In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section British Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Bibliographies and Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Britain and the Wider World
  • Economy
  • The Peopling of British America
  • Culture and Politics
  • Religion
  • British Imperialism before the American Revolution
  • The Impact of Imperialism in British America
  • Nineteenth-Century American and British Atlantic Worlds

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Atlantic History British Atlantic World
Trevor Burnard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0012


The English were latecomers into the Atlantic, with permanent settlement not beginning in earnest until the 17th century. From 1607 and the founding of Jamestown until the latter part of the 19th century, the English and, after the union of England and Scotland in 1707, the British were the most numerous of all European migrants across the Atlantic. The British world was a world in motion, both at home and in the Americas. The sources collected here reflect the dynamism, restlessness, and willingness to take risks that characterized early modern British imperial expansion both into the Americas and into Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. The British Atlantic was most important in the two centuries before the American Revolution but continued to be important after the creation of the United States, as Canada and the West Indies grew while under British control. The British Atlantic world began after the Spanish Atlantic world and changed earlier than the Spanish world into a different sort of polity (one composed of nation-states as well as an empire) but was at least as important in shaping the Atlantic world. British Atlantic world history does not stand by itself: It needs to be placed within an imperial and “British world” perspective and needs to be connected to manifold changes that happened between the mid-16th and mid-19th centuries in Britain itself.

General Overviews

British Atlantic history is a relatively new field, arising out of and related to studies of colonial British America. Greene 1988 is a good early example of a synthesis that bridges the gap between the two fields. Meinig 1986 is an early statement, coming out of historical geography, about how colonial British America might be usefully redesigned as the British Atlantic. Hornsby 2005 is a sophisticated updating of Meinig 1986 that offers a different set of regional classifications. Armitage and Braddick 2009 provides a compelling new set of arguments about how British Atlantic history might be conceived. If one root of British Atlantic history is in colonial British American history, another origin is in British imperial history. Louis 1998–2001 is an authoritative, if conservatively organized, summary of the state of the imperial field at the turn of the 20th century. MacFarlane 1994 and Sarson 2005 are short but wide-ranging textbooks on British America that take an Atlantic approach. Elliott 2006 is a much bigger and more important book than any textbook and is an explicitly comparative study that both summarizes current scholarship and sets an agenda for future work.

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

    Excellent collection of articles on themes in Atlantic history with a powerful introduction by David Armitage that distinguishes between three types of British Atlantic history: cis-, trans-, and circum-Atlantic history.

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

    An extraordinary work of erudition and a brilliant comparative history. Argues that while the Spanish settlement of America rested primarily on the exploitation of people, the British relied upon the commodification of land.

  • Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    Influential capstone to a generation’s scholarship in new social history that both predates British Atlantic history and provides a colonial British American context into which scholars of the British Atlantic could move. Based on a deep understanding of the secondary literature of the 1960s through the mid-1980s.

  • Hornsby, Stephen J. British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2005.

    Offers a geographical perspective on the development of British America before 1800. Puts forward a staple-based typology of British America that is more sensitive to Canada and the West Indies than is the case in Meinig 1986.

  • Louis, William Roger, ed. Oxford History of the British Empire. 5 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998–2001.

    Major collaborative set of authoritative interpretative and historiographical essays on British imperialism from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Addresses (especially in Volumes 1, 2, and 3) many aspects of British Atlantic history.

  • MacFarlane, Anthony. The British in the Americas, 1480–1815. London: Longman, 1994.

    The best short account of British involvement in the Americas, written by a specialist in Latin America. Provides a compelling synthesis of the arc of British territories stretching from Canada to the Caribbean that does not treat the mainland American colonies, particularly New England, as the core of the Anglo-American empire.

  • Meinig, D. W. 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.

    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.

  • Sarson, Steven. British America, 1500–1800: Creating Colonies, Imagining an Empire. London: Hodder Arnold, 2005.

    Concise, readable survey of British Atlantic history (mostly on the Americas) that compares dreams of settlement with their realities.

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