European Atlantic littoral. Abu-Lughod 1989 applies world-system theory to this period, seeing Europe through the lens of core and periphery. The first Atlantic interactions came, as Northrup 2002 shows, in contacts between West and North Africa and southern and western Europe. Abulafia 2008 extends those contacts to investigate the initial movements of Iberians into the Atlantic, showing the extent to which colonization in the Canary Islands prefigured later Atlantic encounters. Primary were those interactions among Europeans, who were imbued with ideas about other peoples drawn from classical, biblical, and travel literature, and Native residents of the Atlantic islands and the Americas. As several of the essays in Schwartz 1994 discuss, these initial contacts strongly influenced all subsequent encounters. European understandings of the contact period continue to shape our thinking, even to the extent of encouraging us to think of spatial relationships in certain ways. Lewis and Wigen 1997 interrogates some of the unthinking assumptions behind customary geographical labels, many of which date from the contact or encounter period.

  • Abulafia, David. The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

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    Reinterpretation by a distinguished late medievalist of the social and cultural worlds of the Canary Islands and the Caribbean on the eve of conquest. Overly Eurocentric and somewhat old-fashioned in how the encounter period is viewed but good on integrating anthropology into history.

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  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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    Immanuel Wallerstein–inspired world-system approach to global interactions and contacts before the Columbian encounter initiated early modern Atlantic history.

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  • Bartlett, Robert Merrill. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation, and Cultural Change, 950–1350. London: Penguin, 1993.

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    Provocative book that shows that Europe in the Middle Ages was as much a product of the processes of colonization and conquest as it was later an initiator of colonial processes in the Atlantic world.

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  • Cunliffe, Barry. Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 B.C.A.D. 1500. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    Lavishly illustrated book that uses archaeological evidence to show connections and commonalities among maritime peoples living for thousands of years on the edge of the Atlantic.

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  • Lewis, Martin W., and Kären E. Wigen. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley, CA, and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

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    The product of a collaboration between a geographer and a historian, this book argues that many of our geographical notions are simplistic and misconceived. Sheds light on how metageographical assumptions grew out of cultural concepts.

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  • Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    Sweeping but brief and accessible study that considers African interactions with Europeans rather than the other way around.

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  • Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Implicit Understandings: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Twenty essays unified by the central underlying theme that implicit understandings influence every culture’s ideas about itself and others. These understandings, however, are argued to be constantly shifting. Tends toward a postmodernist understanding of cultural encounter.

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Modernity

There is not just a prehistory of the Atlantic world; there is a posthistory as well. The Atlantic world period in history is usually seen as part of the early modern era, with parts of the Atlantic history shading into modernity. How modernity arose (and whether it arose at all) and what the significance was of Atlantic interactions in shaping that modernity is the subject of Gabaccia 2004, a short essay on what the author terms the long Atlantic, asserting that the Atlantic world persisted into the 20th century. Others, notably Bailyn 2009 (see Large-Scale Treatments), insist that Atlantic history predated global history and was sharply demarcated in regard to time and space. Bayly 2004 argues that by the 19th century the Atlantic world had been replaced by globalization and by a growing cultural interaction among the peoples of the world. One key debate over globalization is whether this process showed that the world was becoming American or whether America was instead becoming global. Bender 2006 discusses this question over the long term, tending to read back from 19th-century modernity into the early modern period. Greene 2007 argues exactly the opposite: the colonial lessons of early American and Atlantic expansion by Europeans ought to be a blueprint for how scholars treat later North American history.

  • Bayly, C. A. The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

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    Dense but brilliant global history of the 19th century that traces how different human societies became more uniform, culturally and politically, as globalization proceeded. Many insights for the practice of Atlantic history.

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  • Bender, Thomas. A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

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    Tries to place American history within a transnationalist perspective, with particular emphasis on a global idea of nationalism. Handicapped by the determination to see global processes only through North American eyes.

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  • Gabaccia, Donna. “A Long Atlantic in a Wider World.” Atlantic Studies 1 (2004): 1–27.

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    Takes a wide view of what Atlantic history and culture are, especially temporally. Argues for Atlantic history’s continuing and increasing in intensity into the 20th century.

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  • Greene, Jack P. “Colonial History and National History: Reflections on a Continuing Problem.” William and Mary Quarterly 64 (2007): 235–286.

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    Provocative polemic that argues that the insights of Atlantic history, postcolonial theory, and state formation theory developed in the study of colonization in Atlantic America should reshape understandings of the history of the United States.

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World History

The most common criticism of Atlantic history is that it has little coherence or unity, in part because the Atlantic Ocean is not a bounded entity. Thus critics argue that Atlantic history is merely a subset of global or world history. Buisseret 2007 gives comprehensive information about the full range of global exploration, whereas the essays in Bentley et al. 2007 deal with global history as maritime history. The most fervent advocacy of the position that history should be viewed through global perspectives is Fernández-Armesto 1995. Hoerder 2002 and Grove 1995 argue that, seen in a global context, Atlantic history is not especially distinctive. O’Rourke and Williamson 1999 places Atlantic history within the context of late-19th-century international economics, whereas Kennedy 1987 explores the Atlantic’s role as part of global international relations. Some objections to Atlantic history are on political grounds: it is seen by some as too subservient to established authority. An important French work is Gruzinski 2004.

  • Bentley, Jerry H., Renate Bridenthal, and Kären Wigen, eds. Seascapes: Maritime Histories, Littoral Cultures, and Transoceanic Exchanges. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

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    A collection of global history essays that examines the material, cultural, and intellectual constructs that inform and explain historical experiences of maritime regions. Concerned with how societies try to control activities in maritime regions, often in the Atlantic, and how these efforts at regulation are often negated.

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  • Buisseret, David, ed. The Oxford Companion to World Exploration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A wide-ranging collection of 800 entries, accompanied by 150 black-and-white and fifty full-color photographs and maps on oceanic exploration, using the resources of the Newberry Library in Chicago. Annotated primary source materials, such as travel logs and personal letters, supplement select biographies.

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  • Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years. New York: Scribner, 1995.

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    Lively and highly selective romp through world history. Designed for the general reader but with much to satisfy specialists as well. Tendency toward both overstatement and presentism.

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  • Grove, Richard H. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600–1860. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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    Pioneering environmental history that traces the prehistory of the green movement, with particular reference to tropical islands. Interrogates especially ideas of islands as Edenic paradises as well as places of exploitation.

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  • Gruzinski, Serge. Les quatre parties du monde: Histoire d’une mondialisation. Paris: Martinière, 2004.

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    Brilliant and provocative world history from a leading French historian with expertise in Spanish America and the conquistadors. Extraordinarily wide-ranging.

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  • Hoerder, Dirk. Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

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    Implicitly challenges a fundamental argument of Atlantic history—that the Atlantic period was one of unusual population mobility—by showing that migration in the Atlantic period was mostly normative. Argues, from the perspective of labor history, that states have customarily used migration as a way of mobilizing workforces.

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  • Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987.

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    Hugely successful academic book that struck a chord with the reading public. Concerned with the interaction between economics and strategy and is to a large degree about how British international power first grew then contracted over the last five hundred years.

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  • O’Rourke, Kevin H., and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

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    Wide-ranging survey of international economic integration, especially concentrated on the late 19th century but with plentiful references to Atlantic history. Useful summary of a large body of specialist and technical literature.

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Comparative Atlantic Histories

Atlantic history is better at tracing connections than comparisons, but some practitioners have tried to make comparisons between different imperial powers and their Atlantic activities. McNeill 1985 is an early and accomplished example, using Louisburg in French Canada (French) and Havana in Cuba (Spanish) as case studies. Mancke 2005 also looks at two case studies, here, places that started as British but then became Canadian and American, respectively, assessing how patterns of governance affected social development. Moore and Nierop 2003 and Ormrod 2003 compare, in different ways, how British and Dutch overseas expansions were similar and different. Easily the best comparative history is Elliott 2006, a magisterial sustained comparison of Spanish America and British America before circa 1830 that fulfills the promise of Atlantic history exceptionally well. Cañizares-Esguerra 2006 raises interesting ideas that are suggested more than based on well-founded empirical work.

  • Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

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    Polemical attempt to show that the religious influences (especially an obsession with the devil) made Puritan New Englanders and Spanish conquistadors more similar than different. Provocative but not always convincing and intended to make a point about contemporary U.S. cultural politics.

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  • Elliott, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

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    An extraordinary work of erudition and a brilliant comparative history. Argues that, although the Spanish settlement of America rested primarily exploitation, the British relied upon the commodification of land. Underplays the Caribbean as a vital part of both empires.

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  • Mancke, Elizabeth. The Fault Lines of Empire: Political Differentiation in Massachusetts and Nova Scotia, ca. 1760–1830. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    A comparative history that argues that differences in the political cultures of Canada and the United States have their origins in changes in the governance of the British Empire from the mid-18th to the early 19th centuries.

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  • Maxwell, Kenneth. “The Atlantic in the Eighteenth Century: A Southern Perspective on the Need to Return to the ‘Big Picture.’” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 3 (1993): 209–236.

    DOI: 10.2307/3679142Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues persuasively that Atlantic history is too focused on the North Atlantic and that much can be gained from examining Atlantic history from the viewpoint of Iberian empires in the southern Atlantic. Stresses how Iberian empires were caught up in continual warfare between British and French empires.

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  • McNeill, John Robert. Atlantic Empires of France and Spain: Louisburg and Havana, 1700–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

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    Compares the cities of Louisburg in French Canada and Havana in Cuba to ascertain differences between the French and the Spanish Atlantic empires. An early example of hemispheric comparative history. Good on environmental and military matters.

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  • Moore, Bob, and Henk van Nierop, eds. Colonial Empires Compared: Britain and the Netherlands, 1750–1850. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

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    Ten essays (five by British scholars, five by Dutch scholars) from an Anglo-Dutch conference in 2000, organized around five themes, with particular reference to military and economic history.

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  • Ormrod, David. The Rise of Commercial Empires: England and the Netherlands in the Age of Mercantilism, 1650–1770. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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    A fine comparative study, economic in character, that, although only partially Atlantic in scope, demonstrates the importance of Atlantic expansion for two aggressively mercantile European nations.

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Imperialism and National Experience

Atlantic historians are generally indifferent at best and hostile at worst to nationalist history. Atlantic studies try to escape nationalist bounds. But nationalism and national experience are such important forces in the development of national and Atlantic identity that they have to be a focus of attention. O’Brien 1997 and Pocock 2005 examine the same issues for Britain and for Britons overseas, with a greater focus on the history of historiography. Greene 1993 is concerned with the making of identity in British America and the United States and explores the persistent American belief that Americans are an exceptional people with an exceptional history, a theme that also occupies Pocock 2005 in respect to Britain. Exceptional people may not necessarily form themselves into nation-states. Studnicki-Gizbert 2007 is a fascinating study of the Jewish diaspora in the Iberian world, arguing that Jewish experiences in this world helped foster among Jews a sense of national identity separate from their identity as members of different European empires. Bennett 2000 does the same, in a smaller compass, for African diasporas. Grasso and Wulf 2008 and Burnard 2007 attempt to square nationalism and historians’ renewed focus on imperialism in the 18th-century Atlantic world.

  • Bennett, Herman L. “The Subject in the Plot: National Boundaries and the ‘History’ of the Black Atlantic.” African Studies Review 43 (2000): 101–124.

    DOI: 10.2307/524723Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Builds on the work of Paul Gilroy and his concept of a black Atlantic to see whether there is any utility in seeing black history as extending beyond national boundaries. Concludes that there is considerable utility in this approach.

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  • Burnard, Trevor. “Empire Matters? The Historiography of Imperialism in Early America, 1492–1830.” History of European Ideas 33 (2007): 87–107.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2006.08.011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Survey of a variety of English-language works in Atlantic history that reasserts and reevaluates the importance of imperialism in the British, French, and Spanish 18th-century Atlantic empires.

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  • Grasso, Christopher, and Karin Wulf. “‘Nothing Says Democracy like a Visit from the Queen’: Reflections on Empire and Nation in Early American Histories.” Journal of American History 93 (2008): 764–781.

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    Sophisticated and wide-ranging exploration of renewed interest in imperialism among early Americanists, as seen by the editors of the William and Mary Quarterly. Also examines the implications of this renewal of interest for nation-state-based accounts of early America.

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  • Greene, Jack P. The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

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    Short but incisive exploration of the enduring presence of ideas of American exceptionalism in Americans’ conceptions of their collective identity. Important for understanding how these ideas emerged and why people found them persuasive, despite the inadequacy of exceptionalism as an interpretative paradigm.

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  • O’Brien, Karen. Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

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    Careful exploration of the intellectual world of Enlightenment historians that sees a common link among these historians in that they all favored forms of what O’Brien terms cosmopolitan history. Takes Edward Gibbon as the exemplar of this type of history.

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  • Pocock, J. G. A. The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    Selection of essays, mostly about Britain, some about New Zealand, that makes a strong case for seeing Britain and its white settlement colonies as neo-Britons. National identity, Pocock suggests, relied a good deal upon a shared sense of British nationhood, both in Britain and in its colonies.

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  • Studnicki-Gizbert, Daviken. A Nation upon the Ocean Sea: Portugal’s Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492–1640. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    Fascinating microhistory of Portuguese Jews and part-Jews in the Portuguese Empire. Reveals how they created a cohesive community despite the mobility and dispersion of its members, examines the role of sociability in developing robust transatlantic commercial networks, and explores how trade was translated into the sphere of Spanish imperial politics of commercial reform.

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Microhistory

Atlantic history tends to be about large-scale processes over big spaces and long temporal periods. Since the 1990s, however, historians have also been interested in small places and in-depth investigations of individuals and themes. Microhistory and Atlantic history might seem to be incompatible. Nevertheless, some historians have tried to connect the two ways of doing history together. Putnam 2006 addresses the subject head-on and theoretically, concluding that the two ways of doing history are not incompatible. Scott 2000 is an even more enthusiastic proponent of microhistory in an Atlantic context. Sensbach 2005, Sparks 2004, and Sweet 2009 provide case studies of individuals, using a microhistory approach but in an Atlantic mode.

  • Putnam, Lara. “To Study the Fragments/Whole: Microhistory and the Atlantic World.” Journal of Social History 39 (2006): 615–630.

    DOI: 10.1353/jsh.2006.0010Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ambitious attempt to marry Atlantic history with microhistory. Combines theoretical insights about microhistory with an interesting case study.

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  • Scott, Rebecca J. “Small-Scale Dynamics of Large-Scale Processes.” American Historical Review 105 (2000): 472–479.

    DOI: 10.2307/1571462Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Short but influential summary of how large histories can attend to small matters. Forerunner of a forthcoming project with Jean Hebrand on an Atlantic family of color.

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  • Sensbach, Jon F. Rebecca’s Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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    Remarkable story of a Caribbean woman who became a globe-trotting evangelist with experience in the Americas, Europe, and West Africa. Struggles to marry the anonymity of the protagonist with the extraordinary nature of her story.

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  • Sparks, Randy J. The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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    Rare glimpse into the 18th-century Atlantic world and the slave trade from an African perspective. Uses unusual sources and is based on considerable detective work. The atypicality of the case makes its applicability to other subjects problematic.

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  • Sweet, James H. “Mistaken Identities? Olaudah Equiano, Domingos Álvares, and the Methodological Challenges of Studying the African Diaspora.” American Historical Review 114 (2009): 279–306.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.114.2.279Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Follows Álvares from his enslavement in Africa, to Brazil, and then to Portugal in an attempt to show an Atlantic approach to diaspora identities.

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Global Commodities

One way of studying Atlantic connections is through the movement of commodities and foodstuffs as a result of the Columbian encounter. Commodities are best divided into general overviews of the subject and works on the impact of specific products.

General Subjects

For a general overview of all aspects of food production, consumption, and distribution over time, see Kiple and Coneè Ornelas 2000, Mintz 1996, and Goody 1998. Works on food tend to be genuinely transatlantic in conception and focus. The classic account of the biological impact of European contact with the Americas is Crosby 1972. Alfred W. Crosby’s work has influenced all later scholarship and has encouraged scholars to look more deeply at biology and environmental change. McCann 2005 takes Crosby’s insights and applies them, along with anthropological perspectives, to an African adoption of New World foodstuffs. Crosby stresses how devastating unchecked biological expansion could be; Melville 1994 amplifies that argument through a close case study of the environmental impact of the introduction of sheep into the highland areas of central Mexico. Mancall 1995 does another sort of case study involving the impact of a specific commodity—alcohol—into North American Native American societies.

  • Crosby, Alfred W., Jr. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972.

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    Classic reinterpretation of the period of discovery and conquest in terms of biological invasion and demographic disaster. Conclusively proves how disastrous European movement to the Americas was for Native Americans and assesses the role played by biological factors for European dominance in the Americas.

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  • Goody, Jack. Food and Love: A Cultural History of East and West. London: Verso, 1998.

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    Learned anthropological investigation into how food is eaten in different parts of the world. Critiques in particular crude divisions between Asian and Atlantic history. Diverse set of essays that focuses on whether western Europe is culturally unique. Occasionally very dense.

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  • Kiple, Kenneth F., and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, eds. The Cambridge World History of Food. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

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    Wide-ranging collection of informative articles on all aspects of food, from the Neolithic to the present. Good articles on food-related aspects of the Columbian encounter. Strong on culinary history.

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  • Mancall, Peter C. Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

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    Innovative interdisciplinary study that examines the controversial topic of Native American use of alcohol and the Native American propensity for alcoholism. Sensitively handled.

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  • McCann, James C. Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500–2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.

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    Shows the social, cultural, and political influence of African use of a New World crop: maize. An interesting, African-centered take on the Columbian encounter. Follows the use of maize in Africa into the present.

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  • Melville, Elinor G. K. A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    Shows how the environmental and social changes brought about by the introduction of Old World species aided European expansion through a case study of sheep in central Mexico.

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  • Mintz, Sidney W. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past. Boston: Beacon, 1996.

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    Fascinating, discursive, accessible foray into the multiple meanings of food and eating written by a major anthropologist. Diverse essays with lots of concentration on Atlantic topics.

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Specific Commmodities

A particularly long-lasting consequence of Atlantic connections in the early modern period has been a greatly accelerated movement of individual commodities throughout the Atlantic world. Kurlansky 1997 looks at cod, an important early commodity, whereas Mintz 1986 examines sugar, the most important of all Atlantic commodities; both books also examine the commodities’ impacts on all aspects of Atlantic life. The transformative role of sugar in creating the early Atlantic world is canvassed well in Schwartz 2004. McNeil 2006 and Clarence-Smith 2000 look at chocolate production, distribution, and consumption; McNeil 2006 examines chocolate in a small place, Clarence-Smith, over a wide compass. Norton 2008 makes an argument for the importance of tobacco in forming Atlantic economic and cultural networks, whereas Hancock 2009 explicitly uses network theory to understand both the Madiera trade and the nature of Atlantic economic interchange. All these works draw on the classic study Ortiz 1995, in which the author examines the role of tobacco and sugar in shaping the whole of Cuban society.

  • Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765–1914. New York: Routledge, 2000.

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    Arising out of investigations into Portuguese Africa, this work is a global study of the world cocoa market, mainly in the 19th century but with important contributions with respect to the 18th century.

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  • Hancock, David. Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Organization of the Atlantic World, 1640–1815. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

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    Uses the seemingly small subject of Madeira to show how producers, distributors, and consumers shaped market relations in a globalizing world. In addition, makes a major contribution to Atlantic history by arguing for Atlantic interactions’ being essentially decentralized and effectively self-organizing.

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  • Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. New York: Walker, 1997.

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    Popular but scholarly survey of the impact of cod on culinary tastes and economic patterns. Stresses the importance of finding cod in early explorations of the North Atlantic.

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  • McNeil, Cameron L., ed. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

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    Heavily interdisciplinary investigation of the practical and ritual uses of chocolate with a concentration on its use in social and political structures in Mesoamerica, both before and after European contact.

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  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1986.

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    Short and accessible summation of longtime investigations into sugar by a leading anthropologist. Combines wide knowledge of how sugar was produced with a fine understanding of consumption patterns and the social implications of Europeans’ sweet tooths.

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  • Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.

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    Excellent discussion of how Europeans first disdained, then accepted and celebrated, various New World plants, choosing to use them in ways different from how they had first seen them used.

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  • Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Rev. ed. Translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onís. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

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    Classic work, first published in 1947, by a major Cuban scholar. Heavily economic in conception but covering a wide range of subjects, from industrial production to consumption. A pioneer in commodity studies.

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  • Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450–1680. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

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    Strongly revisionist collection of essays about the early introduction of sugar into the Americas, focusing also on the Atlantic islands and on Iberia. Questions the concept that there was a “sugar revolution” in the 17th-century British Caribbean.

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LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199730414-0007

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