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About this book

This core textbook gathers an international team of historians to present a comprehensive account of the central themes in the histories of Britain, British America, and the British Caribbean seen in Atlantic perspective. This collection of individual essays provides an accessible overview of essential themes, such as the state, empire, migration, the economy, religion, race, class, gender, politics, and slavery. This new and revised edition brings this text up to date with recent work in the field of Atlantic history and extends its scope to cover themes not treated in the first edition, notably the history of science and global history. Placing the British Atlantic world in imperial and global contexts, this book offers an indispensable survey of one of the liveliest fields of current historical enquiry.
This text is a primary resource for both undergraduate and postgraduate students of History, particularly those taking modules on Early Modern British History, Colonial American History, Early American History, Caribbean History, Atlantic History and World History. Together, the essays also provide a useful starting point for researchers in British, American, imperial and Atlantic history.

Table of Contents



Beginning around 1500 kaleidoscopic movements of people, goods, and ideas through the Atlantic basin created networks of kinship and exchange, which bound together expanding communities of settlement and trade. This new social and economic world was mostly a European creation — it was Europeans who first crossed the Atlantic and then bound its societies into a common network of exchanges, though Africans would be dominant numerically in transatlantic migration, and the societies of native peoples would be those most dramatically altered by the encounter. Europeans had greater power to shape the resulting contact than Africans or Indians and this distinguishes the European experience in the Atlantic from that in the Indian Ocean in the same period. In the Atlantic, Indians and Africans and European settlers, traders, and migrants encountered foreign and exotic societies and were forced to come to terms with challenging physical and social environments. In doing so they reinvented themselves, and contributed to the reinvention both of the societies they encountered and of their home cultures.
David Armitage, Michael J. Braddick



1. Three Concepts of Atlantic History

We are all Atlanticists now — or so it would seem from the explosion of interest in the Atlantic and the Atlantic world as subjects of study among historians of North and South America, the Caribbean, Africa and western Europe. The Atlantic is even beginning to shape the study of literature, economics, and sociology on topics as diverse as theatrical performance, the early history of globalization and the sociology of race. However, no field seems to have taken an Atlantic perspective with more seriousness and enthusiasm than history. Indeed, Atlantic history has been called ‘one of the most important new historiographical developments of recent years’.1 It is affecting the teaching of history at all levels, especially in the United States; it now has its own conferences, seminars and graduate programs; prizes are being awarded for the best books on it; even the first textbooks are being planned. Like the national histories it is designed to supplement and even replace, Atlantic history is becoming institutionalized. This might therefore be a good moment to ask just what Atlantic history is and where it is going, before it becomes entrenched and inflexible.
David Armitage



2. Migration

The year 1500 saw a world as fully in motion as did the year 1800, yet by 1800 the degree, pace, character, and impact of that migration were fundamentally different. During this period, migration within the British Isles made parts of Ireland and England British, it eroded local cultures, and it produced urban societies, of which one, London, was comprised of migrants from all over Britain and became the largest city in Europe. Patterns of migration from Britain and Ireland similarly shaped migration across the Atlantic. Like Ireland, parts of America became British long before Britain itself, measured not in colonial public and legal cultures, which were initiated and codified in official charters and patents and thus highly derivative of English (and later British) legal and institutional practices, but in the composition of the migrant and settler populations. The British Atlantic world was made by migration, on both sides of the ocean, and for all members of society.
Alison Games

3. Economy

In 1584, Richard Hakluyt the younger presented Queen Elizabeth with a program for England’s westward expansion. Conquest, tribute, and the rich mines that had been prominent in the successful Iberian empires played little part in Hakluyt’s vision. English settlers would harness American soils and climate to produce goods to satisfy all England’s imported wants, at once relieving the country of surplus population and rendering it independent of foreign suppliers. Furthermore, the settlers would require a vast array of manufactured goods from the mother country, compensating for flagging demand in European markets and creating employment for England’s idle poor. A sealed, self-contained commercial system would coordinate the getting and spending of producers and consumers throughout the Atlantic world and, through increases in trade and shipping, would raise England to unprecedented heights of wealth, health, and strength.1 Hakluyt’s scheme was too ambitious to be realized in simple and straightforward form.
Nuala Zahedieh

4. Religion

European religion, especially Christianity, invaded the Atlantic world and was dramatically transformed in the process. England’s forays were intended to bring Protestant Christianity to the natives and to counter Spanish Catholicism’s missionary campaign. English rulers assumed that their subjects in the New World would adhere to the Church of England, transplanting the hierarchy, ritual, and loyal worship that they also sought to inculcate in their kingdoms. Religion would, it was assumed, accompany expansion, tie the natives to the colonizers, and cement loyalty to the crown. All of these expectations were disappointed. Native Americans largely rejected the prospects of Christian conversion. Efforts to coerce conformity in the colonies failed miserably, as did policies intended to command conformity in England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Diversity became a fact of life in Britain and its dominions. Beyond these thwarted expectations, unforeseen changes occurred. Christianity in the wider Atlantic world was profoundly influenced by the settler societies’ interaction with the African diaspora. Slaves, imported as laborers, their spiritual needs ignored, became Christians fairly late in the history of the British Atlantic world, but when they did so they remade their new faith.
Carla Gardina Pestana

5. Science

A dramatic story has often been told that links Europeans’ landfall in the Americas to the origins of modern science. By this view, Atlantic colonization helped bring about a revolution in the way science was practised. The Americas’ surprising existence undermined the authority of the Bible and the teachings of Aristotle, both of which had been ignorant of the New World. The shock of discovery unsettled long-rooted trust in what these precious books said about the world, its peoples, and the God who had created them. But it wasn’t just the content of knowledge that the Americas changed. The very ways by which Europeans claimed to understand nature’s processes were transformed. Scriptural and Aristotelian teachings were not simply incomplete or corrupt; more dramatically, their fallibility suggested that trust in words passed down across generations was in fact the wrong basis for making sense of the natural world. Experience, experiment, eye-witnessing, empiricism — a variety of labels became linked to the ideal of directly interrogating nature as a utilitarian enterprise. This modern epistemological break is, moreover, often portrayed as an especially English story.
James Delbourgo



6. Civility and Authority

The movement of goods and people around the British Atlantic world created a shared material culture which reflected common assumptions about status distinctions. These assumptions about social difference were fundamental to the legitimation of political authority, which was exercised not just between center and locality but also between local elites and their social inferiors. In that sense, then, the development of this shared language of social distinction provided the cultural basis for the exercise of political authority. By the eighteenth century these forces had fostered a marked convergence of elite sensibilities across all the territories of the nascent British Empire. However, by that point disintegrative forces were also at work, in particular the potentially divisive effects of increased imperial regulation and control of colonial life. It is also clear that the local societies over which elites presided were, by that time, extremely diverse and that local variations on the common culture of the British Atlantic elite were becoming quite marked. In some colonies this combination of factors led to a re-evaluation of local identities in the light of political circumstances and the declaration of a new, independent, political identity.
Michael J. Braddick

7. Gender

Both the history of gender and the history of the Atlantic world have blossomed as fields of inquiry in the last 30 years, but the relationship between these two subjects remains unclear. Melding them is a profound challenge to historians in both fields. In part there is a need to make Atlantic history more than simply imperial history in a new guise. Rather, for the history of the Atlantic to be as wide-ranging as the Atlantic world itself, it is requisite that Atlantic history meets the challenge of gender. The place of gender — that is, the social and cultural categorization of sexual difference — in this world needs to be understood, as do other questions about cultural values, behaviors, and the organization of power at levels both large and small. Equally, gender historians can benefit from the more expansive, multinational approach offered by Atlantic history, placing broad changes into more precise contexts and replacing outmoded narratives of improvement or decline with more complex models of change and continuity.
Sarah M. S. Pearsall

8. Class

To discuss the problem of ‘class’ in the British Atlantic world of the early modern period may well appear anachronistic. For most of that period the term itself was little used to describe the structures of inequality in contemporary society. It was only from the mid-eighteenth century that ‘class’ as a term descriptive of social distinctions ‘glided into the language’, gradually establishing its dominance in the conventional vocabulary of social description not only in Britain, but also throughout the British Atlantic world.1
Keith Wrightson

9. Race

Race matters — so much does it matter to us now that our current conceptions of it may hamper our understanding of how it mattered (or didn’t matter) in the past. Tracing the history of ideas of race can make sense of what they may have meant in the past while also showing that the Atlantic dimension of this history is precisely what has shaped our current ideas of race. Indeed, racism in its present form is a specific product of Atlantic history. That is, if race is a perceived physical difference that is assumed to be inherited, is strongly associated with skin color, and is crafted to support systems of human subjugation, this idea was peculiar to the Atlantic world created by European colonization. To be sure, it had precedents in certain theories that had emerged in pre-Columbian Europe. Yet its most distinctive elements would have been alien to Europeans in the classical and medieval worlds, despite their considerable experience with exploitation, xenophobia, and imperialism. Perhaps more than any other set of ideas, race was Atlantic. The history of slavery makes especially clear that racism took strong hold in the western Atlantic, with powerful implications for the populations that mingled in the Americas, for the social structures of colonial societies, and for ideas of political rights on either side of the Atlantic.
Joyce E. Chaplin



10. Empire and State

The Atlantic world was defined by states but colonized by empires. The British, no less than the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch, negotiated their claims beyond Europe through institutions within Europe. However, as latecomers to the race for Atlantic empire, the British had to operate on terms set by their predecessors and competitors. As a result of the regularization of diplomatic relations in the Atlantic basin French and Spanish diplomats developed the concept of lines of amity; to the north and east of them lay Europe, to the south and west lay the extra-European world.1 The implications of this conceptual distinction were to be profound for the subsequent history of the Atlantic world. Men and women who settled beyond those lines were now thought to be proper subjects of European monarchs. In contrast, the Portuguese and Castilian monarchs had declared millions of Americans, Africans, and Asians to be their subjects. Henceforth, colonization would increasingly foster a distinction between native populations and settler-subjects. Moreover, this division of the world allowed other European powers to challenge Iberian claims, while at the same time creating a very clear distinction between the nature of European empires and of European states.
Elizabeth Mancke

11. Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Few historians would dispute the interconnectedness of what they now describe as the ‘three British revolutions’ of 1641, 1688, and 1776 .1 Each convulsion affected the entire British archipelago,2 with the course of events in England repeatedly being dictated by developments in Scotland and Ireland.3 Although only the American Revolution had its origins in the colonies, all three revolutions were transatlantic in scope, triggering upheavals of varying magnitude throughout North America and the Caribbean. The so-called First British Empire — considered both as a set of political institutions and as an ideological construct — was largely a product of the two seventeenth-century revolutions,4 and the radical principles of the American Revolution reverberated within the remaining portions of Britain’s Atlantic empire well into the nineteenth century.5 Taken together, this revolutionary lineage highlights the integrative tendencies of Atlantic history, with a geographically dispersed British community being bound ever more closely by a common heritage of law, religion, language, education, constitutional government, and economic opportunity.
Eliga H. Gould

12. The Politics of Slavery

The last two decades have brought a burst of new scholarship on slavery in the British Americas. The historiography displays a depth and sophistication it lacked 20 years ago. Taking note in 1980 of the disproportionate focus on the antebellum era, Ira Berlin concluded that students of American slavery had tended to ‘[hold] time constant and ignore the influence of place’. Now, a generation later, we have, at the very least, satisfactory studies of slavery in every British colony where it mattered, as well as fine studies of slavery in those settlements where it scarcely existed. Historians of the British Caribbean have yet to produce overviews comparable to the massive surveys published recently by Berlin and Philip Morgan on slavery in North America, but thoughtful work has emerged on each of the key sugar islands, and for most time periods. At the same time, Robin Blackburn’s provocative grand narrative of the rise and fall of new world slavery has clarified the history of British plantation societies by situating it in a wider international context. If the most recent scholarship has not quite rectified the overemphasis in Anglo-American studies on the first half of the nineteenth century, there is now a more proportionate attention to what Berlin has properly called the first two centuries of slavery in British America.1
Christopher L. Brown



13. Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation

In the rousing words of David Armitage, ‘We are all Atlanticists now’.1 But, if so, what Atlantic are we talking about? For most of the eighteenth century the Atlantic meant, for the English, only the North Atlantic. Anything further south was called the ‘Ethiopean Sea’,2 that vast Iberian Atlantic which scarcely figures in this volume. While the theme of the volume and the fields of expertise of its contributors make this understandable, it is well to bear in mind that there are alternative perspectives from which to view the current trend toward the reconceptualization of British and North American history in terms of ‘Atlantic history’.
J. H. Elliott

14. The British Atlantic in Global Context

The simple and perhaps obvious fact that the Atlantic world has no boundaries has generated some anxious questioning about the scope of the field of Atlantic history. In writing the history of an age of interoceanic travel, should we separate the Atlantic from the Indian and Pacific Ocean worlds? Should Atlantic narratives stretch to encompass the history of the Andes, the Great Lakes region, the South African veldt, or other areas distant from the coasts? One common approach to such questions is to begin in the Atlantic and follow processes centered there to the edges of the region and beyond, for example, investigating to what extent Atlantic-style colonizing was tried outside the Atlantic or tracing the circulation of Atlantic commodities in the wider world. This approach depends in part on assumptions about the characteristics of distinctive Atlantic-centered processes. An alternative perspective converts these assumptions into research questions by beginning with global processes and analyzing variants in the Atlantic. Viewed in the context of global change, the Atlantic emerges as a region in formation, where widely occurring phenomena developed regionally distinctive patterns at particular historical moments.
Lauren Benton
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