Atlantic History Oceans
Rainer F. Buschmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0367


Capturing the topic of oceans is challenging because each of the world’s five oceans—Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, and Southern—are interconnected without clear geographical separations. For instance, it is unclear where the northern Atlantic ends and the Artic Oceans begin. At the same time, these large bodies of water differ by currents and winds, depth, and their relationship to the continental shelves. A prominent example emerges from the Atlantic Ocean, where the eastern continental shelf of North America extends far out into the northern Atlantic, thus creating one of the richest fishing grounds in the world off Newfoundland. This extension into the Atlantic Ocean also provides for many harbors and ports, which facilitates the sailing tasks along the eastern shores of North America. In contrast, located in the Pacific, the western edges of North and South America are near the water’s edge, allowing for fewer larger bays, thus making sailing up and down the coast a more complex undertaking. Despite such geographical differences, significant advances have been made in the historiographical treatment of the earth’s large watery basins. Historians have only recently begun to focus exclusively on exploration of ocean basins. The preference for continental historical accounts discounts the fact that oceans blanket close to 70 percent of the earth’s surface. The redirecting of investigations from terrestrial to oceanic and continental to aquatic basins promises to reveal novel insights into human development. Although maritime concerns have influenced diplomatic, military, and technological histories, such matters remained ancillary to terrestrial entities associated with kingdoms, empires, and nation-states. Nevertheless, an expanding body of knowledge during the Early Modern era allowed European expansion from the Mediterranean to the western Pacific in a little more than two centuries. Historiographically speaking, newly developed oceanic accounts seek to tackle several issues: tracking the influence of the oceans on human expansion, migration, and trade during a loosely termed “Age of Sail” ; assessing the significant non-European contributions to and predating this expansion; lastly, how over the last two centuries, human beings have gradually emerged as a monumental threat to oceans and their environment. In this connection, many maritime environmental histories have emerged that go beyond standard historical analyses of oceans as either barriers or highways to human development. Such environmentally focused studies dip well below the waves to place oceans at the center rather than on the margins of historical investigations. While more traditional maritime histories can still be found among the works listed in this article, novel oceanic accounts expand on the concepts. The environmental, geographical, and non-European dimensions of such histories explore the uniqueness of, rather than the similarities to, continental concerns.

General Overviews

This section is divided into three main subsections. The first one lists mostly introductory works aimed at readers who are unfamiliar with the topic. The second subsection addresses the historiographical issues associated with the shift to oceanic renditions of the past. The last subsection addresses the challenging knowledge that derived from mastering the world’s maritime surfaces.

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