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the Atlantic World in World History


Atlantic History and World History1

David Northrup


     The first historians to write "Atlantic history" were concerned with telling the story of European colonization of the Americas. For the most part they emphasized great men in political and intellectual history. Their approach was transatlantic, but it was far from being circum-Atlantic, i.e., encompassing the entire Atlantic region. These practitioners tended to take a national approach, specializing in the Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, or Dutch colonies and empires and avoiding comparative approaches except for disparaging remarks about the activities of other nations. For the most part, these historians paid scant attention to Africans as active participants in transatlantic history and were also disinclined to give the native peoples of the Americas roles much beyond being obstacles to European triumphs.

     In recent decades a newer, more inclusive, comparative, and non-Eurocentric Atlantic history has been growing in popularity. While many hands participated in the transition to this newer Atlantic history, this essay emphasizes the important contributions that world historians have made in constructing and defining this new approach. World historians tend to approach Atlantic history from a broader perspective than colonial historians, both in terms of the time period considered and in their inclusion of the roles of the inhabitants of all four Atlantic continents. Even today, while colonial specialists play lip service to Atlantic history, in practice many cling to a narrow European-centered approach. One sign of how little such historians have embraced the new paradigm is that most historians of the colonial Americas today insist that the chronological boundaries of Atlantic history are the same as those of the colonial era in the Americas.

Crosby and Curtin in the Creation of Atlantic History

     Two individuals were particularly influential in promoting and popularizing a broader approach to Atlantic history. The first of these was Alfred W. Crosby, Jr. (1931–2018), a historian trained at Boston University, who wrote a transatlantic dissertation (later published) on trade between the early American republic and Russia. After teaching at various universities Crosby became a professor of history, American studies, and geography at the University of Texas at Austin. From his perspective, the discoveries and conquests of European men were overshadowed by the demographic transformations in the Americas due to the inadvertent transatlantic spread of non-human life forms. In his influential book, The Columbian Exchange, published in 1972, Crosby emphasized that the spread of plants, animals, and microbes in both directions across the Atlantic was least as fundamentally important as the spread of European ideas and cultures to the Americas. In 2009, Crosby and William H. McNeill were the first to be honored by the World History Association (WHA) as "Pioneers in World History."2

     In contrast to what he called "the bardic interpretation" of nineteenth-century historians, Crosby's retelling of Atlantic history was analytic, interdisciplinary, and comparative. The "Columbian exchange," a term he coined, went on to become a central chapter in the new Atlantic history. Asked how he came to write a book that has stayed in print for nearly half a century, Crosby gave a characteristically self-deprecating reply: "I was a young American historian teaching undergraduates. I tell you, after about ten years of muttering about Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, you really need some invigoration from other sources. Then, I fell upon it, starting with smallpox."3 Rather than constructing Atlantic history around the activities of European nations, Crosby framed it as a series of circum-Atlantic encounters and exchanges in which Amerindians and Africans were not just victims but also major contributors to shaping a new Atlantic world. The calamitous demographic collapse of the native population of the Americas due to smallpox and other newly introduced diseases coincided with the rising importance of the plants they had domesticated (especially potatoes and maize) in the social and demographic history of Europe and Africa, as well as in the Americas. His reframing of the historical narrative also changed the causal dynamics of the story. Instead of the usual tale of heroic conquerors, he argued that humble microbes were the central actors in the new Atlantic history. "The decisive advantage of the [European] invaders of the Americas," Crosby argued, "was not their plants or animals—and certainly not their muskets and rifles…—but their diseases." Crosby also gave greater attention to the importance of the forced migration of Africans to the Americas, noting that the "mass of African immigrants arrived in America before the mass of Europeans."4

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., with the permission of Robert Benchley.  

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Philip D. Curtin.  

     Crosby's contribution to reframing the history of the Atlantic was complemented by a second pioneer of the new Atlantic history, Philip D. Curtin (1922–2009), who was also a much-celebrated pioneer of African history and an underappreciated pioneer of world history. In his autobiography Curtin describes how, as a doctoral student at Harvard in 1948–53, he strived to stretch the history department's very Eurocentric fields to include other parts of the world. In his field in modern France he wrote a transatlantic research paper about Haiti. Similarly, his dissertation for his modern British field was about Jamaica.

     During his subsequent teaching in 1953–56 Curtin worked to drag the stodgy, Eurocentric history program at Swarthmore College onto the global stage, adding courses on the British Empire and European expansion, both of which balanced the activities of non-European peoples and those of Europeans. On a research leave during his final year at Swarthmore, he expanded his competence in world history by taking courses in East Asian history at Columbia, by teaching himself Latin American history, and by traveling widely in West Africa to study the region's transition from colonialism to independence.

     At the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1956–75) Curtin initially taught courses in the history of Latin American, the British empire, European expansion, and Africa. In time he was instrumental in founding a pioneering African studies program and a program in Comparative Tropical History (later, as its scope grow, renamed the program in Comparative World History.) His later work on Atlantic history combined his early Caribbean and Latin American work with his newer interests in tropical Africa, the Atlantic slave trade, and the tropical Atlantic. While Curtin's importance in building world history programs was never recognized by the WHA, he did manage to serve as president of both the African Studies Association and the American Historical Association (AHA). He also won a MacArthur Genius Award in 1983. In his presidential address to the AHA in 1983 he hailed world history as a better introductory course than Western civilization and advocated global courses clearly focused on important issues as a superior alternative to surveys of the entirety of human history.5

     One part of Curtin's work emphasized that Africans were rational and willing participants in Atlantic trade, not merely victims of it. In his teaching and research he demonstrated that enslaved Africans in the Americas, besides being a vital labor force, also made major contributions to the demographic and cultural reconstruction of the Americas. Among the many contributions he made to Atlantic history was the careful reconstruction of the origins, volumes, and destinations of the transatlantic slave trade over time. His pioneering efforts to recalculate the size of the transatlantic slave trade became the cornerstone on which other historians constructed the massive database ( that has revolutionized the study of the slave trade, slave demography in the Americas, and the cultural connections between Africa and the Americas.6

     Curtin's scholarship complemented Crosby's in unseating the older interpretations of the Atlantic. As world historians, both rejected Eurocentric approaches and prejudices and embraced interdisciplinary approaches and broad comparative perspectives. Nevertheless, many of those trained in the colonial history of the Americas still approach Atlantic history in ways that appear odd to world historians. The next part of this essay focuses on the chronological boundaries of Atlantic history and the meaning of the Atlantic as a region in world history.

Does Atlantic History Have Fixed Chronological Boundaries?

     Many world historians of the Atlantic were trained in area studies (as was the author of this essay). Area-studies programs dealing with Africa, the Middle Eastern, South Asia, and East Asia are geographically defined and open-ended chronologically. The newer maritime area studies based on the Pacific and Indian oceans likewise do not impose chronological limits. However, by focusing on the period of Spanish and Portuguese rule in the Americas, traditional Latin American studies tend to be at odds with the chronological openness of both land-based and ocean-based area studies.7

     When participating in the writing of Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, this author was struck by the tenacity with which most specialists in the colonial period of Latin America and Anglo-America held that the chronological limits of Atlantic history were those of the colonial period. Trained in the history of particular European nations' colonial enterprises, these historians found it difficult, impossible, or unnecessary to rethink the parameters of the evolving Atlantic field. Even though British imperial history is customarily divided into two fields: the first empire in the Americas and the second in Asia, Africa, and Australia, historians of the first empire rarely occupy themselves with the second, being more likely to pay attention to the post-revolutionary history of the United States. This is also true of the field of Latin American history, which is customarily divided into a colonial period that is more transatlantic and a national period of independence that is more inward looking. Until recently, for example, it was unusual for historians of Brazil to show much interest in Portugal's imperial ventures on the African side of the Atlantic.8

     In his erudite introduction to the field of Atlantic history, Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn carefully documents how historians of the early modern colonial period were late in moving outside of the limits of national colonial history to embrace a circum-Atlantic perspective. As he points out, it was journalists and diplomats who were the first to raise the idea of an Atlantic community, beginning with Walter Lippmann's influential essay in the New Republic in 1917 that urged American intervention in the Great War. Having taken pains to show that the idea of an Atlantic community was born with the twentieth century, Bailyn curiously continues his survey of the field by confining himself exclusively to the events of the colonial centuries.

     The chronological frontiers implicit in Bailyn's little book are part of an explicit consensus among colonial historians who embrace an Atlantic perspective. In a much-cited article in the American Historical Review in 2006 Alison Games defends colonial historians' dominant position: the Atlantic, she writes, as a "region enjoyed a coherence for almost four hundred years, [involving the] emergence of empires, the movement of people, the evolution of new cultural forms, and the circulation of ideas." This coherence, she asserts, has a specific chronology, which "ended in the nineteenth century." In similar terms, the distinguished editors of the Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World declare that Atlantic history began no earlier than 1450 and ended by 1850, arguing that during those four centuries "the Atlantic world formed a distinct regional entity," which then broke apart. David Armitage agrees, arguing somewhat contradictorily, like Bailyn, that Atlantic history is both a quite recent field and has "a distinguished pedigree" for confining its chronological span to the period between the first voyage of Columbus and the end of the Age of Revolutions.9 In the face of such a powerful consensus, most authors of Atlantic history textbooks tend to cover the colonial centuries, although some extend the terminal date to 1888, or even 1900, and, for murky reasons, place the beginning date at 1400.10

When Did Atlantic History Begin?

     In contrast, other Atlantic historians prefer a more open-ended perspective. The last chapter in Crosby's 1972 book is entitled "The Columbian Exchange Continues." A distinguished collection of essays entitled The Atlantic in Global History, 15002000 rejects an ending point in the 1800s. Some critics suggest that some would-be Atlantic historians are actually imperial historians in disguise. Such critical views may be in the minority at the moment, but those who teach world history surveys are finding that much is to be gained by freeing Atlantic history from the colonial confines.11

     The conventional terminal date of Atlantic history is critiqued below, but let's begin by challenging the assumption that transatlantic history began with Columbus's first voyage. To be sure, Columbus's voyages were a watershed in Atlantic and world history, but they were not the first transatlantic crossings. The medieval centuries saw many other crossings and attempted crossings. The Vikings repeatedly and successfully traversed the Atlantic from the tenth century. Irish mariners may have made occasional crossings as early as the sixth century. The ruler of the West African empire of Mali made two attempts to explore the Atlantic in the thirteenth using fleets of ocean-going canoes.12 Even though none of these had lasting impacts, they are important early steps in Atlantic history.

     An even more fundamental question is whether Atlantic history is exclusively about transatlantic links between Europe and the Americas. Armitage has suggested the term cis-Atlantic to designate the connections of particular regions around the Atlantic, tracing the term back to none other than Thomas Jefferson. Though "cis" may be an unfamiliar prefix to many, Italians have used the terms cis-Alpine and trans-Alpine to refer respectively to the people south of the Alps and north of them. Cis-Atlantic therefore can be used to refer to connections between the continents on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, i.e., between North and South America and between Africa and Europe. Although Armitage does not endorse beginning cis-Atlantic history before 1492, his formulation opens the door to doing so.13

     Therefore, as those who focus on the indigenous peoples of the Americas are well aware, Atlantic history can reasonably include the first peopling of the American continents and the development of distinct cultures and civilizations well before the settlement of people from across the Atlantic. Some historians of the Americas have worked hard to bring indigenous Americans into the narrative as more than victims. James Lockhart (1933–2014) and his students at UCLA have been important in documenting the active role of native peoples in the history of Latin American and North America.14

     On the eastern side of the Atlantic pre-Columbian cis-Atlantic historiography has been around longer, especially among those who study the steady progress of the Portuguese voyages rather than the belated Spanish support for Columbus's half-baked scheme to open a shorter route to East Asia by sailing west. In an insightful little book published more than half a century ago, Bailey W. Diffie argued that the essential background to Europe's trans-Atlantic connections went back to the Crusades and to the commercial links to sub-Saharan Africa via Moslem intermediaries. The Mediterranean, considered as an arm of the Atlantic, was the scene of the first phase of these events. In time the African connections there helped inspire the voyages along the Atlantic coast of Africa sponsored by Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) along with the later voyages of Vasco da Gama, and Columbus.15

     An additional aspect of this pre-Columbian eastern Atlantic history was the European colonization of Atlantic island chains: the Azores appear on European charts from the fourteenth century; Castile's conquest of the Canaries in 1402 had been preceded by much earlier Greek and Phoenician visits. Following Pierre Chaunu, Crosby characterizes "the triangle of the great western ocean that has Iberia, the Azores, and the Canaries as its boundary stones" as the "Mediterranean Atlantic." Rather than being a separate story, the colonization of the Cape Verdes and other West African islands before 1492 lay the groundwork for the transatlantic voyages and island colonization that followed. Curtin similarly traces the movement of slavery and the sugar "plantation complex" from Mediterranean islands to West African islands and then across the Atlantic to Brazil and the Caribbean.16

     Interaction between the eastern Atlantic continents was not restricted to European initiatives. Eastern African trade with Egypt, Israel, and Arabia began millennia before 1500. West Africans' commercial and cultural connections across the Sahara date back to the first millennium BC, and in several places coastal West Africans were participating in overland trading networks to the Mediterranean before the arrival of the first European ships. Delegations of Ethiopians sought to open alliances with fellow Christians in Europe from 1306. When the Portuguese opened Atlantic maritime connections, coastal African rulers responded by sending ambassadors and cultural delegations to Portugal.17

Has Atlantic History Come to an End?

     Questions about where Atlantic history should begin are mere quibbles compared with what is wrong with its conventional termination date. Transatlantic commerce did not cease when the colonies in the Americas gained their independence; indeed, it grew larger. The Atlantic trade in European manufactures, Caribbean sugar, North American cotton and timber, South American minerals and crops, and Africa vegetable oils all increased during the nineteenth century. Similarly, the cultural legacies of colonial rule remained strong in the independent American nations or grew stronger, including the increasing use of European languages and the spreading of religions from Africa and Europe. African influences were particularly strong in the Caribbean and Brazil. One of the most vibrant new themes of Atlantic history has been the focus on the growth of a "black Atlantic," in the Americas and all around the Atlantic basin.18

     The post-colonial vibrancy of circum-Atlantic and transatlantic interaction was not just commercial and cultural. The Atlantic was also the scene of major political and demographic events. Decolonization in the Americas was not the end of European imperialism: many Caribbean colonies remained under European rule through much of the twentieth century. Moreover, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries most of Africa came under European rule for the first time, setting in motion cultural transformations (notably in language and religion) that invite comparison with those in the colonial Americas. In addition, the end of the slave trade from Africa was followed by a new migration of indentured Asians (and some Africans) to the Caribbean and South America and the beginnings of massive transatlantic migrations from Europe. During the two and a half centuries from 1580 to 1820 only about 2.5 million Europeans had come to the Americas (an average of fewer than 10,500 a year); during the six decades from 1820 to 1880 the number was almost 14 million (over 230,000 a year).19

     The continuing influx of Europeans transformed the population mix in parts of independent Latin America and increased white dominance in Canada and most of the United States. Even so, the European influx should not mask the massive resurgence of indigenous American peoples that was also underway, especially in Mexico, Central America, and the northern Andes. Overall the number of Amerindians and Mestizos rose from about 10 million in 1800 to nearly 30 million in 1900. Although it is true that the ending the transatlantic slave trade initially led to a decline the number of people of African ancestry in the Americas, except in the American South, the number of people of African descent rose in the twentieth century. On the other side of the Atlantic abolition ended the population drain from Africa to the Americas and reduced the violence attendant to that trade, leading to significant population increases in Africa after 1850. Eventually population pressures in Africa led to new, voluntary transatlantic movements, so that legal African immigration to the United States in the last 30 years, for example, has exceeded African arrivals to that territory during the entire history of the slave trade. Since 1946 here has also been significant cis-Atlantic migration to the United States mainland of Hispanics and the Afro-Caribbean people.20

     The pace of political links within and between the Atlantic continents has greatly increased since 1900. As Prof. Bailyn acknowledged, the twentieth century saw the building of strong transatlantic military and diplomatic ties. At last check, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) still existed. There have also been transnational political and economic alliances and agreements: including the North America Free Trade Agreement and the European Union in the north and the comparable agreements in southern South America, West Africa, and southern Africa. Because of these ongoing movements of trade, people, and cultures, it seems logical from a world history perspective to argue that Atlantic history did not cease once the older colonies in the Americas became independent.


     Most specialists in the colonial era of the Americas may be too wedded to a narrow definition of Atlantic history to be moved by the arguments presented here, but world historians are more open to rethinking historical categories. In world history surveys it is normal to see Atlantic history as having pre-Columbian prologues on both sides of the Atlantic, prologues that are central to understanding the events leading up to and following 1492. Likewise world historians are inclined to see the events following 1825 more as a continuation of the early modern era than a break with what had gone before. Like all history, change was as much a part of more recent centuries as continuity.

     Just as world history embraces the older maritime arenas of interaction and exchange of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, it seems natural to explore the more recent growth of arenas surrounding the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It is also clear to world historians that the land- and water-based units of historical analysis have merged into a larger global system.

David Northrup is Emeritus Professor of history at Boston College and a past president of the World History Association, which honored him as a Pioneer in World History in 2017. In recent years he has authored books and articles on world history (including How English Became the Global Language), on Atlantic history (including a contribution to The Oxford Handbook on the Atlantic World), and on African history (including Seven Myths of Africa in World History). He may be reached at


1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the World History Association Conference, Boston, 2017.

2 Alfred W. Crosby, Jr., The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972), 2nd ed., (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).

3Megan Gambino, "Alfred Crosby on the Columbian Exchange," Oct. 4, 2011,

4 Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Voyages, the Columbian Exchange, and Their Historians,  "Essays on Global and Comparative History" (Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1987), 8; Crosby, Columbian Exchange, 213.

5 Philip D. Curtin, "Depth, Span, and Relevance," American Historical Review 89 (1984): 1–9.

6 The most accessible of Curtin's general works are Cross-Cultural Trade in World History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), The Tropical Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade (Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1991), and On the Fringes of History: A Memoir (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005).

7 Michel Gobat, "The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race," American Historical Review, 118.5 (2013): 1345–75.

8 Notable exceptions were Charles R. Boxer and A. J. R. Russell-Wood.

9 Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 3–19 and passim; Alison Games, "Atlantic History: Definition, Challenges, and Opportunities," American Historical Review, 111 (2006): 741–57; Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan, "Introduction: The Making and Unmaking of an Atlantic World," in The Oxford Handbook on the Atlantic World, 14501850, ed. Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 16; David Armitage, "Three Concepts of Atlantic History," in The British Atlantic World, 15001800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 11–12.

10 Alan L. Karras and J. R. McNeill, eds., Atlantic American Societies: From Columbus through Abolition, 1492–1888 (London, 1992); Douglas R. Egerton, et al. The Atlantic World: A History, 1400–1888 (Wheeling, Il: Harlan Davison 2007); Christoph Strobel, The Global Atlantic, 14001900 (Routledge, 2015).

11 Crosby, Columbian Exchange, 208–21; Philip D. Morgan and Jack P. Greene, "Introduction: The Present State of Atlantic History," in Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal, ed., Philip D. Morgan and Jack P. Greene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 6; Joyce E. Chaplin, "The Atlantic Ocean and Its Contemporary Meanings, 1492–1808," in Morgan and Greene, Atlantic History, 35; Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra and Erik R. Seeman, ed., The Atlantic in Global History, 15002000 (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007).

12 Tim Severin, The Brendan Voyage (New York: Modern Library, 2000); N. A. M. Rodger, "Atlantic Seafaring," The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 14501850, ed. Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 71–74; J. Devisse, "Africa in Inter-continental Relations," in UNESCO General History of Africa, vol. 4., Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century, ed. D.T. Niane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 664–66.

13 Armitage, "Three Concepts," 11–27.

14 A fine overview is Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Vintage Books, 2006).

15 Bailey W. Diffie, Prelude to Empire: Portugal Overseas before Henry the Navigator (University of Nebraska Press, 1960).

16 Crosby, Columbian Voyages, 5, citing Pierre Chaunu, European Expansion in the Later Middle Ages, trans. Katherine Bertram (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing Company, 1979), 106; Curtin, Rise and Fall, 3–28.

17 David Northrup, Seven Myths of Africa in World History (Cambridge, MA: Hackett, 2017), 39–59; Northrup, "Africans, Early European Contacts, and the Emergent Diaspora," in Canny and Morgan, Oxford Handbook, 38–41; Northrup, Africa's Discovery of Europe, 14501850, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1–6.

18 Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995); Beatriz G. Mamigonian and Karen Racine, ed., The Human Tradition in the Black Atlantic, 15002000 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Matt D. Childs, and James Sidbury, ed., The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

19 David Eltis, "Free and Coerced Migrations from the Old World to the New," in Coerced and Free Migration: Global Perspectives (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 62–63.

20 Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones, ed., Atlas of World Population History (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), 270–301; Robin Cohen, ed., The Cambridge Survey of World Migration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), part 8, "Migration to North America after 1945," 233–62.

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