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the Atlantic World in World History


Incorporating the Atlantic into World History Teaching

Rebecca Hayes


     As a community college professor and instructor of world history, I struggle, as do many    of my colleagues, with incorporating global themes and narratives in a balanced way that allows me to touch on different civilizations with some measure of equality. The subject of the Atlantic World and its role in the world history survey course was a topic at the 2017 World History Association Conference in Boston. At the conference, I presented alongside colleagues representing a traditional four-year university and a high school on the various approaches we take to incorporate the Atlantic World into our world history survey courses. The roundtable panel and the resulting discussion were quite stimulating and beneficial, with shared ideas ranging from lecture themes, to assignments, to source materials. Our mutual challenges, conclusions, and pedagogical theories, as well as my personal experiences as a community college professor, are the focus of this article.

     I teach at Northern Virginia Community College, a large multi-campus institution that has more than 76,000 students representing 180 countries. Teaching at a community college presents different hurdles than a four-year university as our professors typically have a five/five course load, primarily survey courses. Class sizes vary, but for myself and many others the class is capped at 30 students. With a number that large, one can imagine that the ability to have class discussion is its own particular challenge. Like most institutions, our survey is split into two parts with the first half of the course ending with 15th century exploration and a discussion of the Columbian Exchange and the Atlantic slave trade. As students can take the courses out of order, and as many only need one history course, I choose to begin my second half of the course with a direct focus on the Atlantic World and its place in world history. Starting with the Gunpowder Empires, and their themes of conquest and exploration, I then create a comparison model between European exploration and empire building in the "new world." A re-examination of the Columbian Exchange and the Atlantic slave trade leads us into a discussion of the impact on African societies overall. The next time the Atlantic World is introduced is with the theme of revolutions and the spread of nationalism throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. After teaching a course specifically on revolutions, I modified this section of the course to focus more on Saint Domingue/Haiti, as I have found most students are less familiar with the figures of Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines than they are with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Maximilien de Robespierre. The revolutions of Latin America continue to be neglected in the classroom, by teachers and students alike, and I have committed myself to the illumination of these issues as well as a more in-depth focus on the Atlantic World in the 20th century. In the past, I have relied on utilizing videos and reading assignments, based on both primary and secondary sources, to provide students with the opportunity to delve deeper into the subject matter. Thus, my teaching of Atlantic World themes has been fairly common; however, this is something that I will hopefully be changing this upcoming year. As every teacher knows, by increasing the focus in one area you must then decide to remove other material, which is not ideal. So, what other options exist for faculty who are not experts in the Atlantic World or Latin American history, but who wish to give it a larger role within a world history survey course?

Why Teach Atlantic History and How to Do It

     Before delving into the HOW, we should first examine WHY the Atlantic World should be incorporated as its own concentration within world history. Study of Atlantic history as its own discipline began in the 1990s with scholars arguing that by examining the transmission and exchanges of peoples and cultures throughout this region we can enhance our understanding of scholarship, connecting fields ranging from history to sociology to anthropology.1 Teachers of world history quickly picked up on the usefulness of this approach, realizing that it allows them to use personal narratives from minorities and marginalized groups and remove the nationalist, Eurocentric approach that tends to creep into many survey courses. The vast majority of Atlantic World scholarship has focused on the years between 1500 and 1800; however, that has been challenged by those seeking a longer history of the Atlantic, especially the notion that the nineteenth century brings an end to the "coherence" of the Atlantic World narrative.2 Within world history pedagogy, recent trends have tried to shift students away from nation-state history to provide them a broader framework for historical analysis. Matthew Smith argues that a focus on the Atlantic World encourages a "transnational perspective on the past . . . [and] articulates the historical connections between economic exchange and human relationships" which allows students to connect aspects of American, Caribbean, and African history within a larger framework.3 The struggle to teach students HOW to connect the overarching themes of world history as well as specific content from a global perspective has been a constant topic of discussion within this journal and at academic conferences.

     Always challenging for any historian is the fact that most of us are specialists in narrowly focused fields. As an early modern British historian who holds minor fields in medieval Europe, ancient Greece/Rome, and Middle Eastern studies, I initially built my world history courses to reflect my own research strengths. Over time I have slowly modified the class as I engaged in research outside of my original areas. I have benefitted immensely from being involved in the AP World History Reading and World History Association, as I have shared ideas and learned much from both professors and high school teachers who have innovative and creative concepts for teaching the course. Discussions with colleagues who are Latin Americanists/Caribbean historians and collaboration with them regarding restructuring the Atlantic World sections of the course is my current focus. Indeed, trying to avoid the tendency to teach "everything" you know about your own field within a survey course is something with which most professors struggle as they begin their teaching careers. Even experienced lecturers fall into a pattern of teaching their surveys the same way; thus, we should all be mindful of the importance of restructuring and adopting new methods of arranging the course. Robert Strayer correctly points out that the goal of the world history survey course is "not specialized knowledge; it lies in seeing relationships, making comparisons, grasping connections, understanding the big picture." He argues that "context is everything." As one of our main goals is teaching students contextual thinking, building themes centered around the Atlantic World offers us a way to do so: "The making of an interacting Atlantic World might be juxtaposed with other sea based networks of communication and exchange in the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific."4 Utilizing themes based on transnational perspectives, such as the Atlantic World, can also continue to keep us away from Eurocentrism and provide a sound base for topics on globalization. Thus, by implementing an Atlantic World narrative within one's world history course we can continue to expand students' knowledge of global perspective. So, how can we achieve those outcomes within our courses?

Food as an Atlantic Theme

     New themes for incorporating the Atlantic World have been an ongoing source of discussion among the world history community. Recent ideas include a focus on food and the Columbian Exchange. In fact, the subject of the 2017 WHA conference was The Atlantic World and Food in World History. Zara Anishanslin believes that through a study of food and recipes students can better understand how peoples transformed each other's cultures, linking this to our own contemporary eating habits. She asks us to consider the following: "What would letting students look at Atlantic World history through a more personally meaningful lens do to their understanding of these faraway histories of contact and exchange? What would choosing recipes they love that are based on food that migrated transatlantically tell students not only about the past, but also about their own families and tastes?" The assignment she creates for students is based on choosing a recipe that has personal meaning to them or is just a favorite dish. Her established criteria are:

the recipe MUST be one that would not exist were it not for the Columbian Exchange and it must be a recipe, with more than one ingredient. First, describe the recipe. List its ingredients, identify its name, and provide information on how it's cooked. Second, go into more analytical and historical detail about it. What are the environmental origins of its ingredients? Which ones are those we can trace to the Columbian Exchange? Who first made it? And where? Why is the recipe important to you? What does it tell us about the contact between peoples and the exchanges of things that characterized Atlantic World history?5

A benefit to this type of an assignment is that it focuses students' attention away from the negative aspects of Atlantic history and gives them the opportunity to potentially explore their own culture and provide new ways of examining cultural connections, economic history, as well as globalization.

Other Atlantic Exchanges

     Students often struggle to separate the economic aspects of the Triangular Trade network from the biological transfers that occurred during the Columbian Exchange. While both of these Atlantic systems heavily impacted one another, it is imperative that students be able to discern how the exchange of food affected population growth (particularly the introduction of the potato to the British Isles), how Old World diseases decimated New World indigenous populations, and how silver mining and sugar plantations became major sources of wealth for Europe and led to an increase in exploration and ultimately settlement and colonization.

     Networks of exchange and communication that existed within the Atlantic World can be emphasized with an assignment created by secondary educators, which can also be adapted and expanded for college students. Students are asked to create a pictorial representation of the Columbian Exchange and Triangular Trade network, showing all the major peoples, plants, animals, and diseases. They must also demonstrate the ramifications on both the Old and New Worlds. They are not allowed to use any words, only symbols and images, but are required to create a key on the back of their map representing their symbols.6 By creating a pictorial, image-based assignment, students have a visual representation of the Columbian Exchange and Triangular Trade network, which de-emphasizes rote memorization of facts. Instead, such work allows students to grasp the ramifications of these systems and the broader connections linking not only cultures but important world history themes in the Atlantic World. One way to modify this assignment could be to have students conduct research on the resulting gender imbalance within West Africa, or using the African Origins website to research the historical origins of peoples captured and brought to the New World as slaves. David Northrup's Crosscurrents in the Black Atlantic, 17701967: A Brief History with Documents, can also be made available for students to experience working with primary sources that examine the political and social actions undertaken by Africans fighting to find freedom and equal treatment throughout the centuries. This would allow students to see Africans as more than just victims of the Atlantic slave trade. It also provides a concise overview of the African diaspora and provides a narrative, and documents, connecting the struggle against the slave trade with the 20th century civil rights movement.7

     Another wonderful tool for students and historians alike is Voyages: the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which provides records from almost 35,000 slave trading voyages. Jane Hooper demonstrates how this database can be used to teach students about historical research and help them understand the patterns of the Atlantic slave trade as well as mortality rates. After discussing the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on Africa, global trade, and the Industrial Revolution, she then asks students to examine the origins of the slave trade. With the following questions, she suggests you can quickly ascertain how much or how little they understand about those origins: "What region of the Americas imported the largest numbers of slaves from Africa? Which countries participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Why did the transatlantic slave trade end? How did European and American slave traders obtain slaves?" After completing a worksheet before class that has them gathering data and statistics from the database, she then has students during class divide into groups of three and create a list of questions that interest them; i.e. "What country imported the largest number of slaves? How much money did slave traders make? How many women were sold as slaves?" Students are given 20 to 30 minutes to work on collecting data before giving a group presentation sharing their findings and making sure to include graphs as well as maps. Following the presentations, the entire class discusses what surprised them about their results, the questions they could not find answers to within the database, and the limits historians face when trying to conduct research. This type of assignment is a wonderful way to introduce students not only to research methodology, but also the power of personal narratives, such as Olaudah Equiano's, to give a human connection to the data and statistics collected.8

Atlantic Revolutions

     As I mentioned earlier, students often know much less about Toussaint L'Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines then they do American and French revolutionary leaders. I have sought to remedy this not only by expanding my lecture on the Haitian revolution, but by assigning primary and secondary source materials for students to read and discuss in class. We read the letters of L'Ouverture and compare his words, and actions, with Napoleon Bonaparte and other revolutionary leaders. We also read the reactions to Haiti's revolt and independence, particularly from Europe and the U.S., the latter refusing to recognize Haiti's independence for 62 years. I then connect this into our future discussions on U.S. imperialism throughout the Atlantic world. We d examine how 19th and 20th century portrayals and depictions of L'Ouverture have evolved and changed, and students are often shocked to read the various treatments of L'Ouverture by writers ranging from William Wordsworth to Victor Hugo to Thomas Maidou. This leads to deeper discussions of racism, historical bias, and how historical narratives can be manipulated by writers, as well as the overall treatment of minorities and non-Western history in our textbooks and archives.

     Another way to expand our focus on the Atlantic World is to give students assignments on the 19th century Latin American revolutions. For example, reading excerpts from Simón Bolívar's Carta de Jamaica ("Jamaica Letter") and the American Declaration of Independence provides students the ability to see connections between theoretical Enlightenment ideals and their practical applications. The overall experience of Latin American independence movements, the resulting political and social tensions, and their larger role within 19th and 20th century Atlantic World history can also be emphasized. There is a wonderful repository of selected primary source materials on Brown University's website that links to the companion website for the Modern Latin American textbook. The site also provides sample student essays, discussion questions, suggested readings, and recommended films.9 The themes of revolution, the rise of dictators, the impact of decolonization on former colonies, the Cold War, all can be reflected within the Atlantic World and Latin America specifically.       

     The need to hear non-European voices and recognize the importance of bringing the Atlantic World deeper into 20th century discussions is convincingly argued by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall. She contends that a closer examination of the Haitian Revolution and its role in the 20th century can lead to a broader discussion for students that includes questions such as, "Whose history is recorded in archives, and whose history is remembered? How can historians try to uncover the ideas and experiences of non-elites?" Another focus is examining U.S. foreign policy in Haiti, particularly in helping to remove and support dictators. As Frederick Douglass, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 1889–1891, became an outspoken critic on U.S. treatment of Haiti, his speeches are an excellent source for students to study, as is the U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915–1934. Sepinwall also suggests assigning the reading of a 1920 NAACP report written by the African American diplomat, James Weldon Johnson, which was published in The Nation. Johnson, and several others, challenged President Woodrow Wilson's contention that U.S. intervention was based on humanitarian motives, arguing instead that economic gains were the true reason for the U.S. occupation. As mentioned previously, the idea of extending the Atlantic World narrative into the 20th century is convincingly made when focusing on Haiti during the Cold War. The U.S. government's backing of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier's 1956 military coup to "counter" communism in Cuba is another way to emphasize not only Cold War foreign policy, but to connect the Atlantic World to a global narrative. All of these themes merge nicely with a larger study of 19th and 20th century U.S. imperialism throughout world history, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin America. For those wishing to focus on economic globalization, the theme of international development aid, and its often detrimental impact, can be demonstrated by an examination of the Péligre Dam in central Haiti, which devastated the local people.10 Needless to say, there is a wealth of information and ideas we can glean from the Haitian experience that will give our students a much broader perspective and deeper understanding of the major themes connecting the Atlantic World and running throughout world history.


     Hopefully some of the themes and assignments discussed can be helpful to those instructors seeking to modify their world history courses and incorporate more of the Atlantic World. With recent changes to the AP World History course, now set to start c.1200, many are concerned about losing non-Western history. Thus, an Atlantic World focus is crucial in helping avoid Eurocentrism and bringing attention to not only the negative impact of colonization and imperialism, but highlighting the achievements and accomplishments of non-European groups. Extending our examination of the Atlantic World into the 20th century should also occur as it allows for not only a broader narrative of world history, but emphasizes the important role that the Atlantic World continues to play in international politics. For college professors, we should also challenge ourselves to introduce new narratives and recent scholarship into our survey courses. It is easy to grow stagnant in those introductory classes when we are also teaching upper-level courses that reflect our research fields and personal areas of interest. I am lucky to be able to teach 200 level courses on Britain and the Middle East; however, for many community college instructors, the only classes taught are the 100 level surveys. Thus, a way to keep yourself and your students engaged is to periodically revisit your course themes and assignments and make some changes. If nothing else, the websites and resources mentioned can serve as a catalyst for introducing subsets of the Atlantic World in outside research projects and paper topics. By no means does this article cover all Atlantic World themes for the world history survey. I have only introduced themes and concepts discussed in our roundtable discussion at the 2017 WHA and in conversations held between myself and other scholars. Nor does this article seek to admonish those who do not incorporate the Atlantic World, but instead encourage instructors to consider modifying their world history classes with new topics that can enrich and enhance an existing course. There are an abundance of resources, historiography, and sources beyond what I have mentioned. African, Caribbean, and Latin American research, and conversations with scholars in those fields, would be invaluable as we continue to discuss the role of the Atlantic World in the world history course. Further discussions on this topic in online forums, at conferences, and in journals will hopefully continue and allow for more collaboration, especially between secondary educators and professors. Above all, as historians and teachers we should push the boundaries of our survey courses and continue to challenge how we define world history and ultimately expand our own pre-conceived notions about the Atlantic World. By doing so, we enhance our courses, produce new paths for research, and demonstrate to students that the study of history itself is a living process that invites change.

Rebecca Hayes is currently serving as a Director for the College Board overseeing the AP Government and Politics courses. She was a full Professor of History, and the Honors Chair, at Northern Virginia Community College in Manassas, Virginia. While at NOVA, she was the Assistant Dean of Social Sciences from 2013–2015. She has also taught at Mississippi College in 2003–2008 and at the American University in Dubai in 2015–2016. Dr. Hayes’ research and publications focus on political factionalism and the Anglo-Irish during the Restoration period. She has taught a wide range of courses in world history and was recently part of the leadership team for the Advanced Placement World History Reading. She can be reached at


1 Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2005).

2 Donna Gabaccia, "A long Atlantic in a wider world," Atlantic Studies 1 (1), 1–27, 2004; David Northrup, "Chronological Limits of Atlantic History," presented at the World History Association, Boston, 2017; Alison Games, "Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities," The American Historical Review, Volume III, Issue 3, 1 June 2006; Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

3 Matthew Smith, "Baffled by the Doldrums? Teaching the Atlantic in World History," World History Connected, June 2008.

4 Robert Strayer, "The Centrality of Context in World History: Teaching the Twentieth-Century," World History Connected, June 2018.

5 Zara Anishanslin, "A Recipe for Teaching Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange," The Recipes Project, 26 November 2015,

6 Thomas Sakole, "The Great Exchange Activity"

7 African Origins,; David Northup, ed. Crosscurrents in the Black Atlantic, 17701965: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press, 2008).

8 Jane Hooper, "The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in World History: Using the Voyages Database in the Classroom," World History Connected, October 2013,

9 Thomas Skidmore, Peter Smith and James Greene, Modern Latin America, 8th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

10 Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, "Teaching about Haiti in World History: An Introduction," World History Connected, June 2013,

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