Atlantic history  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Atlantic history is a specialty field in history that studies of the Atlantic World in the early modern period. It is premised on the idea that, following the rise of sustained European contact with the New World in the 16th century, the continents that bordered the Atlantic Ocean—the Americas, Europe, and Africa—constituted a regional system or common sphere of economic and cultural exchange that can be studied as a totality.

Its theme is the complex interaction between Europe (especially Britain and France) and the New World colonies. It encompasses a wide range of demographic, social, economic, political, legal, military, intellectual and religious topics treated in comparative fashion by looking at both sides of the Atlantic. Religious revivals characterized Britain and Germany, as well as the First Great Awakening in the American colonies. Migration and race/slavery have been important topics.

Practitioners of Atlantic history typically focus on the interconnections and exchanges between these regions and the civilizations they harbored. In particular, they argue that the boundaries between nation states which traditionally determined the limits of older historiography should not be applied to such transnational phenomena as slavery, colonialism, missionary activity and economic expansion. Environmental history and the study of historical demography also play an important role, as many key questions in the field revolve around the ecological and epidemiological impact of the Columbian Exchange.

In the last two decades Atlantic history has emerged as an increasingly popular alternative to the older discipline of imperial history, although it could be argued that the field is simply a refinement and reorientation of traditional historiography dealing with the interaction between early modern Europeans and native peoples in the Atlantic sphere.

The formation of Atlantic History as a recognized area of study began in the 1980s under the impetus of American historians Bernard Bailyn of Harvard University and Jack Greene of Johns Hopkins University, among others. The post-World War II integration of the European Union and the continuing importance of NATO played an indirect role in stimulating interest throughout the 1990s.



Bailyn's Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World promoted social and demographic studies, and especially regarding demographic flows of population into colonial America. As a leading advocate of the history of the Atlantic world, Bailyn has organized an annual international seminar at Harvard designed to promote scholarship in this field. Bailyn's Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (2005) explores the borders and contents of the emerging field, which emphasizes cosmopolitan and multicultural elements that have tended to be neglected or considered in isolation by traditional historiography dealing with the Americas. Bailyn's reflections stem in part from his seminar at Harvard since the mid-1980s.

Greene directed a program at Johns Hopkins in Atlantic History from 1972 to 1992 that has now expanded to global concerns.

Other scholars in the field include Anthony Grafton, Felipe Armesto-Mestre Anthony Pagden, Karen Ordahl Kupperman, James D. Tracy, John Huxtable Elliott, Carla G. Pestana, Isaac Land, and Jorge Canizares-Esguerra.


Games (2006) explores the convergence of the multiple strands of scholarly interest that have generated the new field of Atlantic history, which takes as its geographic unit of analysis the Atlantic Ocean and the four continents that surround it. She argues Atlantic history is best approached as a slice of world history. The Atlantic, moreover, is a region that has logic as a unit of historical analysis only within a limited chronology. An Atlantic perspective can help historians understand changes within the region that a more limited geographic framework might obscure. Attempts to write a Braudelian Atlantic history, one that includes and connects the entire region, remain elusive, driven in part by methodological impediments, by the real disjunctions that characterized the Atlantic's historical and geographic components, by the disciplinary divisions that discourage historians from speaking to and writing for each other, and by the challenge of finding a vantage point that is not rooted in any single place.

Colonial studies

One impetus for Atlantic studies began with the historians of slavery who started tracking the flows of slaves from Africa to the New World in the 1960s. A second source came from historians of colonial America. Many were trained in early modern European history and were familiar with the historiography regarding England and the British Empire., which had been introduced a century before by G.L. Beer and Charles McLean Andrews. Colonialists have long been open to interdisciplinary perspectives, such as comparative approaches. In addition there was a frustration involved in writing about very few people in a small remote colony. Atlantic history opens the horizon to large forces at work over great distances.


Some critics have complained that Atlantic history is little more than imperial history under another name. Others argue that it is simultaneously too expansive (pretending to subsume both of the American continents, Africa and Europe, without seriously engaging with them) and too small (arbitrarily isolating the Atlantic from other bodies of water).

Christie (2009), a Canadian scholar, argues that Atlantic history will tend to draw students beyond their national myths, while offering historical support for such policies as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Organization of American States, NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the New Europe, Christendom, and even the United Nations. He concludes, "The early modern Atlantic can even be read as a natural antechamber for American‐led globalization of capitalism and serve as an historical challenge to the coalescing New Europe. No wonder that the academic reception of the new Atlantic history has been enthusiastic in the United States, and less so in Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal, where histories of national Atlantic empires continue to thrive."


  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (2002); see especially the lead article by Armitage, "Three Concepts of Atlantic History."
  • Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: a passage in the peopling of America on the eve of the Revolution Knopf 1986, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History
  • Bailyn, Bernard. Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (2005). online excerpts
  • Bodle, Wayne. "Atlantic History Is the New 'New Social History.'" William and Mary Quarterly 2007 64(1): 203-220. Issn: 0043-5597 Fulltext: History Cooperative
  • Curtin, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Egerton, Douglas R. et al. The Atlantic World: A History, 1400-1888 (2007), college textbook; 530pp
  • Elliott, John H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (2007), 608pp excerpt and text search, advancedsynthesis
  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (2000).
  • Games, Alison. "Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities." American Historical Review 2006 111(3): 741-757. Issn: 0002-8762 Fulltext: History Cooperative
  • Games, Alison and Adam Rothman, eds. Major Problems in Atlantic History: Documents and Essays (2007), 544pp; primary and secondary sources
  • Gould, Eliga H. and Peter S. Onuf, eds. Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. 391 pages. excerpt and text search
  • Gould, Eliga H. "Entangled Atlantic Histories: A Response from the Anglo-American Periphery," The American Historical Review, 112:1415–1422, December 2007 online edition
  • Greene, Jack P. and Philip D. Morgan, eds. Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (2009) 371pp, major historiographical review
  • Hancock, David. Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735–1785 (1995)
  • Land, Isaac. "Tidal Waves: the New Coastal History:" Journal of Social History 2007 40(3): 731-743. Issn: 0022-4529 Fulltext: History Cooperative and Project Muse
  • Mancke, Elizabeth, and Carole Shammas, eds. The Creation of the British Atlantic World. (2005). 408 pages. excerpt and text search
  • Offutt, William M. The Creation of the British Atlantic World
  • Olwell, Robert, and Alan Tully, eds. Cultures and Identities in Colonial British America. (2006). 394 pages.
  • O'Reilly, William. "Genealogies of Atlantic History," Atlantic Studies 1 (2004): 66–84.
  • Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo- American Maritime World, 1700–1750. (1987)
  • Steele, Ian K. "Bernard Bailyn's American Atlantic." History and Theory 2007 46(1): 48-58. Issn: 0018-2656 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800 (2nd ed., 1998)
  • Wilson, Kathleen, ed. A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire (2004). 385 pp.

See also

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