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date: 23 August 2019

Introduction: The Making and Unmaking of an Atlantic World

Abstract and Keywords

Beginning in the fifteenth century, people, plants, pathogens, products, and cultural practices — just to mention some key agents — began to move regularly back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. As the connections and exchanges deepened and intensified, much was transformed. New peoples, economies, societies, polities, and cultures arose, particularly in the lands and islands touched by that ocean, while others were destroyed. This book describes, explains, and, occasionally, challenges conventional wisdom concerning these path-breaking developments from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. It looks at European conquests of Native American populations (in North and South America), how some Native Americans contributed to the Atlantic trading world that flourished from the later seventeenth century onwards, the slave trade and importation of slaves from Africa, human settlement in America, and the re-segmentation of the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century into multiple polities.

Keywords: Atlantic world, Atlantic Ocean, slaves, human settlement, Native Americans, Africa, America, polities, plants, pathogens

Beginning in the fifteenth century, people, plants, pathogens, products, and cultural practices—just to mention some key agents—began to move regularly back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. As the connections and exchanges deepened and intensified, much was transformed. New peoples, economies, societies, polities, and cultures arose, particularly in the lands and islands touched by that ocean, while others were destroyed. The several authors in this volume seek to describe, explain, and, occasionally, challenge conventional wisdom concerning these path-breaking developments from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. While contributors benefit from an outpouring of recent scholarship devoted to Atlantic History, this volume is more ambitious than anything previously published, since it covers many themes and topics, spans a vast chronological spread, and operates on an extensive geographical canvas.1 Also the editors have enjoined its thirty-eight authors to think comparatively when addressing their particular aspects of Atlantic History, in the hope of removing barriers that have tended to compartmentalize scholarly investigations into discrete ‘national’ involvements with an Atlantic world, even when its resources were shared.

Our appraisal opens when some people (mostly Christian people) were beginning to comprehend the extent of, and possibilities presented by, the ocean that had once divided the continents of Europe and Africa from the Americas, and it closes when the integrity that had emerged in the Atlantic world was threatened by novel political, economic, (p. 2) technological, and moral forces. It is arranged into rough, schematic periods—which we have labelled emergence, consolidation, integration, and disintegration—although some essays straddle a number of these stages. One of the goals of this introduction is to highlight some of the seminal developments within the Atlantic world during the period under review, thus providing a fresh narrative framework for the study of Atlantic history.

While bringing readers up to date with current scholarship, this volume also aims to be mould breaking, not least in adumbrating a narrative for the study of this broadly conceived subject. A sequence of essays shows how, over the course of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, several Atlantic worlds, each with distinctive features but also sharing much in common, were fashioned. Later contributors make the case that each of these worlds, which had achieved a degree of self-sufficiency, was gradually absorbed into a larger unit of interdependency until a single functioning Atlantic world, shaped and continuously influenced to varying degrees by European, African, and American peoples, flourished through much of the eighteenth century. A final cluster of chapters suggest that the interconnectedness of this world explains why challenge and collapse in any given part usually led to significant disruption of neighbouring areas, if not of the entire system. This introduction brings this preferred narrative into focus while it also alludes to the Atlantic dimension that emerges when developments in any given area are considered comparatively or in a broad oceanic context.

The particulars discussed in this collection will be familiar to those acquainted with what was once known as the History of European Overseas Expansion. To this extent the established narratives remain in place: Europeans, and their relatively superior technologies, are credited with achieving mastery over an ocean that had previously acted as a barrier against human endeavour; Europeans are acknowledged to have been the driving force behind the overthrow of the Aztec, the Inca, and other Native American empires; Native American peoples succumbed disastrously to pathogens borne by Europeans and Africans; and African slaves were the most obvious victims and instruments of the European-dominated colonization that shaped the Atlantic world. However the dominant Eurocentric model is challenged by essays that demonstrate the persistent influence over their destinies exercised by Native Americans and Africans until well into the eighteenth century. Received wisdom is therefore modified in light of the better appreciation of the part played by Native Americans and Africans in shaping the course of events. Representations of ‘Overseas History’ as an extension of European history, and teleological delineations of transitions from ‘colony to nation’, are therefore emphatically rejected.2

These essays show that successive European conquests of Native American populations (in North and South America) succeeded only because small groups of determined, yet vulnerable, European adventurers who promoted them could form alliances (p. 3) with native enemies of dominant groups. They also demonstrate that massive population losses suffered by Native American peoples were due as much to exploitation, maltreatment, and unthinking environmental destruction perpetrated by the conquerors, as to warfare and the impact of Old World diseases. But while they do nothing to conceal the tragic and the sordid, succeeding authors explain how some of the indigenous populations endured the onslaught. Thus, to cite cases where the challenge was extreme; on the West Indian islands where Spanish destruction was most complete, some of the native populations survived either by melding with the peoples of other islands, or by retreating and intermingling with inhabitants on the mainland, or by contributing their genes and values to the children born of interracial unions; similarly, in coastal Brazil many natives endured Portuguese intrusion by withdrawing into the Amazonian interior. The native populations of North America adopted comparable survival strategies when they, in turn, experienced European ‘invasions’.

The history of native societies and habitats through our period is, therefore, one of continuous change and adaptation rather then termination. The changes that essayists identify are: the development of genetic intermixtures; shifts in territories; the formation of novel political alliances among Native American peoples, and sometimes between Native Americans and European partners; the adoption by Native Americans of European weapons and technologies; the increased involvement of Native Americans in exchanges triggered by European demand for American commodities; the destruction of traditional environments especially resulting from the introduction of European livestock, vegetation, and agrarian technologies; and massive population losses suffered by Native Americans, regardless of their geographic location, due to their exposure to the various crowd disease pathogens that Europeans and Africans carried with them unwittingly from the Old World. But the narrative is also one of survival since the essays collectively show that Native American loss of influence was seldom total or immediate, and that recovery and retrenchment proved possible for many who continued to shape their destinies throughout the period. One example of enduring Native American influence was the continued employment by Europeans of native legal codes to achieve conflict resolution, and the resort of astute Native Americans to ‘forum shopping’ to secure the best possible legal outcomes from contested disputes.3 Also, in the religious sphere, where previous scholarly generations, and particularly those treating of encounters in Central and South America, sought to ‘measure’ the pace of Christian conversion, the concern here is to explain how everywhere the Christian message came to be ‘naturalized and localized’.4

If some Native Americans contributed to the Atlantic trading world that flourished from the later seventeenth century onwards, rulers on the coast of West Africa (and African leaders more generally) succeeded in preserving their economic as well as their political independence—even dictating the pace of change—until well into the eighteenth century. Where much previous writing has sought to pinpoint when Portuguese, (p. 4) or English, or Dutch, or French traders first conveyed African slaves across the Atlantic, the relevant chapters here emphasize the tentative character of the European presence off the Atlantic coast of Africa to the end of the eighteenth century; the reliance of European merchants on the goodwill of those who ruled over the sequence of African polities abutting the Atlantic Ocean; and the prolonged primary interest of Europeans in African gold, textiles, and dyestuffs, rather than slaves, for half of our period.

Thus, while some African slaves were conveyed across the Atlantic from the early sixteenth century to meet labour shortages in Central and South America, it was not until after 1700 that trade in slaves became the principal interest of European merchants dealing with Africa. Then, an escalating demand for labour in America, occasioned principally by the demographic collapse of Native American workforces and a dramatic expansion of sugar cultivation and production in Brazil and the Caribbean, made it necessary to import slaves from Africa. Slaves, however, could be acquired only with the agreement of African rulers and with the cooperation of African traders, or traders of mixed African/European race associated with stations, factories, and castles on the African coast, or on islands offshore. As the demand increased so also did the geographic extent of slave stations along the coast, while African traders and those who supplied them with captives had to reach ever deeper into continental Africa for slaves to satisfy the increasing American appetite for bound labour. The cultural and linguistic range of the African peoples who were forced into slavery and conveyed to American plantations increased correspondingly, and particularly so in the later eighteenth century when the traffic was at its height. The traffic proved profitable for African-based merchants as for the European traders who conveyed Africans to the Americas, not least because African merchants also supplied provisions to European slave ships for the transatlantic crossing. Consequently, African opposition to the abolition of the slave trade proved more determined and persistent than that mounted by those Europeans who had a vested interest in slave trading, once both groups were put on the defensive when abolitionism became a humanitarian, evangelical, or political cause for influential groups in European and American societies.

Slaves on plantation estates managed their work rhythms as best they could, seized opportunities to escape to maroon societies where possible, and strove to retain something of their African languages, cultures, religions, and political aspirations. A sense of ‘Africanness’ may have emerged on the African coast, but the coming together of an ever greater range of Africans in America spurred the process of ethnogenesis and racial consciousness.5 Once Africans and African Americans came to constitute a numerous or a majority population in many locations in the Americas, it became necessary for the dominant population to introduce slave codes which, in themselves, rendered these American societies different from anything in previous experience. Such codes did not prevent the sexual exploitation of women of African (p. 5) descent by white males which quickly gave rise to mixed populations everywhere that slavery flourished. In some locations people of mixed origin were accorded a separate legal status from African-born slaves, while intermingling between runaway slaves and Native American peoples created yet other configurations of racial and political mixtures.

Interminglings occurred on many other levels. Native Americans enriched the rest of the Atlantic world with their plants (the most important of which were the potato, maize, and manioc); Europeans contributed their domesticated animals primarily to the Americas, the numbers of which rose exponentially and the protein of which boosted people's height; Africans transferred to the New World their plants such as millet, yams, bananas, okra, sesame, watermelon, and African rice; while Europeans introduced to both Africa and America plants and commodities that were native to Asia. In the realm of medicine, Africans, and also Native Americans, had their Euro-American masters reliant on them because of their superior knowledge concerning the curative properties of plants.

Historians of the Atlantic world are generally at pains to explain how people shaped their destinies, not least because scholars of other dispersed worlds linked by a shared body of water have contended that outcomes were determined by the forces of nature. Prime among the determinists is Fernand Braudel, who depicted a Mediterranean world where social forms and trading patterns were dictated by climatic and geomorphologic constants, regardless of the cultural backgrounds of the peoples who resided within these environments.6 More recently historians of the Indian Ocean, many of them admirers of Braudel, have implied that the predictable wind systems and water currents prevailing on either side of the sub-continent of India proved more important than the navigational, nautical, astronomical, and business acumen of Asian sailors and traders, in linking the various trading sectors of the Indian Ocean into a unified commercial world that long pre-dated European water-borne influence in that area.7

Current scholars of exploration and trade on the Atlantic are perhaps more aware than those of earlier generations how the endeavours of mariners in the age of sail were both aided and circumscribed by the prevailing winds and currents of the ocean in much the same way that travel on the Indian Ocean was enabled and limited by the forces of nature. Such factors, as much as the diverse interests that different Europeans had in the Atlantic, are advanced to explain the plurality of Atlantic worlds that were gradually mastered by European navigators during the course of the fifteenth century. But if the efforts of navigators of the early modern centuries (and earlier) were limited by natural forces, they also came to appreciate that there were two principal routes by which they could negotiate their way in the Atlantic Ocean during this era of sail: the (p. 6) northern route which was an extension of that plied by the Vikings in medieval times, and the southern route with which the Portuguese became acquainted when they sailed westwards into the Atlantic hoping to take advantage of the eastern trade winds to carry them south of the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean. The northern route brought Bristol fishermen to the Newfoundland Banks perhaps before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, while Columbus, in 1492 and in his subsequent voyages, exploited the southern route.

While they make allowance for such environmental determinants, scholars who study the halting penetration of the Atlantic Ocean by mariners associated with trading ports in Western Europe give principal credit to human agency. Thus they attribute the ultimate success of European mariners in mastering and comprehending that ocean to a slow accumulation of knowledge and experience of particular sections of the Atlantic Ocean by those searching for fishing grounds, or seeking the source of African gold, or tracing an all-water route to Asia by the African coastline. Historians of the Atlantic have shown how these various seafaring communities developed a knowledge of several Atlantics and of the islands and promontories associated with each; a better understanding of what ships and sails were appropriate for traversing the tempestuous Atlantic waters; an appreciation of how to travel ever-longer distances into the ocean and navigate a way home; and an accretion of information about the hazards associated with particular harbours. Attention is also given to how these groups benefited from improved scientific practice in navigation, ship construction, and in the making of navigational instruments and maps that had been advanced within the Mediterranean basin, and particularly in Italy. Credit is also given to pilots and ship captains from Italy (ranging from John Cabot to Christopher Columbus) who participated in the exploration of the Atlantic basin. But the presumption behind these essays, and the scholarship on which they are based, is that trial and error were more important than any scientific breakthrough in emboldening European seafarers to make increasing use of the Atlantic, in the same way that, 400 years previously, intelligent experimentation had enabled Viking explorers to negotiate regular journeys between their homeland and their settlement on Greenland, and to proceed as far as the American coastline from which they returned home. Despite their insistence upon the importance of human agency, historians of the Atlantic are sometimes forced to concede that impersonal forces could dictate outcomes. Thus, in a recent study, Stephen Behrendt has discerned that as the transatlantic slave trade expanded in scale and geographic range during the third quarter of the eighteenth century, environmental factors placed strict limits on where and when traders might pursue their business.8

The issue of predetermination also features in scholarship concerning encounters between different European and Native American peoples. Authors have long contended that Iberian interaction with the Moors, leading to their expulsion from Spain, prefigured how Iberians would relate to Native American peoples, and it has been (p. 7) similarly argued that English responses to, and interaction with, Native American peoples during the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries were conditioned by their previous experiences in Elizabethan Ireland.9 Recent scholars, including authors in this volume, are more concerned than their predecessors of the past half-century to distinguish between parallels, verbal metaphors, and actual influences. This is exemplified by recent work on the interplay of Mediterranean Christian peoples with Muslim populations of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa, indigenous populations of the Canary Islands, and the populations encountered by Columbus and his associates on various Caribbean islands. Comparison between these three interactions leads to the conclusion that the encounters were parts of a continuum, that prejudice and precedent influenced the actions of Christians, and that all three interventions were rationalized in similar, but not identical, fashion.10 Also consideration in this volume of the ‘universalization of brutality’ recognizes that the increased incidence of mass violence, which unquestionably characterized the early modern centuries, was as much ‘domestic as colonial’, and that violence in Europe and in foreign locations influenced each other to the extent that real and imagined atrocities in both spheres were depicted together, and sometimes fused, in printed literature of the period.11

Another subject of general interest is the extent to which the previous experience of European groups at establishing settlements within Europe, in Africa, or on various Atlantic islands influenced their promotion of human settlement in America, or determined the shape of those settlements. Cases cited are the supposed tendency of Spaniards to locate themselves in towns from which they might dominate the surrounding countryside, and of English, French, and Dutch settlers to fashion rural villages or seigniories in colonial settings.12 Such generalizations now carry less weight because of greater awareness of the diversity of settlements established by each European power in the Atlantic. On the other hand, greater respect is now being given to the extent to which the economic activity associated with any given colony shaped the pattern of settlement there. This has been demonstrated most effectively through the study of colonies dedicated to fishing or other maritime activity.13 Similarly, European settlements (whether in the Americas or in Asia) closely involved with the production of high-value goods for European or world markets attracted greater state involvement in the conduct and protection of trade. Contrariwise, settlers devoted to the cultivation and processing of agricultural goods experienced less state oversight, and possibly cherished greater individual freedom. However, attachment to freedom was necessarily compromised by the fact that, for much of our period, business in most (p. 8) European countries was conducted by merchant companies who had the political connections required to negotiate state monopolies.14

Efforts to compare and thus arrive at generalizations have, up to now, brought similarities more than differences into focus. To overcome this bias, many of our essayists devote particular attention to difference, none more stark than that between the European and African migrations that contributed to the peopling, or more accurately the re-peopling, of America.15 What they shared is that the overwhelming majority of the millions who crossed the Atlantic during our centuries were ‘forcibly transported; coerced to move either by enslavement, violence, economic dislocation, social and religious persecution of unstable political conditions’.16 Notwithstanding this commonality a fundamental contrast existed between European and African migrations over the question of volition. Essentially, the overwhelming majority of European emigrants to America, including indentured servants, but excluding convict migrants and those rounded up for expulsion in the aftermath of war, exercised some degree of choice concerning travel to America. Furthermore, some Europeans, increasingly so in the eighteenth century, made well-informed decisions about their American destinations. African migrants, on the other hand, were almost invariably people who had been enslaved after they had become captives in tribal warfare, or after slave raiders had forcefully taken them from their African villages. Captives then frequently passed through several hands before they eventually reached a slave-trading port on the Atlantic coastline where an African merchant would sell them to a European slave trader who, in turn, would convey his purchase to whichever American destination held out the prospect of best profit to the trader. European migrants (with the exception of convicts and war victims) usually made their own way to ports of embarkation, purchased or negotiated passage with ship captains, sometimes selected a ship heading for a particular destination, and enjoyed relative freedom of movement on the outward voyage. European migrants also frequently provided their own supplies of food and water for their crossing, or cooked their own food, whereas the captains of slave vessels assumed as much responsibility for the nurture, hygiene, and health of their human cargo as they did for keeping them in bondage.

Another fundamental difference related to gender balance. Men were in a distinct majority in all European migrations to America during the centuries in question and, in some instances, were overwhelmingly so. The sex ratio was however more evenly balanced in the African migration not least because in Africa more women than men were customarily forced into slavery, a function of field work in Africa being assigned to women workers, and African women slaves being required to satisfy sexual as well as labour appetites. Given that European traders were aware of the prejudice of planters against assigning harsh agricultural work to women, they had consistently solicited (p. 9) their African suppliers for more young male slaves. Their requests produced some rectification of the gender imbalance, but the American demand for slaves was such that a considerable number of African women necessarily became field slaves in several locations in America.

The two population flows also differed due to the much wider range of cultural, religious, linguistic, and geographic backgrounds from which African slaves, as opposed to European migrants, were drawn.17 Europeans who crossed the Atlantic usually went to colonies sponsored by their home country, and while some inclusivity was initially tolerated especially among the Iberians, exclusivity remained fairly rigid until the later decades of the seventeenth century. Thus, for example, people of Jewish or Irish Catholic lineage were considered different in Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic settlements, and individuals from the Channel Isles were considered strangers in New England towns. This closed character of migration began to ease somewhat after the mid-seventeenth century, and most conspicuously so in colonies of English and Dutch settlement which then began to draw people from more heterogeneous backgrounds to their Atlantic settlements. These included Scots, Irish, and Welsh from within the British monarchies, and settlers (Catholic and Protestant) from extensive areas of Germanic-speaking Europe, together with some Huguenots who had been exiled from France.

The societal contrast within the Atlantic world most frequently discussed is that between colonial British America and Iberian America, with British settlers allegedly remaining aloof from intermixture with other populations, and being more reluctant than others to engage in evangelization. The validity of all such generalities, including the supposition that the British were most active in building re-configurations of European social forms in an American setting, has been challenged by John Elliott, whose sustained comparison between experiences in the British and Hispanic worlds in America alludes to as many similarities as differences between the two experiences.18 The commonality of the British range of colonial experience with that of Atlantic empires carved out by other European powers becomes even more apparent when account is taken of the British involvement with the Caribbean which has not always been given due weight. This was Britain's most consequential presence in the Americas for most of the colonial period, and racial intermixing there was as widespread as in any other colonial society. Indeed, one of the principal products of scholarly endeavour on colonial British America over the past generation is the better appreciation of the importance to Britain of their presence in the Caribbean relative to that in their colonies on mainland America whose only significant contribution to increasing the wealth of the home country—which remained the ultimate seventeenth-century justification of all colonies—was fish from Newfoundland and tobacco from the Chesapeake. The value of each of these commodities was small compared with the value of (p. 10) sugar produced on the island colonies. Indeed the mainland colonies were to increase in relative importance in the minds of merchants and British officials over the course of the eighteenth century only because the demand for provisions to feed the escalating slave population in the Caribbean provided a new raison d 'être for the mainland colonies. Also eighteenth-century commercial and communications factors made it possible for the mainland colonies to become suppliers of food to the expanding population of Western Europe. These developments explain the major expansion in the number of European agricultural and artisanal settlers who went to settle in Britain's mainland colonies over the course of the eighteenth century. However, it would be teleological to suggest that this important development, which transformed the character of settlement in parts of mainland British America, could have been anticipated in previous centuries.

Although national segmentation of the Atlantic basin became a reality, as Portuguese, English, French, Dutch, and other European groups tried to emulate the achievements of the Spaniards and create their own colonies—thus explaining why some of these essays explore those entities separately—over time, the Atlantic world became increasingly integrated, particularly so in the economic sphere. As the eighteenth century proceeded, the overall volume and range of products criss-crossing the Atlantic escalated; the number of ships moving back and forth in circular orbits—creating ‘a common seaborne culture’19—rose enormously (1,500 vessels annually visited Saint-Domingue in the 1780s, for example, and more than twice that number were involved in the Atlantic wine trade); a significant fall in the ratio of crew to tons occurred; ships became bigger and sleeker; voyage times accelerated, and turnaround times in ports declined. Shipping also became more reliable and predictable, routes more regularized, and even though risk could never be eliminated, the probability of death on some maritime routes was less than on shore, and sea travel could be promoted as a health cure. Sophisticated marine insurance and financial services arose; harbour and dockside infrastructure grew apace; and transatlantic communication improved due to more reliable post, commercial press, and regular packet services. The density of economic exchanges deepened and thickened to the point where each ‘national’ development contributed to the enrichment of all.

A notable feature of this commercial system was the degree to which the informal, illicit, contraband sector evaded formal, regulated, and official constraints. In various parts of the Atlantic and at different times, one historian argues, ‘contraband trade dwarfed legal exchange’. Similarly, state control via monopoly, licence, and restriction gradually and imperfectly gave way to looser arrangements and more self-organized, decentralized agents. The French relaxed their exclusif, the Spanish shifted to comercio libre, the Dutch persisted in the transit business, the English experimented with free ports, and if Portugal was odd man out because of its reliance on the Company of Grão Pará and Maranhão to develop new export commodities, it was in part because for (p. 11) them ‘mercantilism and protectionism were [always] conceits rather than attainable goals’. Different imperial models of trading relations obtained, but overall there was a trend to greater openness and porosity; and even the Portuguese developed a freer trade regime in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, which became open after 1808.20

The number of ‘revolutions’ that historians have posited for this period—a sugar revolution, a consumer revolution, and an information revolution, to name but three—suggests that economic transformation in the Atlantic world was dramatic. Whether a true consumer revolution, such as T. H. Breen has adumbrated for Britain's colonies on mainland North America, occurred throughout the entire eighteenth-century Atlantic world remains debatable, but tastes certainly expanded enormously, diets were transformed, luxuries became necessities, and consumption patterns were profoundly altered. Tobacco smoking became widespread; Atlantic wines, coffee, chocolate, rum, and tea became popular drinks, even if expenditures on them were always a small part of most household budgets; while, in all Atlantic colonies, pottery, clothing, jewellery, firearms, and metal goods were in great demand. The profits of Atlantic trade did not generate the European industrial revolution, but the Atlantic's edibles and consumables helped replenish European human ‘energy systems’, allowing the continent to overcome Malthusian constraints, and enabling African populations to sustain the Atlantic slave trade.21

Geography facilitated integration. Prevailing winds and currents—clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern—help explain why Western Europe became the centre of the slave trade in the northern hemisphere and Brazil became its base in the southern hemisphere. Since the continental areas drained by rivers emptying into the Atlantic are about twice as great as those entering into the Pacific and Indian oceans combined, this single ocean's extensive riverine systems encouraged the deep penetration of hinterlands. Because ports on the Atlantic were always more tightly connected to oceanic-borne influences than interior locations, the distinction between ‘near’ and ‘far’ Atlantics, used in a Central American context, has more general applicability. In addition, islands were especially vital connectors and way stations. The prototype for plantation sugar production emerged on Atlantic islands such as Madeira and São Tomé off the coast of Africa; these same islands then became crucial places of exchange when their sugar booms faded; and yet other African islands, close to shore, sometimes located in rivers, became key centres of the slave trade; and (p. 12) the sugar-producing Caribbean islands, particularly in the French and British cases, became the hubs of empire.22

Integration was far from just economic or geographic. In the legal realm, institutions such as prize courts arose to deal with the rise of inter-imperial commercial competition; conversely, as planters grappled with the policing of their slaves, so they borrowed provisions of slave codes from neighbouring empires in a process of inter-imperial emulation. The scores of scientific expeditions as well as hundreds of individual engineers, botanists, architects, artists, and city planners who moved around the Atlantic collecting and forwarding useful data—experiencing, experimenting, eye-witnessing, and then regularizing, systematizing, and universalizing—contributed enormously to a circum-Atlantic exchange of knowledge, to which the rise of racial science was just one dimension. In familial arrangements, Atlantic migrations created in many places ‘quasi marriage-free zones’ or at the very least ‘marriage-challenged zones’.23 The ‘consolidating and integrative’ type of Atlantic polity embraces in its very name the absorptionist, expansionist, and incorporative forces that shaped the Atlantic world; and justifies consideration of, say, the Iroquois confederacy, the kingdom of Asante, and the Dutch empire in one analytical frame.24 In terms of imperial governance, centralized authority was generally premised on delegation, on overlapping compromises, and above all on negotiation with local elites. Transatlantic exchanges even spurred a greater attention to the senses throughout the Atlantic world, leading some to propose a universal sensus communis.25

The existence of creoles, neither immigrants nor indigenes, but locally born peoples usually drawn either from newcomers alone or from mixtures of newcomers and natives, increasingly self-aware and conscious of themselves as separate and distinctive, contributed another distinguishing shared commonality to the Atlantic world. The word ‘creole’ (in Portuguese crioulo and Spanish criollo) originally referred to the offspring of Old World progenitors born in the New World (it even extended to plants and animals of Old World origin but produced in the New). More recently, linguists have appropriated the term to refer to the mixed languages that emerged among the native-born or slaves in contact situations; and increasingly the term has been more widely applied not just in the Americas but also in the Atlantic more broadly, to particularly cosmopolitan peoples noted for their cultural plasticity and social adaptability. The process of creolization in Africa is associated with cultural hybridity as people of mixed African and European ancestry, or Africans with no European antecedents but who worked closely with Europeans, became in effect bi-cultural people. Scholars term them Afro-Europeans or Eurafricans, and occasionally creoles. In the Americas creoles could be either slaves or members of the elite, as long as they were locally born. In the Hispanic world, by the eighteenth century the phenomenon of (p. 13) creole patriotism emerged, with local elites resenting the pretensions of penisulares (Spaniards), and lauding their combined indigenous and Hispanic pasts; the North American patriots who fought the British generally refrained from using a term with such Hispanic associations, preferring to describe themselves as ‘American’ or ‘British-American’, although those patriots who perpetrated the Boston Tea Party did attire themselves as Mohawk Indians. Whether local populations embraced or repudiated hybridity, it was a fact, and the emergence of creole populations throughout the Atlantic—however varied they were—was proof of commonality.26

War, always a catalyst of change, served to integrate as well as to divide, because, during wartime, empires often relaxed normal restrictions. Foreign ships might, for example, be welcomed for provisioning and trading purposes, thus encouraging interimperial cooperation, even as conflicts raged. The very word ‘Atlantic’ to describe the ocean became especially current during times of imperial warfare, precisely because awareness of that maritime space heightened during a crisis. Europeans as a whole waged war differently from Native Americans and Africans—on a larger scale, more lethally, and more unrestrainedly. Over time, however, convergence occurred as Native Americans and Africans adopted muskets as their principal armaments and engaged in more efficient killing along European lines. However, divergence was also apparent, as Europeans increasingly observed conventions for the conduct of warfare in their home theatre, even as it increased in scale, whereas smaller, unlimited, frenzied, frontier wars became more usual in the rest of the Atlantic. Also as warfare in Europe became more formalized and confined to discrete periods, it became a continuous feature of life in the rest of the Atlantic world.

While warfare in some respects rendered the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century a more integrated space, it (and particularly the Seven Years War, 1756–63, the first truly global war) also contributed to its re-segmentation into multiple polities, and in two phases. First this major conflagration involved most European powers, and conflict extended to overseas possessions because these were perceived to be contributing ever more significantly, and in many different ways, to the wealth of the states that competed for European hegemony. Then, in the interest of covering the costs of the debts that had accrued during the war, and of protecting territories that had been retained and/or gained, all Atlantic empires underwent a process of reorganization and reform. Metropolitan officials in Britain identified the looseness of imperial governance as a key problem and began efforts to tighten it. The French empire retooled and refocused on the Caribbean, which vigorously expanded. The Spanish Bourbons overhauled their army and navy, modernized their bureaucracy, improved university education, boosted mineral yields, and wrested control over church property. Portugal's Braganza rulers, and especially the chief minister, the marquis of Pombal, oversaw a comprehensive reform of their empire, including the expulsion of the Jesuits. Renovation programmes, which included everything from information collecting to (p. 14) agricultural improvement, and from better mapping to new penal codes, became part of the Enlightened state agenda.27

These reform programmes clarified the boundaries between the Atlantic empires of the various European powers whose governments became ever more determined to stamp out smuggling and other cross-border activity that had previously contributed to integration. To this degree war consciously contributed to segmentation of the Atlantic world, but it did so also in an unintended fashion because the reform programmes that were necessitated by the war produced resistance, revolt, and revolution almost everywhere. The first of these was the American War of Independence with its principal revolutionary outcome being the fashioning of a new republic from one large segment of what previously had been Britain's Atlantic empire. The origins of the American Revolution can be traced in no small measure to the attempt by the British Parliament to fund the 10,000 regulars stationed in North America at the end of the Seven Years War. In the Spanish world resentment of Bourbon policies designed to increase revenues and consolidate centralized control led to tax riots, culminating in the Comunero uprising in New Granada (modern Colombia) in the early 1780s. In the lusophone world, protests occurred in opposition to the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759, which in turn owed much to the war fought by the Guaraní Indians who had settled in Jesuit missions.

Another factor accelerating segmentation was that imperial crises with resulting creole independence movements made it increasingly difficult for Native Americans to maintain whatever autonomy they had enjoyed in the past. Some Native American groups had been able to use balance of power diplomacy and diverse trading partners to maintain some cultural integrity, while those more deeply incorporated into the Atlantic economy through labour drafts or virtual enslavement had maintained some independence of action in their various engagements with Atlantic markets. As Native Americans were deprived of European protectors and dealt directly with white creoles who coveted both their labour and property, they became engaged with nativist movements that rejected all things Euro-American, and which were as much directed against mixed-race collaborators as they were against Euro-American oppressors. The emergence of American nation-states as one of the outcomes of segmentation therefore doomed the play-off system and generally forced two outcomes on Native Americans—subordinated incorporation or marginalized dependency—both of which cut them off from extensive participation in the Atlantic world.

How the American Revolution played out is well understood but it involved only thirteen mainland colonies, and the places in the British Atlantic empire that were most different from Britain—the West Indies, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and the Floridas—were the ones that remained loyal to the empire, from concerns either of security or of economic interest. Because the new state that emerged after its successful pursuit of war shared much with Britain in customs, laws, religion, and political economy, it was soon (p. 15) reincorporated into the world of Atlantic commerce with which North American merchants had been previously associated. One of its unforeseen consequences was that the pursuit of American independence advanced the antislavery agenda, but more so in Britain, where the loss of its thirteen colonies produced much soul searching, than in the newly emerged United States.

By way of contrast, the Revolution in Saint-Domingue was far more transformative than its American counterpart, because it involved a greater mass mobilization, saw more destruction, and resulted in the polity of Haiti determined to terminate the trade that underpinned the Atlantic commercial world. The 1791 slave uprising was the largest and most successful in history, and struck against slavery where the institution was strongest. Still it was replete with paradoxes. Although the Revolution was the worst nightmare of slave owners throughout the Americas, it stimulated a huge expansion of slavery elsewhere. Although slaves sometimes spoke in the language of republicanism, more often they presented themselves as defenders of church and king. In the beginning, the massive revolt furthered the abolitionist cause, but its excesses soon put abolitionists on the defensive. The example of Haiti might have encouraged slave resistance elsewhere in the Americas, but its immediate consequence was to make slave regimes more vigilant and stronger. Haiti, in the words of one historian, was ‘both unforgettable and also unrepeatable’.28

If the American Revolution arose out of a crisis of integration, the Spanish American revolutions proceeded from a crisis of disintegration, when Napoleon's armies invaded Spain in 1808. And in the same way that most whites and free coloured activists in Saint-Domingue wanted self-rule and not independence, so most Spanish American creoles professed loyalty to the monarchy while seeking to expand their local autonomy. Although a plurality of creole patriotisms emerged within Spain's colonial empire all were too circumscribed to generate national movements for independence from Spain, and it was only the dissolution of the Spanish Monarchy that forced dissidents to move beyond seeking home rule within the traditional framework of the Spanish imperial monarchy. However, given the complex multi-racial composition of the populations within the several segments of Spain's Atlantic empire, the process of gaining independence proved almost as devastatingly costly in Spanish America as in Saint-Domingue. The savagery of civil war was, to a degree, related to the extent of ethnic divisions. Blacks and mulattos often formed the backbone of militia regiments drawn into the various conflicts; both sides armed slaves; and Indians and mestizos formed a majority of soldiers in some armies. The length and ferocity of the Spanish American revolutionary wars were notable, but once independence of the several new states had been achieved nobody could contemplate a return to the old regime given the sheer human cost of winning independence.

Historians frequently explain how all Atlantic revolutions were interconnected, with each one (and revolution also within France) successively influencing and informing the next. While not denying the importance of such linear influence, these essays point (p. 16) to the ways in which the totality of revolutions led to the disintegration of what had previously been a reasonably coherent Atlantic trading world. Also, while emphasizing revolution and nation-building, the essays also devote attention to places where the revolutionary message did not take hold, with, for example, the Haitian experience becoming an obstacle to decolonization in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. Brazil too proved largely impervious to Haiti's siren call, and its slave rebelliousness was inspired more by the discontent of the Muslim population of West Africa, many of whom were dispatched across the Atlantic as slaves in the aftermath of civil conflict there, than by Enlightenment ideology. In a reverse direction, the effects of the Atlantic revolutions on Africa were minimal. That the French abolition of slavery in 1794 did not extend to Senegal is telling, while Sierra Leone, conceived as an experiment in the viability of free labour in Africa, proved a failure. And while the abolitionist cause had advocates in almost every European and American polity, most African elites remained opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. Moreover, the shift from trading in slaves to so-called legitimate commerce probably increased demand for slaves in Africa, where they came to be employed in the production of the vegetable oils that became the staple of West Africa's exports. As a corollary, the adoption of revolutionary principles and the abandonment of the slave trade in various new states in the Americas did not necessarily bring an end to the institution of slavery; in fact, the number of people bound in slavery expanded greatly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

From the mid-fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, the Atlantic world formed a distinct regional entity. Its peculiar mix of idealism and exploitation, noble aspirations and brutal dynamism, had long coexisted in uneasy tension. But by the end of the period, the region's original integrity was breaking apart. The emergence of nation-states in some places and deepening colonialism in others was one major dichotomy. Those places where slavery was expanding and those where the institution was on the road to extinction constituted another fundamental division. The development of steam-powered transport in the nineteenth century meant that ever-increasing numbers of Europe's poor, including people from the eastern and southern extremes of that continent, could gain access to an Atlantic world for the first time. However, since the Atlantic world of this volume was one forged by trade, the overbearing factor is that by the early nineteenth century, American as well as European traders were able to (and did) operate on a global scale, and learned how to navigate the Pacific Ocean as readily as they did the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Consequently, the different commercial segments of the globe, which, with the exception of the Portuguese and possibly the Dutch overseas empires, had previously been linked to each other indirectly, principally through European hubs, became part of a single global market, which extended even to the market in human labour.29 This (p. 17) shift was symbolized by the reluctant abandonment of slavery, as well as the slave trade (which together had been predominant characteristics of the Atlantic world) throughout the Americas as the nineteenth century proceeded, and the growing importation of a lowly paid primarily male work force from the more densely populated parts of Asia into the previous slave plantations.

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——— and Patricia L. Denault (eds.), Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830 (Cambridge, MA, 2009).Find this resource:

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Notes:

(1) For examples of recent synoptic works, see Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan (eds.), Atlantic History: A Critical Reappraisal (Oxford, 2009); Bernard Bailyn and Patricia L. Denault (eds.), Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830 (Cambridge, MA, 2009).

(2) Chapter by Elizabeth Mancke.

(3) Chapter by Laurie Benton.

(4) Chapter by Ken Mills.

(5) Chapter by Robin Law.

(6) Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds, 2 vols. (London, 1972–3).

(7) K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge, 1985); O. Prakash, European Commercial Expansion in Early Modern Asia (London, 1997).

(8) Stephen D. Behrendt, ‘Ecology, Seasonality, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade’, in Bailyn and Denault (eds.), Soundings in Atlantic History, 44–85.

(9) D. B. Quinn, The Elizabethans and the Irish (Ithaca, NY, 1966), esp. 106–22.

(10) David Abulafia, The Discovery of Mankind: Atlantic Encounters in the Age of Columbus (New Haven, CT, 2008).

(11) Chapter by Jean-Frédéric Schaub.

(12) D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (New Haven, CT, 1986–98); D. H. Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four English Folkways in America (Oxford, 1989).

(13) Michael Jarvis, In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680–1783 (Chapel Hill, NC, 2010).

(14) Chapter by David Hancock.

(15) The phrase comes from Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (New York, 1986).

(16) Chapter by William O'Reilly.

(17) Chapter by David Eltis.

(18) John Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830 (New Haven, CT, 2006).

(19) Chapter by N. A. M. Rodger.

(20) Wim Klooster, ‘Inter-Imperial Smuggling in the Americas, 1600–1800’, in Bailyn and Denault (eds.), Soundings in Atlantic History, 141–80; Jorge M. Pedreira, ‘From Growth to Collapse: Portugal, Brazil, and the Breakdown of the Old Colonial System (1760–1830)’, Hispanic American Historical Review, 80/4 (2000), 839–64; Alan L. Karras, Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History (Lanham, MD, 2010); chapter by John Russell-Wood.

(21) T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York, 2005); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton, NJ, 2000).

(22) John R. Gillis, Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World (New York, 2004).

(23) Chapter by Carole Shammas.

(24) Chapter by Elizabeth Mancke.

(25) Chapter by David Shields.

(26) Charles Stewart (ed.), Creolization: History, Ethnography, Theory (Walnut Creek, CA, 2007).

(27) Gabriel Paquette (ed.), Enlightened Reform in Southern Europe and its Atlantic Colonies (Burlington, VT, 2009).

(28) David P. Geggus (ed.), The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Charleston, SC, 2001), 4, 13; Derek R. Peterson (ed.), Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa, and the Atlantic (Athens, OH, 2010).

(29) Kevin H. O'Rourke and Jeffrey G. Williamson, ‘When did Globalisation Begin?’ and ‘Once More: When did Globalisation Begin?’, European Review of Economic History, 6 (2002), 23–50 and 8 (2004), 109–17.