In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Idea of Atlantic History

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Pioneering Works
  • Atlantic World/Atlantic Worlds
  • Pre-Columbus, Discovery, and Contact
  • Modernity
  • World History
  • Comparative Atlantic Histories
  • Imperialism and National Experience
  • Microhistory

Atlantic History The Idea of Atlantic History
Trevor Burnard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0007


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.


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. A nice short treatment is Kupperman 2012.

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

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

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

    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.

  • 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.

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

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

    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.

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

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203200995

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

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

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

  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. The Atlantic in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Short and accessible treatment of the Atlantic world by a renowned practitioner with considerable emphasis on the earlier stages of Atlantic history.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.