Atlantic History Demography of the Atlantic World
Trevor Burnard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0146


The demography of the Atlantic world concerns the basic building blocks through which societies reproduce themselves—births, marriages, deaths, and migration. This area has attracted huge attention by Atlantic scholars, because understanding the demography of the Atlantic world helps us understand a major catastrophe in Atlantic history—the demographic destruction of Native American populations—and a significant crime in the study of the Atlantic—the Atlantic slave trade. Combined with the movement of Europeans within Atlantic history, these events help us understand a vitally important topic in Atlantic history: the peopling of the Atlantic world and the creation of new societies throughout this region. Demographic history had heroic beginnings in the 1960s, when historians began to utilize new techniques drawn from the social sciences and started to investigate new topics that concentrated on history from below rather than traditional topics in political and diplomatic history. Such work led to an appreciation that western Europe had a distinctive marriage pattern that shaped a demographic regime characterized by economically independent nuclear families, late marriage, high rates of adult celibacy, strict control of extramarital childbearing, and fertility rates only slightly above mortality rates. Historians of other regions in the Atlantic world, notably in the Americas, drew on these findings to examine the growth and composition of population over time. In this annotated bibliography, the focus is on different demographic regimes by region—Western Africa, the Americas, and Europe—and by theme. The major themes are Migration, Marriage and Family, Death and Dying, and the Politics of Population surrounding these ordinary but crucial events for individuals and societies. The story of population growth and decline and changes in composition of populations coincides with another great historical development—the late-18th-century transformation of medicine so that diseases became understandable and treatable. It is also connected with what is sometimes thought to be another 18th-century revolution, the sexual revolution that revolved around changing gender expectations and new thoughts about sexual regulation outside of traditional religious settings.

General Overviews

Demographic history lends itself to large-scale treatments, and thus it is important to know the larger contexts within which the demography of the Atlantic world can be placed. One context is population debates, especially intense for the 20th century, about whether the “demographic transition” of the 19th century was leading to Malthusian disaster. Bashford 2014, Fogel 2004, and Wrigley 2004 address various aspects of the long-term consequences of the demographic transition from the perspective of medical history, economic history, and social/demographic history, respectively. Key to understanding these debates is having accurate population figures for the past. Livi-Bacci 2012 is a good guide to current thinking on population sizes in the past. Population increase since 1800 has been greatly influenced by improvements in sanitation, disease prevention, and increased food production. Kunitz 1994 places improvements in the treatment of disease in larger perspective, while Ó Gráda 2009 concisely summarizes the historical importance of famine as a controller and disrupter of population. Steckel and Rose 2002 provides a wealth of scientific and anthropological data on how populations grow or decline. It is important to remember that looking at the past through demographic structures is a recent development. For a work that pioneered demographic history as legitimate within historical discourse, see Laslett 1965. Laslett’s work connects with the highly influential Annales school of historical demography pioneered by Fernand Braudel in the 1950s and 1960s.

  • Bashford, Alison. Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

    Concentrates more on the 20th century than on the Atlantic world. Outlines how population became a “problem” as population growth expanded. Links back to the work of Malthus and other demographers of the 19th century.

  • Fogel, Robert. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America and the Third World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511817649

    Examines health, nutrition, and technology over the longue durée. Explains how chronic malnutrition ceased to be a major problem in the Western world from the time of the Industrial Revolution. Provides a larger context for demographic change in the Atlantic world.

  • Kunitz, Stephen J. Disease and Social Diversity: The European Impact on the Health of Non-Europeans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Uses a series of case studies from the histories of Europeans in Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific to examine social and economic influences on European colonialism. Wide-ranging and nondeterministic.

  • Laslett, Peter. The World We Have Lost: England before the Industrial Age. New York: Scribner, 1965.

    Historical classic that introduced what became the “new” social history to a traditional discipline and outlined the importance of studying population and demography as motors of historical change. Led to the work of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure.

  • Livi-Bacci, Massimo. A Concise History of World Population. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    The best short summary of population trends in world history over time, with good concentration on the period in which Atlantic history falls. Frequently updated.

  • Ó Gráda, Cormac. Famine: A Short History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

    Ó Gráda reviews the changing characteristics of famine, including causes and demographic impacts, over a very long historical period. He emphasizes political as well as demographic factors in famines, such as those affecting 18th- and 19th-century Ireland, with the availability of food a crucial element.

  • Steckel, Richard H., and Jerome C. Rose, eds. The Backbone of History: Health and Nutrition in the Western Hemisphere. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    The result of a major collaborative effort to compile the best possible paleopathological evidence about the health of pre- and postcontact American populations. One significant finding is the poor—and worsening—health of many American populations even before European arrival. This left their populations highly vulnerable to whatever stresses were introduced by Europeans.

  • Wrigley, E. A. Poverty, Progress, and Population. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511616365

    Fifteen interlocking essays from a major figure in the demographic history of Britain on a wide range of interconnected topics, such as the Industrial Revolution, types of agricultural employment, importance of labor sectors, marriage changes, infant mortality, urban growth, and the complexity of migration. Good at suggesting how demographic factors influence larger historical patterns.

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