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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Approaches and Comparative Perspectives
  • Information in Europe
  • Knowledge in Transit

Atlantic History Communications in the Atlantic World
Thomas Wien
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0200


Fundamental to human social existence, communication is notoriously difficult to circumscribe as a field of study. For the early modern Atlantic world, a narrow construction of the term would involve shipborne books, letters, and news; a broad construction would make the field practically coterminous with Atlantic history itself. After all, the increased frequency of maritime communication underlies the growing integration among the continents that forms Atlantic history’s central narrative up to the 19th century. And much of that history also recounts communication and miscommunication among people of different cultures who were brought together—thrown together in so many cases—by Atlantic exchange. Communication is hidden in plain sight, so to speak, in many of the subjects that have attracted Atlanticists’ attention, in the early 21st century or less recently. Among them are the transatlantic circulation of ideas (e.g., revolutionary, enlightened, religious) or of images and memories (e.g., of Africa, of Europe, of the “New World”). Not to mention the meeting and mingling of people. Creolization, Africanization, ethnogenesis, or métissage/mestizaje, concepts that have guided students of cultural change on Atlantic littorals and farther inland, all involve people in sometimes fluid, oftentimes halting dialogue across divides of culture, power, or both. The bibliographic implications of all this are positively oceanic. The strategy adopted in this article is to privilege social and spatial spheres of communication and the “arts of transmission”—media, practices, messages—aimed at overcoming physical or cultural distance in the Atlantic world up to the early 19th century. This means paying attention to the vehicles of communication, be they ships or letters or books, to questions of language use or change, to the transoceanic circulation of knowledge, to cultural intermediaries, to oratory and performance, and to the many senses of “writing,” among other topics. Such phenomena are of course not intrinsically “Atlantic,” in terms either of their spatial distribution or the approaches used to study them. Hence the presence here and there in this article of works applying other frames—empire, continent, colony, republic—but still covering part of the vast contact zone that was the Atlantic world. By the same token, this article both builds on and complements many other Oxford Bibliographies in Atlantic History articles, which are necessarily full of references to works concerning some form of communication. Among these are “The French Revolution,” “The Haitian Revolution,” “Empire and State Formation,” “Networks for Migrations and Mobility,” “Creolization,” “Letters and Letter Writing,” “Literature and Culture,” “Missionaries,” “News,” “Rumor,” “Texts, Printing, and the Book,” and “Caribbean Creole Languages.” Still other relevant articles can be found in Oxford Bibliographies in American Literature and Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics.

General Overviews

Like much Atlantic history generally, overviews of communications in the early modern Atlantic world have tended to work within the confines of one or another of the empires. This is the case of Steele 1986 (a pioneering work), Banks 2002, and, to a considerable degree, Gilroy 1993, an influential, more broadly themed study of the black Atlantic. Canny and Morgan 2011, a handbook, surveys many forms of circulation in the Atlantic world, providing context for the study of information flows. The collection of articles in Bailyn and Denault 2011 demonstrates the extent to which the circulation of information has become an important topic in early-21st-century work in Atlantic history.

  • Bailyn, Bernard, and Patricia L. Denault, eds. Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

    A sampler of stimulating early-21st-century work, assembled and introduced by Bailyn, a pioneer of Atlantic history. Information flows come up frequently, in studies on oceanic trade reorganization, smuggling, religious networks existing or imagined, circulation of medical practices and political models, and the Atlantic as part of David Hume’s “conversible world” of information in motion.

  • Banks, Kenneth J. Chasing Empire across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 1713–1763. Montreal and Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

    An impressively researched study of communications between the imperial center and Quebec, New Orleans, and Saint-Pierre de la Martinique that takes its cue (and its model of empire) from Ian Steele’s English Atlantic (Steele 1986). Banks follows information flows wherever they might lead, paying considerable attention to ceremonial and representational aspects of empire. A book on the difficulty of communication, leaving the impression that France chased but never really caught its overseas empire.

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

    A thematic survey dividing the long sweep of early modern Atlantic history into four phases and containing some forty chapters by leading specialists. Offers, notably, perspectives on the various imperial Atlantics, as well as on the forms of circulation making transatlantic communication possible: seafaring, trade, and migration. Contains useful maps of winds and currents, trade routes, and ports.

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    A pioneering work of cultural studies, situating the identity of black people in Britain in the historical context of an Atlantic world (largely sans Africa and mostly from the 19th century onward) traversed by black thinkers, typically very mobile and endowed with “intercultural positionality” rather than a specifically ethnic consciousness. An eloquent plea for seeing the (black) Atlantic as a unit defined by the circulation of people, ideas, and other expressions of culture and as the crucible of modernity.

  • Steele, Ian K. The English Atlantic, 1675–1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    A founding work of the new Atlantic history and a pioneering study of transatlantic communication. The increased volume of shipping made the ocean an increasingly effective link between England and her American colonies (slaving voyages to Africa are not studied). Includes an informative transatlantic survey of newspapers and the circulation of news. Works out the implications of improved communications for trade, politics, and society, tracing the emergence of an English Atlantic community.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.