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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Reference Works
  • African Hinterlands
  • Spanish Atlantic Hinterlands
  • Portuguese Atlantic Hinterlands
  • British Atlantic Hinterlands
  • French Atlantic Hinterlands
  • Central and North European Hinterlands
  • Ports and their Hinterlands
  • US-American and British Canadian Hinterlands

Atlantic History Hinterlands of the Atlantic World
Susanne Lachenicht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0290


Hinterlands are more often than not understood as tributary regions, the backcountry or Umland (“land around”) of a port, town or city, or the periphery of a larger region. However, hinterland—or backcountry as an alternative term—is a relational concept: hinterland (or backcountry) from whose perspective, for whom and whose activities? For quite a few decades, Atlantic history has focused on those world regions, empires, and agents that seemed more obviously than others involved in the “making” of the Atlantic world: the Portuguese, Spanish, British, French, and Dutch (formal and informal) empires, regions on the Atlantic Ocean rim, port cities, trans-Atlantic slavery and migrations at large, or Atlantic revolutions. However, to understand the early modern Atlantic world, it is vital to look beyond places and regions bordering or “forming” the Atlantic: for the last decade or so scholars of early American, African, European, and Atlantic history have therefore started to emphasize how much—from an Atlantic history perspective—hinterlands were vital for the exchange of knowledge, belief systems, goods and people, the making of overseas empires and colonization, Atlantic and/or global markets. At the same time the critique of Atlantic history warns against turning the histories of those peoples and regions not immediately adjoining the Atlantic geopolitically, economically, or culturally less relevant. Atlantic history, not the least through its historical and ideological origins, might—as some scholars of Africa, Europe and the Americas have argued—contributes to just another hierarchy of more and less important or “civilized” cultures and societies: the Atlantic empires and their metropolises would be treated as centers of interest and meaning, all other regions would become peripheries, backcountries, or hinterlands. So far, the critique of Atlantic history, its seeming hierarchies, has been particularly pronounced with regard to the histories of Africa and the Americas, less so with regard to Europe and Asia. In other words, from a critical hinterland perspective the Atlantic world is only one world region that has always to be understood in relation with other equally important areas.

General Overviews

How large is the “Atlantic world”? How do we define “hinterland,” “backcountry,” “frontier,” “metropolises,” or “peripheries”? A number of studies have started to form and inquire into these terms and concepts with regard to the Atlantic world. White 1991 coined the concept of “middle ground” for the Great Lakes regions where American Indian and European people—“forming” the Atlantic world—also met. Ellis and Eßer 2006 asks for a more in-depth analysis of the construction of imperial and national boundaries, centers and peripheries, as does Adelman and Aron 1999 for North America, and Barr and Countryman 2014, and Daniels and Kennedy 2002 in a comparative Atlantic empires perspective. MacLeod 2008 introduces the concept of “near” and “far” Atlantics while Puglisi 1998 discusses trends in backcountry studies. Lachenicht 2014 and Morgan 2014 reflect on the terms hinterland and backcountry in an Atlantic history perspective, taking into account more recent developments in the field.

  • Adelman, Jeremy, and Stephen Aron. “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History.” American Historical Review 104.3 (1999): 814–841.

    DOI: 10.2307/2650990

    Excellent essay reflecting on the relationship of concepts and spaces such as “borderland” and “frontier,” while looking into the historical process of the making of US-American borders.

  • Barr, Juliana, and Edward Countryman, eds. Contested Spaces of Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2014.

    Unites essays on backcountries or hinterlands in a New Spain, New France, and New England perspective, drawing on Indian-European contested space or contact zones.

  • Daniels, Christine, and Michael V. Kennedy, eds. Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the New World, 1500–1820. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

    This edited volume looks at the relations between centers and peripheries, the frontier and the metropolis in a Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and British imperial perspective.

  • Ellis, Steven G., and Raingard Eßer, eds. Frontiers and the Writing of History, 1500–1850. Hannover, Germany: Wehrhahn, 2006.

    While this collection of essays only includes a few studies on the “frontier” in the Atlantic world, it makes evident how much the frontier represents an imperial and national construct historians need to question and analyze.

  • Lachenicht, Susanne. “Europeans Engaging the Atlantic. Knowledge and Trade, 1500–1800. An Introduction.” In Europeans Engaging the Atlantic. Knowledge and Trade, 1500–1800. Edited by Susanne Lachenicht, 7–21. Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag, 2014.

    While the collection of essays focuses on European hinterlands with regard to knowledge and trade in the Atlantic world, the introduction critically reflects the concept of hinterland and backcountry in Atlantic history.

  • MacLeod, Murdo. Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008.

    MacLeod’s Spanish Central America, first published in 1973, is no theoretical reflection on concepts and terms. However, it introduces the concept of the “near” and “far” Atlantics which has become a received concept in Atlantic history.

  • Morgan, Philip D. “A Comment.” In Europeans Engaging the Atlantic: Knowledge and Trade. Edited by Susanne Lachenicht, 151–160. Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag, 2014.

    Discussing “hinterland” and a growing interest in Atlantic history in so-called hinterlands and backcountries in a holistic perspective.

  • Puglisi, Michael J. “Muddied Waters: A Discussion of Current Interdisciplinary Backcountry Studies.” In The Southern Colonial Backcountry: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Frontier Communities. Edited by David Colin Crass, Steven D. Smith, Martha A. Zierden, and Richard D. Brooks, 36–55. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998.

    Discusses some of the important trends in and the success of interdisciplinary backcountry studies as they became popular in the 1990s.

  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republic in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511584671

    White’s analysis of American Indian, French, and British relations in the Great Lakes region introduces an important concept, that of the middle ground. The study makes evident how much people and a region that have been perceived as a periphery or a hinterland of the Atlantic world became crucial for Native American and (entangled) Atlantic histories.

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