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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • The Emergence of Capitalism
  • Political Economy
  • Overseas Markets
  • Regional Markets
  • Local Markets
  • Consumer Markets
  • Gender and Race in the Marketplace

Atlantic History Markets in the Atlantic World
Emma Hart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0288


The centuries between 1500 and 1800, during which the Atlantic world reached its apogee as a phenomenon, coincided with a period of intensive economic change in the Western world. This was no accident, as the creation of this world occurred along with the quickening pace of market exchange. As networks of trade expanded to bridge greater distances, embrace more people, and require greater capital, the idea of the market also became more capacious. By the early 19th century, the term “market” had different meanings to different people. For enslaved Africans, Atlantic markets were characterized by the forces that brought about their kidnapping in Africa, their desperate voyage across the ocean, and a lifetime of forced labor. However, once in their new world, Africans encountered local markets that were more familiar to them where food and goods were exchanged. Marketplaces continued as important markets for all sorts of people, as did other modes of day-to-day buying and selling. Supplying these outlets were merchants who often understood the market in a much more abstract sense. In both America and Europe, merchant communities, usually concentrated in cities, knew the market as a physical space but also fostered the idea of “the market” as the abstract force it is known as in contemporary society. As economic networks became more elaborate, the two ideas of the market increasingly became connected in both the activities and the minds of those involved. This article describes the multiple guises assumed by “markets” across the Atlantic world. In addition to detailing the process of change that transformed markets in this era, it discusses the way in which these shifts affected a wide variety of Atlantic people. It also assesses the many Atlantic societies that contributed to the changing character of markets. Guides to general works, relevant periodicals, and primary sources are followed by a discussion of books and articles that address Atlantic markets on the most theoretical, intellectual level. Various scales of market experience are also covered, from those at the overseas level to those at the local level. The article concludes with a survey of the most lively areas of recent historical research into Atlantic markets, consumer markets, and the operation of gender and race in the marketplace.

General Overviews

Among the monographs and collections of essays cited in this article are books that provide general overviews, as well as more specialist studies. However, they all share the ambition of providing broad explorations of various aspects of markets around the Atlantic world as they developed after 1500. As such, these sources provide a useful background for understanding the place of markets and market economies in the Atlantic. McCusker and Menard 1985 is perhaps the most statistical and encyclopedic, providing a comprehensive overview of population and economic growth in Britain’s North American colonies. Matson 2006 can be considered as a sequel to that earlier volume, discussing new aspects of the early American economy and offering new theoretical frameworks for its examination. Wrightson 2000, Ogilvie 2011, Braudel 1979, and Tomlins 2010 offer accomplished and sweeping syntheses of important facets of market function and evolution in the Atlantic world and its constituent parts. Bulmer-Thomas, et al. 2006 covers the principal developments in Spanish and Portuguese America. Thornton 1998 aims to set the emergence of Atlantic markets in the context of events in Africa, instead of focusing solely on the Americas.

  • Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Centuries. Vol. 2, The Wheels of Commerce. Translated by Siân Reynolds. London: Fontana, 1979.

    Sweeping, magisterial study of the changing character of markets of all types, in Europe and beyond, across the early modern period. Seeks the linkages between local and international markets, and explores the increasingly global connections that brought traders and their goods together.

  • Bulmer-Thomas, Victor, John Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortés-Conde, eds. The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America. Vol. 1, The Colonial Era and the Short Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    A comprehensive survey of the Iberian Atlantic economy into the 19th century, tackling both macro- and microeconomic issues and incorporating market connections with Africa and North America.

  • Matson, Cathy, ed. The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006.

    Incorporating some essays that ponder the state of economic history in the Atlantic world and others that focus on early American case studies, this volume is a wide-ranging survey of the market economy in the British Atlantic world in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

  • McCusker, John J., and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607–1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

    Although much scholarship about markets has appeared since this book was published, this volume remains an invaluable resource for historians who want to understand the macroeconomic narrative of early British America and the Atlantic world. It has many useful charts and tables, as well as analysis of the regional economies.

  • Ogilvie, Sheilagh. Institutions and European Trade: Merchants and Guilds, 1000–1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511974410

    Ogilvie’s new institutional history provides a broad survey of the European economy and the political economic infrastructures that shaped it. Because the author concentrates on merchants, the book incorporates much useful analysis of the main actors in the creation of the Atlantic world’s markets.

  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    A general overview of the processes by which Africa became part of the Atlantic economic system. Concentrates principally on the economic systems and processes that resulted in the slave trade, weighing the roles of Europeans and Africans in their creation.

  • Tomlins, Christopher. Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580–1865. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511778575

    This is a highly complex book, but one of its major contributions is a longue durée look at labor markets in the British Atlantic world. Tomlins traces the legal and institutional structures of labor systems as they were remade in the British colonies, arguing for the ultimate elusiveness of any kind of free labor.

  • Wrightson, Keith. Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain, 1470–1750. London: Penguin, 2000.

    A survey of economic life in England centered mostly in the 16th and 17th centuries that provides an excellent foundation for understanding the growth of market economies in Europe. Essential reading for historians who want to grasp the degree to which Atlantic expansion affected the market.

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.