Your annual conferences on “The History of the Atlantic World” spurred a generation of innovative scholarship. Universities throughout the West now feature courses on Atlantic history. The American Historical Association instituted a prize specifically for Atlantic history. Please sketch for us the contours of the subject you shaped. What is Atlantic history?
The subject is really a region’s history over three centuries – the region that is defined by the great networks of social, economic, political and cultural ties among the four continents that form the Atlantic basin – the two Americas, Africa and Europe. The study of the subject creates a transnational perspective for individual events within that area. You see specific events developing in a different way. So it is the study of the interactions, the parallels and the contrasts among events that developed in this huge oceanic region which was distinctive. In the 19th century Atlantic history began to merge into a larger global history, but for 300 years – after the conquest of the Americas up through the end of the colonial period – it had its own history, and that history is useful to keep in mind in studying any part of it.
You argue that the early Atlantic world had distinct characteristics. What were those characteristics?
There are three basic, broad defining characteristics. One, of course, is that it’s a colonial era for the Western hemisphere. For 300 years, from 1500 to the independence movements at the end of the 18th century, the Western lands were colonies, different from other dependencies, and were profoundly affected by the European powers. They in turn were transformed by the colonies they ruled. Spain, Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal all were colonial powers during that period. In many ways the Atlantic region depended greatly for its character on the relationship of the colonies to the imperial centres.
Second, the region – Africa, Europe and the Western hemisphere – was greatly dependent on the slave trade. By the early 19th century the slave trade was challenged if not completely eliminated, but for 300 years the forced migration of Africans to the Western hemisphere was a central characteristic of Atlantic history. It closely united Europe, West Africa and the Americas. Four times as many Africans migrated to the western hemisphere than Europeans through this 300 year period. Finally, the early modern era was a pre-industrial world dominated by commerce, agricultural developments and extractive industries, as opposed to manufacturing.
As those three basic circumstances shifted, with the end of the slave trade, the end of colonialism and the beginning of the industrial revolution, the distinct phase of Atlantic history came to an end and the Atlantic world merged into a larger global world.
You trace the topic’s genealogy in a 2005 book of essays entitled Atlantic History: Concept and Contours, which is your first selection.
There are two essays in the book. In the first, I describe the external circumstances, political and cultural, that shaped the historical awareness of the Atlantic world as a subject in itself. The circumstances just before, during and after World War II had a great influence on historians’ thinking about the Atlantic as a region, as did the increased exchanges of scholars among different regions in the postwar years. The Atlantic became formulated as a field of historical study in the early 1990s, though there had been important antecedents.
Please explain in a little detail the political forces that caused the field to coalesce.
In a way, it was Roosevelt and Churchill who defined the Atlantic region through their collaboration, and then after the war, with NATO and other intergovernmental agencies developing, that sense became more pronounced. But it isn’t those external political forces, important as they were, that shaped the field so much as the developing scholarship on transnational migration and economic interdependence. It became obvious, for example, that Portugal’s development of Brazil depended as much on London bankers as it did on tribal wars in Africa. Many such discoveries came together to create a sense of unity within this vast region of the world, independent of politics.
You once said that you initially approached history, as a young man recently returned from World War II, with a rough agenda to explore “the relation between European and American life” and “the interplay between social history and intellectual history”. Where did that agenda come from and how did it affect your interest in a new framework for early American history?
To say what shapes your thinking is very hard. I suppose to some extent I was more keenly aware of a very broad Atlantic world because of the war than I would have been otherwise, but that approach came as much from my own study and thinking about history. My first publications, in the early 1950s, were explicitly about Atlantic history, before I tried to formulate the subject. My first large book was about the transfer of ideas from Europe to America and how those ideas fared here, the force they gained in these political and cultural circumstances. All this developed from basic research. In specific terms, influences are very hard to trace.
Empires of the Atlantic World by Oxford don John Elliott is your next book selection. Please introduce us to this 2006 work.
This is a comparative study of the British and Spanish colonial world from 1500 until the end of this 300-year era. John Elliott is a brilliant historian of Spain, and here he turns to New Spain and to the Spanish Atlantic world, comparing it to the British world on major elements. Some parts of it show the congruence between the two, the parallel way they developed. Other parts show the differences, the contrasts between the Spanish and the British colonies. For comparative history between the British and the Spanish in America, there’s no better book – it’s excellent.
How does Empires of the Atlantic World differ from traditional imperial history?
He’s talking about two empires simultaneously. He shows the different ways the Spanish and British imperial worlds developed and the ways they differed. It’s very different from a history that is basically national in its character, because his perspective is transnational. Atlantic history is transnational, it’s an effort to get away from narrowly nationalistic interpretations. And this book is a study in transnational comparative analysis, not just the narrative of an empire’s history.
Is there a deeper focus on social history in Elliott’s book that sets it apart? Is there less of a focus on organs of government or explorers?
Elliott covers all of the major areas of economic and political and especially religious development, Catholic and Protestant, and contrasts them. It’s not a narrative history of exploration and conquest, it’s an analytic book about the characteristics of the two main Atlantic empires as they developed, in contrast to each other.
You once noted that although we think we’re familiar with the story of how America was populated, we only know it in broad strokes. Certainly the worst part of that story was the forced migration of approximately 12.5 million Africans. You’ve cited Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Tell us about the book.
This book encapsulates a huge amount of scholarship on the slave trade and slavery. The writing on slavery and the slave trade is so immense that it’s almost impossible to grasp it as a whole. David Eltis’s book is actually far more than an atlas – it is a compendium of all of the massive studies of slavery that have been made, many of them by Eltis himself, presented as maps, charts, and the flow lines of slave migrations from Africa to America. The cartography is a vivid way of getting hold of what the slave trade was. For that purpose it’s the best book written, and in its dozens of maps the most readable.
Eltis and his colleagues in Britain and Canada put together a database tracing every vessel there is a record of carrying slaves from Africa to the Americas. The maps track, as far as possible, where the slaves came from, the duration of the journey, the death rate on the voyage, where the slaves ended up and all the characteristics of the trade itself, including the economics.
All of this he put in visual terms. If you want to know how many slaves came to Boston in a 10-year period there’s a chart for it. There are maps showing where in Africa the blacks who came to Boston were from and where the slaves from specific places in Africa went. So it’s a combination of statistical description plus visual presentation. It’s a remarkable compilation based on the most comprehensive study of the slave trade ever made.
What were the main effects of the slave trade on the peopling and ideological origins of North America?
That’s an immense subject. That’s a whole world I can’t begin to go into.
This atlas has multiple authors. Eltis worked with David Richardson, the foreword is by Yale historian David Brion Davis and the afterword by Yale historian David Blight. Is this collaboration an example of the synergies Atlantic history as a subject helped create?
Yes I think so. People knew much about the slave trade before, but they never knew about it in such detail. One did not know how the ethnic groups in Africa were recruited and where each of them ended up in the Americas. We did not know the real mortality rates, the sex ratios, the languages and cultures of the slaves. It took a great energetic collaboration for all of that to be understood. That’s what Eltis and his collaborators, among many others, have done.
A group of essays edited by Harvard historian David Armitage and University of Sheffield Professor Michael Braddick is your next selection. Please tell us about The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800.
This is a collection of essays on the British Atlantic world in itself. It goes into excellent detail on many themes.
Can you give us a little more detail?
The essays in it are on migration, on the economy, on religion, on science and then some more subtle things such as gender and civility. It covers a very broad range, and it has a preface by me and a conclusion by John Elliott. The book has excellent, penetrating essays on aspects of the British American empire in the colonial period. Each of the essays is written by an expert in the field. It’s an unusually good collection. The second edition of it is slightly different and expanded from the first edition.
Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500-1830 is a volume of essays which you edited on the state of the Atlantic history. What will we learn by reading it?
It is an effort to show the underlying structures that unite parts of the Atlantic world, and the intellectual currents that run through all of it. It’s by various historians, and some of the essays are unique, imaginative, and revealing of what unified the Atlantic region below the surface.
The book as a whole was an attempt to get at fundamental things that are not self-evident. For example, the first essay by Steve Behrendt is on the effect of the slave trade on ecology and seasonality. That’s not evident, but he dug it up and wrote an exhaustive, refined analysis. Wim Klooster wrote a splendid essay tracing smuggling. Smuggling is by definition clandestine so it’s hard for a historian to trace, but it’s extremely important because it created a whole illegal economy and it pervaded the entire system. Another essay is on the Jesuit network. Jesuits are everywhere in Canada and throughout Latin America. An essay by Martinez-Serna isolates and examines the administrative connections among the Jesuits in the various parts of the western world, which underlie the Catholic Atlantic world. The book is about these latent elements in the Atlantic world and the way in which they unified this whole vast area.
You once said “scholarship proceeds dialectically”. What deficiency did Atlantic history emerge to overcome?
The historiography I inherited as a student was designed almost entirely in nationalistic terms. It was the British world doing this and that, or the Spanish or the Portuguese. But there are common elements to Atlantic history as I have mentioned.
How did Atlantic history challenge the national narratives and periodisation that preceded its formation?
A very good young historian named Lara Putnam put it this way: “Events we explained in terms of local dynamics, are revealed to be above-order fragments of submarine unities… As once submerged transnational structures and large-scale patterns are perceived, the outlines of the immensely complex but coherent Atlantic region come into view.” That says it pretty well I think.
Interview by Eve Gerber
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