In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Oceanic History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Cartography
  • Traditions of Exploration
  • Voyages of Exploration
  • Navigation
  • Communications
  • Maritime Enterprise
  • Migration
  • Colonization

Atlantic History Oceanic History
Kenneth Morgan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0043


Oceanic history—specified here as the maritime history of the Atlantic—provides an overall frame of reference for European overseas commercial expansion between Columbus’s discovery of America and the Napoleonic Wars. Statesmen, bureaucrats, scientists, shipowners, and merchants from Britain, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal were the main players in the navigation, charting, and exploration of oceanic routes. Their endeavors underpinned the migration of thousands of Europeans to the New World in the early modern era and the establishment of settler colonies in the Americas. Many historians have contributed to the study of oceanic history in relation to these themes in the history of the Atlantic world. Some historians have been genuinely interdisciplinary in their investigations, drawing upon a range of methodologies to illuminate the history of chart making, navigation, and exploration and the ideas that promoted colonization. Other scholars, however, have plowed narrower furrows with the unfortunate result that important aspects of oceanic history—notably navigation and cartography—are sometimes examined without contextual reference to mainstream historical investigations. With the early 21st-century emphasis on transnational history and on Atlantic history as important fields of historical enquiry, more sophisticated, holistic considerations of oceanic maritime history have been published, as evidenced by recent books mentioned in this entry.

General Overviews

Oceanic history is a vast historical field, even when confined just to the Atlantic. Only a few authoritative studies deal with the full range of European interaction with the Atlantic maritime world. Some of these are fairly old books. More recent publications (like much work in Atlantic history) have been written by multiple authors with diverse specialties and language proficiencies. Butel 1999 covers this subject in its entirety, but it is very much a first, brave attempt by an experienced historian to analyze the varied history of the Atlantic. Parry 1974 is readable and reliable on the purely maritime aspects of Atlantic colonization. Davis 1973 is still the first port of call for an introduction to the economic history of the white Atlantic—he largely omits Africa—in the early modern period. Parry 1966, Boxer 1965, and Disney 2009 are good overviews of particular European nations and their voyaging and colonies. Quinn 1974 examines English voyages of exploration to North America in the 16th century. Kearney 2004 provides some relevant comparisons of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. Kupperman 2012 offers a more recent overview of the societies created by European colonizers across the Atlantic in the early modern period.

  • Boxer, C. R. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600–1800. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

    Traces Dutch sea power over a period when the Netherlands became a leading naval and colonial power and then declined. Covers maritime expansion during war and peace in both the Caribbean and the Indonesian archipelago.

  • Butel, Paul. The Atlantic. New York: Routledge, 1999.

    The only modern scholarly book to discuss the entire history of the Atlantic Ocean. Several chapters cover markets for goods, naval power, trading companies, and international commercial networks in the early modern period. The author is a specialist on French maritime and port history.

  • Davis, Ralph. The Rise of the Atlantic Economies. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973.

    Discusses European economic expansion in the Atlantic world between the Iberian voyages of exploration in the 16th century and the eve of British industrialization. Covers Britain, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Portugal, and the Americas but has only limited reference to Africa.

  • Disney, A. R. A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire: From Beginnings to 1807. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Reinterprets the history of Portugal and its empire up to the beginning of the 19th century. Written by an expert on Portuguese trade with India, these volumes trace the growth of the first global empire in world history. Vol. 2 includes detailed material on the Portuguese in Africa, the Atlantic islands, Brazil, and maritime Asia.

  • Kearney, Milo. The Indian Ocean in World History. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    One example among many of the historical analysis of oceans other than the Atlantic. Chapter 6 examines European control of Indian Ocean maritime trade in the early modern period. This can be compared and contrasted with the European maritime penetration of the Atlantic Ocean discussed in other books in this section.

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

    A concise overview dealing with first contacts between European, African, and Native American people; migrations across the Atlantic; commodity trade; the impact of disease; and warfare in the Atlantic world in the early modern period. Though an attempt is made to include the African dimension of Atlantic history and there is some coverage of Central and South America, the book largely concentrates on the thirteen British colonies that became the United States.

  • Parry, J. H. The Spanish Seaborne Empire. London: Hutchinson, 1966.

    A comprehensive study of enduring significance that traces the growth and decline of the vast Spanish empire in the Americas. The author’s expertise in maritime history is evident throughout the text, but he covers many other features of Spanish settler societies.

  • Parry, J. H. The Discovery of the Sea: An Illustrated History of Men, Ships, and the Sea in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. New York: Dial, 1974.

    A lucid account of the background and effects of the major voyages of discovery. Discusses the preparations needed in terms of maritime equipment, the technical problems associated with oceanic seafaring and their solutions, and the nature of the ocean crossings. A learned book despite its coffee-table appearance.

  • Quinn, David Beers. England and the Discovery of America, 1481–1620. New York: Knopf, 1974.

    The largest of several volumes of collected papers by the outstanding authority on English voyaging across the Atlantic in the Tudor and early Stuart periods. All chapters are based on rigorous archival research.

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