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“What is Atlantic History?”

By Michael Jiménez and Marcus Rediker

Atlantic History is an increasingly dynamic field of historical scholarship and teaching based on the notion that the Americas, Africa, and Europe have composed a “regional system” from the late fifteenth century to the present. The study of this “system” has three principal venues. First, it offers rich opportunities for comparative history of its subregions, focusing on a host of issues, from economic structures to state formation, to political discourses and institutions, to the complex relations, identities, and practices of class, race, and gender. Second, the “system” presents a broad range of topics on the relationships or linkages between different subregions. Some of the most exciting contemporary research focuses on the connections across time and space in the Atlantic world: migration and diasporas, commerce and financing, scientific, military, and technological diffusion, artistic production and sensibilities, transmission of disease, conquest, colonization, and imperialism, and, of particular importance, race relations. Third, Atlantic History plays a crucial role in the explorations of “global” or “world” history. As research and writing unfold in this regional area, they will necessarily involve both comparisons with other regional or cultural areas (Pacific Rim, the Islamic world, Eurasia, Western “civilization,” etc.) and the impact of interactions with these in the histories of the Atlantic components and as the “system” as a whole.

The proximate origins of Atlantic History reside in the post-World War II era: the Cold War, the remaking of the global economy, the rise of the Third World, and the search for a unifying cultural legacy in the North Atlantic. One of the principal academic products of that era was Robert R. Palmer’s sweeping two-volume The Age of Democratic Revolution (1959, 1964), which synthesized decades of monographic work by scholars in the United States and Western Europe into a broad Atlantic vision. Despite Palmer’s many limitations, the breadth and boldness of his vision was – and remains – striking. His approach to the upheavals of the late eighteenth century illuminated an “Atlantic system,” laid out important points of comparison between North America and Western Europe, and encouraged inquiry into the connections between movements and processes of considerable geographical scope. At its heart was the nature and legacy of “western civilization.”

Much, of course, has changed in the world, and the historical profession, since Palmer told his rather seamless story, but his work still provides an essential starting point as well as inspiration for many scholars who in recent years have begun to study afresh the movement of peoples, cultures, politics, and ideas in a broad Atlantic context. In doing so, they have invigorated economic and social history, intellectual, literary, and cultural studies, ethnohistory, and historical sociology. And they have also provided an opportunity and the tools by which to affirm and redesign Atlantic Studies at the beginning of a new century.

The recent renaissance in Atlantic History has several dimensions. In the first place, the definition of the Atlantic is being expanded beyond Palmer’s relatively narrow northern rim to include all four of its corners: Europe, Africa, and North and Latin America. The extraordinary growth in scholarship on Africa, the Caribbean, Brazil, and Spanish America in recent decades now makes possible a fuller, richer, and more complex history. The study of slavery has, for example, been amply transformed by our much greater knowledge of slave regimes on the African continent before and during the era of forced shipment of people across the Atlantic, as well as the social and cultural diversity which Africans brought with them to the Americas.

The temporal dimensions of Atlantic History are also being altered. The eighteenth century remains a key conjuncture, as shown by the continuing scholarly attention to the American, French, Haitian, and, later, Spanish American, Revolutions. At the same time early modern scholars have brought the Atlantic dimensions of European history into clearer view. From new research on religion and missionary activity to state formation, these historians have sharpened comparative inquiry and demonstrated the linkages and interactions among different areas. Western European regional and national identities, it now seems certain, were forged through encounters with other areas of the world, especially the Americas and Africa.

On the other hand, as points of comparison and linkages have assumed ever wider, global dimensions in the past two centuries, the “modern” era remains a crucial, and growing arena for Atlantic History. Scholars have shown great interest in reassessing the legacies of the “age of democratic revolutions” on a much wider canvas than the original North Atlantic; liberalism and republicanism in Latin America have been the object of a powerful renewal of interest in that region’s intellectual and political history, and is sure to promote greater interest in parallel and interrelated processes and episodes elsewhere in the Atlantic world. Concurrently, it should be noted, political scientists and others have been addressing similar questions with regards to the recent transitions from authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Such a regional approach provides especially good opportunities to challenge the national boundaries of most twentieth century histories.

Finally, the changes in historical method and writing over the last forty years present major opportunities to reframe the political and intellectual style of early Atlanticism. Of singular importance, over the long term, has been the social history that moved beyond Palmer’s mail upper- and middle-class actors in national politics. We now possess considerably more knowledge of previously ignored workers and peasants, women, and peoples of many nations, races, and ethnicities – in intensively studied regions, villages, and neighborhoods throughout the Atlantic world. This scholarship presages ever more fruitful research on the commonalities and differences of working people, as well as the connections among them occasioned by migration and other exchanges and interactions. These advances in social history have been accompanied by wide-ranging studies of economic and institutional history; the Atlantic system and its subregions are now major arenas for scholarship on a wider range of topics than ever before, from entrepreneurship to household economies to “informal” and “underground” exchange to the complex story of welfare states. Emergent cultural studies have found an important berth in Atlantic History as well. Scholars focusing on gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity have found in the Atlantic a particularly fertile ground; some of the most stimulating explorations in these areas are taking place in colonial, imperial, and post-colonial studies. They are also having a significant impact on redefining political history, which appears to involve a fundamental reworking of the liberal and modernization paradigms which lay at the heart of the earlier Atlantic project. We can only conclude that Atlantic History is an idea whose time has come again.

[Published in the CPAS Newletter: The University of Tokyo Center for Pacific and Asian Studies (October 2001)]