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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Dutch Atlantic Migration
  • Jewish Atlantic Diaspora

Atlantic History Atlantic Migration
Leslie Choquette
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0040


Between the 16th and 19th centuries, an estimated three million Europeans and twelve million Africans crossed the Atlantic, voluntarily or by force, to colonize the Americas. The demographic impact of this migration was particularly profound north of the Rio Grande, where the population quadrupled between 1700 and 1800 while the proportion of aboriginals decreased from 85 percent to 15 percent. The magnitude of this shift, along with the growing power of the United States, explains why the first scholars of Atlantic migrations were American historians. Focusing on the minority European component of the migration, they wove Old World push factors and New World pull factors into a narrative of American exceptionalism, an immigrant’s progress to freedom and modernity. With the rise of the new social history in the 1960s and of Atlantic history in the 1980s, the practitioners of migration history diversified. Scholars of Africa, Europe, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean joined the ranks of Americanists, who themselves began questioning the founding myth. The explanatory framework favored in the early 21st century focuses on migration systems involving both free and coerced labor (and gradations thereof). Networks and communications created linkages between distinct geographic regions, fostering circulation of commodities and ideas, along with human mobility. One early-21st-century debate concerns the extent of migrant acculturation: should the emphasis be on cultural continuity or on the construction of new societies and identities? Another involves the Atlantic frame of reference, as some historians prefer to view the Atlantic migrations within a wider global context. There is consensus, even among Atlanticists, that 19th- and 20th-century population movements are best viewed as a global phenomenon. That is why this article focuses on the Atlantic world of the 16th to 19th centuries, even though European emigration to the Americas intensified in the 19th and 20th centuries.

General Overviews

In the absence of a good contemporary monograph on Atlantic migration, readers may consult partial or larger studies and edited volumes. Hanson 1940, despite the general title, considers only European migration to what is, in early 21st century, the United States, portraying it in positive terms as an escape from Old World poverty and constraint. Two edited collections, Altman and Horn 1991 and Canny 1994, approach the process of migration more critically while maintaining the emphasis on European migration to the Americas. Schnurmann 1998 compares English and Dutch migrant communities. Klooster and Padula 2005 and Klooster 2009 are edited volumes incorporating African as well as European dimensions of Atlantic migration. Cohen 1997 analyzes diasporas across time and space. A stunning synthesis, Hoerder 2002, considers Atlantic migration within the wider context of global migrations in the past millennium.

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

    Six essays on the migration to the Americas from Spain, England, France, and Germany between the 16th and 18th centuries.

  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration, 1500–1800. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Essays on overseas migration from Spain, the British Isles, and continental Europe as well as on the medieval European background of Atlantic expansion.

  • Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203228920

    Succinct overview of the phenomenon of diaspora from ancient to contemporary times. Topics considered include the African diaspora and the settlement of the British Empire.

  • Hanson, Marcus Lee. The Atlantic Migration, 1607–1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674332614

    Published posthumously by Arthur M. Schlesinger, who edited the manuscript and wrote the forward. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1941. This work presents the classic interpretation of migration to America as a passage to freedom and opportunity. Reissued in paperback by Simon (London) in 2001.

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

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822384076

    Parts 2 and 3 of this encyclopedic survey of global migration focus on the 16th to 19th centuries, but Atlantic migration is treated alongside other migration systems worldwide, for example, in Asia and the Pacific.

  • Klooster, Wim, ed. Migration, Trade, and Slavery in an Expanding World: Essays in Honor of Pieter Emmer. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    Four of the twelve essays concern European overseas migration; two deal with the Atlantic slave trade.

  • Klooster, Wim, and Alfred Padula, eds. The Atlantic World: Essays on Slavery, Migration, and Imagination. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.

    Intended for classroom use, this edited collection introduces students to the flows of people, commodities, and ideas in the early modern Atlantic. It features four pairs of essays on four themes, including the role of port cities, European migration, and the African diaspora.

  • Schnurmann, Claudia. Atlantische Welten: Engländer und Niederländer im amerikanisch-atlantischen Raum, 1648–1713. Cologne: Böhlau, 1998.

    Comparative study by a German historian of Dutch and English merchants and colonists in Europe and America, with an emphasis on trade and communications networks.

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