In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Economy and Consumption in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Document Collections
  • Letters and Papers of Merchants, Planters, and Slavers
  • Newspapers
  • Transimperial Economic Relations
  • Transatlantic Economies of European Empires
  • Regional Economic Development
  • Transatlantic Transformations
  • Port Cities
  • Merchants, Families, Networks
  • Nations
  • Unfree Labor
  • Sailors, Privateers, and Pirates
  • Illicit Trade
  • Economic Ideology
  • Global Context

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Atlantic History Economy and Consumption in the Atlantic World
Robert DuPlessis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0018


Whether there was such a thing as an “Atlantic economy” in the Early Modern period (the three centuries from about 1500 to about 1800) remains a matter of debate—part of the larger controversy over whether Atlantic history should be considered a distinct field, a subfield of world history, or just a new title for the long-established, if only recently fashionable again, field of imperial history. What is clear is that there currently exists no study of the Atlantic economy as a whole. Instead, research on early modern Atlantic economic history is scattered in many places and under many rubrics. Often it is included in chapters in books or collective volumes of essays on themes as varied as the early modern Jewish Diaspora or the British Atlantic. Findings in Atlantic economic history also appear as subtopics in subjects such as plantation slavery, piracy, and port cities. Much valuable economic history of the Atlantic basin, moreover, is not explicitly conceptualized or presented from an Atlantic perspective but within frameworks that may be global, imperial, regional, or even local. Then too, diverse historiographical traditions understand the term “Atlantic” differently. For some, it includes the entire basin; for others, just a national littoral that fronts on the Atlantic. Increasingly, scholars understand the Atlantic both as tightly interconnected with other trading areas (close by, like the Mediterranean, and more distant, like the Indian Ocean) and as a dynamic space: usually expanding as areas were colonized and trade routes developed but, on occasion, contracting as wars severed relations or as economies reoriented. Finally, multiauthor collections are common—more common, perhaps, than single-author monographs. This allows better coverage of a wide variety of sources, languages, and societies. But it also reflects and helps perpetuate the absence of a governing paradigm to orient scholarship.

General Overviews

Davis 1973 remains the only work proposing a general overview. While still an interesting survey of the economies of the European imperial powers at home and in the Americas from the fifteenth through the late eighteenth centuries, it is dated both in information and in taking a resolutely Eurocentric rather than Atlantic perspective and, despite its title, including nothing on Africa and the slave trade. Two collections of essays, Coclanis 2005 and McCusker and Morgan 2000, demonstrate the exciting work currently underway and suggest avenues for further research, but neither comes close to a comprehensive account or a unified interpretation. Though lacking chapters devoted to the economy as such, many essays in Canny and Morgan 2011, and numerous sections in Burnard 2020 contain relevant material, while Buchet and Le Bouëdec 2017 offers short introductions to most topics discussed in this article.

  • Buchet, Christian, and Gérard Le Bouëdec, eds. The Sea in History: The Early Modern World. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2017.

    Short essays based on up-to-date approaches and scholarship on a wide range of topics focused on maritime activities, including ports, shipping, fisheries, slaving, tropical commodities trades, mariners, technical innovations, states and colonial trade, chartered companies, among others. Although it is not the sole oceanic space included, the Atlantic nonetheless provides the context for many of the entries and is invoked in most of them.

  • Burnard, Trevor. The Atlantic in World History, 1490–1830. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.

    Privileging interconnections and interactions among all parts of the Atlantic basin, this student-oriented highlights key economic issues such as the plantation system, oceanic commerce, and changes in material life.

  • Canny, Nicholas, and Philip Morgan, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199210879.001.0001

    Contains chapters devoted to slave trading, trade and commodities, and the economic impact of the Atlantic world; economic information and analysis are also included in articles focused on imperial and social topics.

  • Coclanis, Peter A., ed. The Atlantic Economy during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Organization, Operation, Practice, and Personnel. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005.

    Excellent collection of original essays, many concerned with transatlantic trade, including slaving. One group of papers focuses on the functioning of imperial economies in the Atlantic; another, on important agricultural and industrial commodities that circulated throughout the Atlantic; a third, on the relations of individual colonial economies with the larger Atlantic economy. No agreement is reached on whether a single Atlantic economy existed in the period covered.

  • Davis, Ralph. The Rise of the Atlantic Economies. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.

    Explains, nation by nation, how many Atlantic economies developed. It is, however, dated in its overtly Eurocentric view.

  • McCusker, John J., and Kenneth Morgan, eds. The Early Modern Atlantic Economy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Fine collection of essays that devotes particular attention to merchants, commercial networks, and consumer goods. Comparative studies and analyses that reach across imperial borders are notable features.

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