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

  • Introduction
  • Methodology and Historiography of Historical Biography
  • Reference Works
  • Autobiographies
  • Collected Mini-Biographies
  • Biographies from the Era of European Exploration and Conquest, c. 1450–1650
  • Biographies from the Era of Imperial Rivalries and Mature Colonial Societies, c. 1620–1750
  • Biographies from the Era of the Atlantic Revolutions, c. 1750–1830
  • Biographies of Indigenous Men and Women
  • Mestizo and Métis Biographies
  • Biographies of Cultural Brokers and Go-Betweens
  • Biographies of Africans and the Black Atlantic
  • Biographies of the Christian Atlantic
  • Family and Multigenerational Biographies
  • Biographies of Women

Atlantic History Atlantic Biographies
Mark Meuwese
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0305


A vast number of biographical studies on Atlantic world history are available, making it impossible to give a comprehensive overview of all those on the individuals who shaped, and whose lives were shaped by, the processes that connected the Americas with Europe and West Africa for a period of more than 400 years. Another problem with these, common to biographical studies in general, is a traditional preference for biographies about European men belonging to the political, economic, and religious elites. This imbalance partially has been corrected by experts on social history, women’s history, ethnohistory, African history, and slavery studies. Through their focus on “ordinary” European settlers (both men and women), sailors, soldiers, Indigenous peoples, Africans, and peoples of mixed descent since the 1960s, these historians have brought more balance and variety to biographical studies of the Atlantic world. However, researchers often find it difficult to write book-length biographies of many ethnic and social groups, such as women and Indigenous peoples, due to the lack of sources. Additionally, because the field of Atlantic history originated in Anglocentric scholarship, many of the biographies focus on individuals from the North Atlantic as opposed to the South, or Iberian, Atlantic. Despite these challenges, recent biographies have shown the remarkable geographic mobility of individual Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous men and women in the Atlantic world. For practical purposes, the biographical studies cited in this article have been divided into chronological and thematic categories.

Methodology and Historiography of Historical Biography

Academic historians have often debated the merits of biographical studies, fearing that a focus on an individual’s life ignores social structures and privileges those whose lives are well documented. At the same time, historians view biography as an opportunity to illustrate larger historical themes, which otherwise remain abstract. The challenges and opportunities of biographical history are examined in Ambrosius 2004, Nasaw, et al. 2009, and Berghahn and Lassig 2008. Many historians who remain skeptical of biography have turned to microhistory in which a seemingly insignificant individual or event is analyzed to illustrate larger historical themes. Lepore 2001 makes the useful distinction between microhistory and biography. Renders and de Haan 2014 provides a comprehensive overview of the issues surrounding biography and microhistory.

  • Ambrosius, Lloyd E., ed. Writing Biography: Historians & Their Craft. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

    Six historians discuss the opportunities and challenges of writing biography. The contributions originated in a 2000 symposium entitled “Biography and Historical Analysis” held at the University of Nebraska. Contributions focus on the role of individual agency and the influence of social and cultural structures on individual lives.

  • Berghahn, Volker, and Simone Lassig, eds. Biography between Structure and Agency: Central European Lives in International Historiography. Studies in German History 9. New York: Berghahn, 2008.

    Collection of essays written by established historians about the tensions between structure and agency when researching biographical history. Although most of the scholars focus on individuals from Central Europe, the methodological challenges they have to address are very similar to those faced by scholars who examine lives in the Atlantic world.

  • Lepore, Jill. “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography.” Journal of American History 88.1 (June 2001): 129–144.

    DOI: 10.2307/2674921

    Lepore examines the differences and similarities between microhistory and biographical history. The author argues that microhistorians focus on individual lives in order to understand better broader cultural patterns, whereas biographers view their subjects as unique and not necessarily representative of the society in which they lived. Also, biographers tend to identify with their subjects, whereas microhistorians associate with a contemporary who judges the subject.

  • Nasaw, David, Lois W. Banner, Judith M. Brown, et al. “AHR Roundtable: Historians and Biography.” American Historical Review 114.3 (2009): 573–661.

    DOI: 10.1086/ahr.114.3.573

    In this roundtable, ten historians examine the challenges and opportunities of studying biographical history. A brief introduction is followed by a defense of biographical history as a valid subfield of history, an examination of the use of biographical studies to shed light on larger social developments, the role of the historian’s personal background, and the problems of writing biographical history when there are few available sources.

  • Renders, H., and B. de Haan, eds. Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing. Rev. ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.

    Edited by two biography scholars, this collection brings together fourteen scholars examining the field of biography studies. The connections and differences between biography, microhistory, and life history are explored by many of the contributors. The contributors are mostly critical of the field of life writing.

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