Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal

Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal

Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal

Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal


Atlantic history, with its emphasis on inter-regional developments that transcend national borders, has risen to prominence as a fruitful perspective through which to study the interconnections among Europe, North America, Latin America, and Africa. These original essays present acomprehensive and incisive look at how Atlantic history has been interpreted across time and through a variety of lenses from the fifteenth through the early nineteenth century. Editors Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan have assembled a stellar cast of thirteen international scholars to discusskey areas of Atlantic history, including the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, African, and indigenous worlds, as well as the movement of ideas, peoples, and goods. Other contributors assess contemporary understandings of the ocean and present alternatives to the concept itself,juxtaposing Atlantic history with global, hemispheric, and Continental history.


Atlantic history is an analytic construct and an explicit category of historical analysis that historians have devised to help them organize the study of some of the most important developments of the early modern era: the emergence in the fifteenth century and the subsequent growth of the Atlantic basin as a site for demographic, economic, social, cultural, and other forms of exchange among and within the four continents surrounding the Atlantic Ocean—Europe, Africa, South America, and North America—and all the islands adjacent to those continents and in that ocean. As people, pathogens, and plants—to mention just three key agents of change—moved ever more intensively across the Atlantic, profound transformations occurred in all spheres of life. Events in one place had repercussions in others. Atlantic history, as John Elliott elegantly puts it, involves the study of “the creation, destruction, and re-creation of communities as a result of the movement, across and around the Atlantic basin, of people, commodities, cultural practices, and values.”

If the concept of Atlantic history is fairly new—the first institutional use of the term being traced to the late 1960s, when the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University spearheaded the establishment of its Program in Atlantic History and Culture—the practice is not. As early as the 1870s, Herbert Baxter Adams located the narrative of American history in the Atlantic world, tied to a genetic germ theory that is no longer in favor. During the first half of the twentieth century, Charles McLean Andrews, a specialist on the British Empire, and C. H. Haring, a student of the Spanish Empire, were the most prominent among many historians of early modern empire who took a transoceanic perspective. Through the middle decades of the twentieth century, historians of exploration and discovery, such as David Beers Quinn, effectively did Atlantic history long before it became fashionable. The same can be said about Perry Miller’s analyses of Puritan religious development, Wesley Frank Craven’s account of the settlement of Virginia, Bernard Bailyn’s study of seventeenth-century New England merchants, James Lockhart’s work on sixteenth-century Spanish Peru, and a host of other works by prominent scholars of the early colonial Americas. It is easy to think of key studies, such as Frank Tannenbaum’s Slave and Citizen (1946), Philip Curtin’s Atlantic Slave Trade (1969), Ian Steele’s The English Atlantic (1981), or D. W. Meinig’s Atlantic America (1986), that took a transatlantic perspective before the term became a buzzword. Jacques Godechot’s Histoire de l’Atlantique (1947) was perhaps the first to use such a title, although the book was in fact a circumscribed maritime history; Leonard Outhwaite’s The Atlantic (1957) was also narrowly conceived. If none of these authors thought of what they were doing as Atlantic history or referred to themselves as Atlanticists, few scholars by the early 1950s would have thought that one could adequately study any of the many colonial Americas without an understanding of their European antecedents.

Notwithstanding the success of the Johns Hopkins program, no university replicated its model in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, however, Atlantic history has emerged as an explicit area of study that, at least in the United States, is challenging the primacy of traditional national or imperial modes of organizing historical understanding. The earliest advocates of Atlantic history thought of it primarily as a perspective that would broaden the horizons of specialists in traditional fields by calling attention to the larger contexts and promoting transnational comparisons. Their primary goal was to create not a new field of historical studies, but a group of scholars appreciative of common themes and differences across as well as within national boundaries and language areas, able to put their own specialized works within the larger framework of the loose but cohering Atlantic world. This approach remains an appealing option for Atlantic studies.

By contrast, more recent exponents of Atlantic history, with a measure of missionary fervor, have increasingly begun to think of Atlantic history not merely as a perspective, but as a full-blown field of study with the potential to encompass older fields such as European, American, African, or Latin American history, and the imperial and national histories such continental classifications have traditionally assumed. So far, no Atlantic History Association or Organization of Atlantic History has appeared, but existing professional historical organizations, such as the American Historical Association, have shown a growing interest in the topic of Atlantic history.

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