In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Western Europe and the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Resources
  • Knowledge, Science, and Geography

Atlantic History Western Europe and the Atlantic World
Molly Warsh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0023


Exploration, trade, and fishing expeditions had long tempted sailors and adventurers into Atlantic waters. However, in the 15th century the search for gold, spices, and the lucrative markets of the East led Europeans to extend their travels southward down the African coast and westward into the ocean. This intensification of Europe’s engagement with the Atlantic would have dramatic and transformative repercussions for the people and places affected by these explorations. Over the course of the next several centuries, the massive migrations (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on Migrations and Diasporas)—both forced and free—of people as well as the transfer of plants, animals, and microbes irrevocably linked North America, South America, Africa, and Europe. The complexity, diversity, and evolving nature of the Atlantic world that developed from these encounters defies concise and simple characterization. This article confines itself to an overview of the ambitions and experiences of major European powers who competed for access to the human, material, and territorial wealth of the newly connected continents. Thus it provides a bibliographic introduction to the Iberian, French, British, and Dutch Atlantic worlds. The relationship of distinct European regions and powers with the emerging Atlantic world varied depending on a variety of factors, not least among them their geographical position vis-à-vis the ocean (though the recent increase in studies of the German Atlantic, discussed in the Oxford Bibliographies article on Northern Europe and the Atlantic World, affirms that an Atlantic coastline was by no means a prerequisite). In spite of the variation that existed within Europe’s engagement with the Atlantic, all of Europe was transformed by the exchanges—demographic, social, cultural, ecological, economic, just to name a few—generated by this new contact zone. These European Atlantic worlds were diverse and changing spheres of activity, influenced by numerous factors within Europe and forged through intimate, extensive, and shifting patterns of contact with native inhabitants of the Americas and Africa. The reading suggestions provided here do not represent a comprehensive guide to the creation of this multifaceted Atlantic world. Scholars who are interested in pursuing questions related to specific spheres of Atlantic engagement (European, African, and American) or the multiple phenomena that crisscrossed them can find other relevant sources (including primary source guides) that offer a more detailed perspective on distinct but overlapping component parts of the complex Atlantic world.

General Overviews

The books and articles cited in this section all provide an introduction to the Atlantic world concept and approach, as well as to recent debates about the term’s limitations. Some of the more powerful critiques of the Atlantic approach object that the term “Atlantic world,” as capacious as the concept seems, has profound exclusionary tendencies. Among them, it privileges European impulse over African or American Indian agency, it has become a stand-in for British colonial North American history (a reflection of the scholarly focus of many of Atlantic history’s early proponents), and it artificially parses interoceanic and global phenomena. Recently, a series of leading journals dedicated scholarly forums to discussion of the term’s utility and limitations and its connections to other fields of history and historical approaches (see the Oxford Bibliographies Online article The Idea of Atlantic History). Greene and Morgan 2009 offers a critical overview of recent scholarship in distinct spheres of the Atlantic world as well as discussions of the concept’s limitations. Bailyn and Denault 2009 presents a discussion of the term’s analytic utility and coherence as well as recent contributions to topical themes within the Atlantic world. Games, et al. 2006 further considers the concept’s limitations in a series of four essays. Davis 2006 is a comprehensive survey of slavery and its role in shaping New World societies, while Pagden 1995 compares the ideological origins of Spanish, British, and French imperial policies. Klooster 2009 provides a comparative study of Atlantic revolutions. Canny and Pagden 1987 and Altman and Horn 1991 discuss aspects of European immigration and identity formation throughout the Atlantic. Elliott 2006 offers an extensive comparison of British and Spanish American endeavors

  • Altman, Ida, and James Horn. “To Make America”: European Emigration in the Early Modern Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    A valuable essay collection on immigration to different parts of the Atlantic world. Two essays focus on French migration, two on Spanish, one on German, and one on English and Irish.

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

    A recent and wide-ranging contribution to Atlantic scholarship containing essays from numerous leading scholars in the field. In his introduction to the volume, Bailyn argues for the conceptual coherence of an Atlantic approach to a unified set of historical problems. E-book.

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

    An excellent series of essays exploring the process of identity formation throughout the Atlantic world with an emphasis on the importance of Creole as opposed to national identity.

  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    A masterful and eminently readable history of slavery and the slave trade in the Atlantic world. This synthetic tour de force covers slavery in the ancient world, the origins of antiblack racism, Africa’s involvement in the slave trade, the rise of the Atlantic slave system, slavery in the age of revolution, and abolition and endurance of the institution throughout the end of the 19th century.

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

    A magisterial comparative approach to the settlement of the Spanish and British Americas. Focused largely on mainland settlements as opposed to comparative Caribbean experiences, Elliott emphasizes the contrasting priorities of both empires (the British favored conquest through land ownership, while the Spanish sought to exploit natural and human resources.) E-book.

  • Games, Alison, Philip J. Stern, Paul W. Mapp, and Peter A. Coclanis. “Beyond the Atlantic.” William and Mary Quarterly 63.4 (2006): 675–742.

    A provocative consideration of the state of Atlantic world scholarship, these four essays explore the utility of the term in global, Pacific North American, and South Asian contexts.

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

    An excellent recent overview of Atlantic world scholarship that examines numerous imperial Atlantic worlds and also offers critiques of the approach and its conceptual limitations.

  • Klooster, Willem. Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

    This ambitious, brief, and readable comparative approach to the American, French, Haitian, and Spanish American revolutions emphasizes the contingent and divisive nature of each war, paying equal attention to the international and national contexts in which each occurred.

  • 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.

    An important contribution to the intellectual history of the Atlantic world. Pagden examines the contrasting imperial ideologies of Spain, France, and Britain and concludes that these ideologies shared little in common. However, in spite of their different ideological foundations, the inhabitants of all three empires came to have significant frustrations with their imperial masters by the late 18th century.

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