In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nation and Empire in Northern Atlantic History

  • General Overviews
  • Pioneering Works
  • Conceptual Studies
  • Promotional Material
  • The Return of the Atlantic in Contemporary Formations of Empire and Nation

Atlantic History Nation and Empire in Northern Atlantic History
Barbara Buchenau, Elena Furlanetto
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0316


Nation and empire are intriguing conceptual frameworks for the study of the historical persistence of Atlantic entanglements—especially in the northern hemisphere. The Atlantic might generally be understood to have interlocked the Americas, Africa, and Europe from the beginning of European westward exploration until the official end of both slavery and European imperialism on Northern American soil. But Atlantic ideological battles extended well beyond the 19th century. Today, they are alive and kicking once more. As conceptual frameworks nation and empire organize ideas of belonging, community building, and social cohesion. In addition, they are short-hands for distinct, in fact competing, forms of political and economic hegemony. Since mechanisms of exclusion and seclusion have forged, delimited, and expanded nations as much as empires, this bibliographical essay will focus on studies that draw attention to the commonalities of nation and empire. Within the framework of the (Northern) Atlantic, nations and empires lose their cohesive and exclusivist aura, inviting persistent, if contrastive, comparisons of connective as well as divisive modes of transportation, exchange, and intellectual as well as cultural transformation. The idea of nation evokes several meanings: First used in Anglo-Norman and Middle French to denote birth, lineage, or family, the idea of the nation helped to lay the ground for modern-age ideas of race and biological descent. As a social and cultural concept, the nation organizes communities around questions of kinship, belonging, and culture until today. From the 19th century onward “nation” simultaneously described a political formation established by and for its diverse population. Empire likewise has many layers: etymologically speaking the word is used to speak about extensive territories controlled by a single ruler; politically speaking the term describes a system governed by ideas of supreme sovereignty and extensive subjection or domination; socially speaking it relates practices of command and control. Culturally speaking, empire denotes complex communication among communities with various degrees of authority and power. Scholarly analysis often delineates historical trajectories. From a Eurocentric perspective the New World attracted competing communities of settlers, planters, and traders, rewarding both an unbridled sense of possibility and the ambition to emulate and yet outdo European models. In this ambiguous setting the idea as well as institutional offsprings of empire proliferated long after empire officially ended with the First World War. With the return of empire (and nation) as imaginaries for new forms of coercion and collaboration, future scholarship will need to trace the Atlantic and its history of entanglements well into the 21st century.

General Overviews

Broader treatments of the topic tend to be offered by historians rather than literary and cultural scholars or political scientists. Interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the sociocultural conflicts accompanying the transitions from empire to nation-state and back again are tentatively sketched by Schnurmann 2002. A classic general overview over the capitalist and bourgeois foundation of Atlantic nationalism and imperialism is provided by Hobsbawm 1962 in the author’s focus on nation building and the emergence of the bourgeoisie. Hobsbawm 1975 discusses the underlying market revolution, and Hobsbawm 1987 is the first to suggest that the traditional end of empire might coincide with the rise of a new form of imperialism grounded in the industrial revolution. Historical surveys such as the detailed German language studies in the edited volume Wellenreuther, et al. 2004 tackle the Atlantic as a maritime zone of contact, commerce, competition, and coercion, drawing attention to the fact that imperial and national ideological battles tend to begin as intimate debates about small-scale regional transformations. The essays collected by Lachenicht, et al. 2016 suggest that these debates expand into larger conflicts over Atlantic connections and separations when geopolitical thinking and its collusion of the dynamics of faith and “commercial, dynastic or territorial motives” (p. 181) take effect. Belmessous 2013 draws attention to the assimilationist pressures at the heart of Atlantic empires. The best and also the most thought-provoking placement of the Atlantic dimension and specification of global trends toward both, hegemonic domination as well as national representation, is to be found in Burbank and Cooper 2010.

  • Belmessous, Saliha. Assimilation and Empire: Uniformity in French and British Colonies, 1541–1954. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199579167.001.0001

    Focuses on assimilation policies across the French and British empires: that is to say the utopian project of transforming the colonized into Europeans by means of conversion, interracial marriages, law, and education. Belmessous looks at three case studies, one of them being Francization in early modern New France. She argues that assimilation is one of the most important logics that connected the Atlantic to other regions shaped by Western imperialism.

  • Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    The most comprehensive, theoretically sophisticated, and yet immensely readable volume to date on the historically pervasive impact of imperial formations on social histories around the globe.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962.

    This book by the famous British Marxist historian pits the American Revolution against the French Revolution as engines of a social order dominated by the educated and aspiring middle classes. The book’s interest in the rise of the bourgeoisie sets the groundwork for a trilogy on the long 19th century, the century of deathly economic and technological competition of empires and nations along the Atlantic rim.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Capital, 1848–1875. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1975.

    The second volume in the trilogy of narrative history on the long 19th century delineates the enmeshment of capitalism, social upheaval, and the modern nation-state. It shows how the expansive nation-state and its capitalist economic order helped to minimize social protest and stabilize the middle classes whose imperial cultural aspirations thus persisted.

  • Hobsbawm, Eric J. The Age of Empire, 1875–1914. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.

    A classic in the study of late European imperialism—a period here conceived to begin with the global spread of an institutionalized Western industrial revolution and to end with the First World War. Written for the general reader, the third book of the trilogy focuses on the intersections of capitalism, industrial labor, gender, and democratization, showing how this narrowly defined age of high-profile empire ushers in “the end of the world made by and for the bourgeoisie” (p. 6).

  • Lachenicht, Susanne, Lauric Henneton, and Yann Lignereux, eds. Special Issue: Spiritual Geopolitics in the Early Modern Imperial Age. Special Issue of Itinerario. The International Journal on the History of European Expansion and Global Interaction 40.2 (2016).

    The six contributions to this special issue explore the concept of “spiritual geopolitics,” that is, the role of religion in imperial geopolitics. The authors ask whether religion was an enabler of geopolitical change through the investigation of the impact of religious agents in imperial policymaking. The volume adopts a global perspective and covers case studies from Maghreb, South America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, Japan, and Guiana among others.

  • Schnurmann, Claudia. “Atlantic Trade and Regional Identities: The Creation of Supranational Atlantic Systems in the 17th Century.” In Atlantic History: History of the Atlantic System 1580–1830. Edited by Horst Pietschmann, 179–197. Göttingen, Germany, 2002.

    Exemplary essay on the collusion of regional, national, and imperial scales in Atlantic encounters.

  • Wellenreuther, Hermann, Norbert Finzsch, and Ursula Lehmkuhl, eds. Geschichte Nordamerikas in atlantischer Perspektive von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Berlin and Münster: LIT-Verlag, 2004–.

    This book series delineates the entangled histories of competing Atlantic forms of imperialism and nationalism in North America. Eight monographs have been published in the series to date, covering the time from the beginning of European settlements until the decade after the Cold War.

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