Atlantic history has emerged as an important field of research and teaching in recent years. While many aspects of it – from definition to relevance – are contested, no one can deny its importance as a field. As a slice of World History, it brings many disciplines and scholars together. Area specialists, especially those whose work is outside the scope of Atlantic history, have expressed concern that Atlantic history is being used as a replacement for the competing field of African Diaspora or to minimize the teaching of African history in the Western academy. Where this suspicion is correct and taken to heart, it may have the positive impact on the field, just as the critiques of the Eurocentrism of World History created new ways of presentation and teaching. If Atlantic history has the cumulative impact of marginalizing area studies, the backlash may also doom its future. Devoid of the politics, the value of this field is enormous, not the least for promoting conversations by specialists in European, American, Latin American, Caribbean and African histories.
While this book encourages such a conversation, its origin as conference papers presented at Harvard University’s Atlantic History Seminar means that each author faces a specific task without reference to a whole. Thus the subject matter ranges widely, touching on Hume, ecology, smuggling, Congo, Brazil, science and much more. Each chapter is well written, supported by massive data and powerful interpretations. To be sure, the connections in the chapters are not always apparent, and the time span is extensive. The cumulative impact is clear: the presentation of an Atlantic World lasting ten generations with far-reaching impact on the emergence of modernity, the creation of a global capitalist economy, the use of science and technology in the service of imperialism, and the conquest of the World by European nations.
The introduction, aptly titled “Reflections on Some Major Themes,” by the distinguished co-editor Bernand Bailyn, is a gallant effort to unite the disparate chapters, while providing statements on the current state of the field and using the chapters to make connections with regard to a number of issues in Atlantic history over a period of three hundred years.
As with similar volumes, the power and influence of Europe loom large, indeed definitive, although some chapters, as in the one by David Hancock on “connection and control in the emerging Atlantic economy,” shows how the economy was jointly built by three continents – Africa, Europe and the Americas. However, the starting point in this volume is how Europe established contacts with the Americas, and how subsequent events shaped the Atlantic world. In the various activities by men and women, groups and companies, we see less of the emergence of a “global system” but different kinds of relationships, calculations, interactions and conflicts. Various chapters capture these activities: those by slave dealers preying on the innocents in Africa (for example, chapter two on the Kongo and Dahomey by Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton); plantation owners and farm cultivators; missionaries who spread far and wide in the three continents (as discussed in chapter 5 by J. Gabriel Martínez-Serna and chapter 6 by Rosalind Beiler) The problems that profit and land seekers encountered receive prominence, as in the need to respond to weather and ecological changes to travel and navigate the sea (chapter 1 by Stephen D. Behrendt on “Ecology, Seasonality, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade”), as well as piracy and smuggling (chapter 4 by Wim Klooster on “Inter-Imperial Smuggling in the Americas, 1600-1800”).
As goods and people moved, so too did ideas on religion, politics, science and finance, creating “a pan-Atlantic intellectual world uniting London and Buenos Aires, Halle and Boston, Paris and Lima, Lisbon and Philadelphia” (p. 42). Aspects of the uses and spread of scientific ideas are well analyzed in chapter 9 by Londa Schiebinger. A chapter by Emma Rothschild uses David Hume, the prominent scholar of the Enlightenment, to comment on how he and some in his generation were thinking about the Atlantic world during the eighteenth century. A chapter by Jorge Carnizares-Esguerra examines the conception of colonization. Using Boston as a case study, Mark A. Peterson shows that there were serious thinking about the “world” during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. How these ideas connected places and influenced politics and society are delineated in chapter 11 by Beatriz Davilo.
All the chapters are extensively researched, presenting us with new ideas and data on the connections made possible by the Atlantic, including the use to which ideas, science and technology were put to reshape the world. Engagingly written, the book demonstrates the shifting significance of the Atlantic World as well as its multiple significations in reality and over time. The Atlantic has made it possible to create a hybrid world, where what started as local ideas ultimately became globalized. Globalized localisms became globalized universalisms, enabling millions of people to subscribe to the same religions, read the same books and consume the same food. This book has enabled us to comprehend this mental and physical universe of the Atlantic World with enormous significance.