World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        

the Atlantic World in World History


Introduction: Forum on Atlantic History

Guest Editor, David Northrup


     There are three main reasons why most world history textbooks tend to organize their contents by continent. In the early days, most were retooled Western civ. texts with chapters added on the other parts of the world. Second, although the world is becoming more and more global and interactive, historians dealing with earlier times tend to assume that human populations and cultures are defined by landmasses. Third, many current pioneering world historians (including myself) were trained in area studies programs, which tended to reinforce the primacy of cultural regions: the Middle East, South and East Asia, Africa, Latin America.

     Although some textbooks have presented other approaches to world history, the continental approach remains entrenched in survey courses. Indeed, it’s not a bad model, especially for organizing the earlier parts of the survey course. Yet, focusing on landmasses or cultural regions is not the only model. Arguably it may not be the best approach.

     At the very least, continent-based surveys are arbitrary. Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen have engagingly demonstrated that, although continents may seem to be obvious and solid, they are as much human constructs as the nations that inhabit them.1 As Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis points out, historians can be quite imaginative in he ways they manipulate space and time in reconstructing the past: "They can compress these dimensions, expand them, compare them, measure them, even transcend them…."2 In recent decades, the older thematic categories of economic, intellectual, social, and political history have been joined by approaches focused on gender, ecology, technology, and epidemiology. So within this flexible pattern of historical reconstruction, there seems ample license for historians to center the narrative on the large bodies of water that are important for exchanges, migrations, trade, and other interactions. Indeed, the steady spread of globalization during the past millennium has made maritime connections a vital topic for examination.

Centering History on Seas and Oceans

     Although Gaddis called his book The Landscape of History, some adventurous historians have employed waterscapes as a basis of analysis, focusing on lakes and rivers, bays and coastlines. The most adventurous have taken on larger bodies of water. Indeed, Patrick Manning used the maritime image of "navigating" in writing about the manipulation of time and space in world history, although he was more concerned with intellectual approaches to the past than with actual waterways. The great pioneer of what has been called "thalassic" history (from the Greek thalassa meaning sea) was Fernand Braudel. He reimagined the histories of North Africa, the Near East, and southern Europe, not as separate entities but as parts of a common history with the Mediterranean at its heart. His encyclopedic survey, first published in 1949, focused on the age of Philip II of Spain, but he was well aware that in earlier times the Mediterranean had been a Roman lake and then very nearly a Muslim one.3

     Well before the Age of Phillip II, sea trade had become immense important in joining the lands of Asia, Africa and Europe commercially and culturally. Even if some textbook accounts of long distance Asian trade now give the Silk Roads more attention, the Indian Ocean moved a greater volume of goods. After 1500 the Indian Ocean begins to get greater attention, even if much of the pioneering literature exaggerated the importance of the European East India companies. More recently, studies that emphasize Indian Ocean connections before the entry of Westerners have corrected this Eurocentric bias. As well, Sugata Bose has written a successfully Indian Ocean treatment of the imperial era.4

     In addition, a growing number of historians have embraced an Atlantic-centered approach. Sometimes this has been a conscious effort to imitate the pioneers of Mediterranean and Indian Ocean studies. More often Atlantic history has been a rethinking (or repackaging) of the colonial history of the Americas. Fresher perspectives have come from historians emphasizing African influences on the demography, economy, and culture of the Americas. Historians of Native Americans have similarly reframed the American continents’ history. This forum presents overviews of the scholarly debates and pedagogical opportunities in Atlantic history, along with case studies of particular topics from an Atlantic perspective.

Atlantic Forum Essays

     In the first essay David Northrup offers a critique of the emerging field of Atlantic history and the reasons why world historians approach it differently than many trained as colonial historians. He emphasizes the special influence of two pioneering world historians: Alfred Crosby, who introduced the concept of a "Columbian exchange" of diseases, plants, and animals among the Atlantic continents, and Philip D. Curtin, who demonstrated that Africans had greater influence on the demography, economy, and culture of colonial America than did Europeans. Challenging those who favor confining Atlantic history to the colonial centuries, Northrup argues that the field began well before Columbus and continues up to the present.

     Drawing upon her experiences in teaching world history, Rebecca Hayes argues that Atlantic themes are both useful and practical. She gives practical examples of how to employ foods and other Columbian exchanges in the classroom and how to widen the theme of the Atlantic Revolutions for American students by using examples from the less familiar revolutions in Haiti and Latin America.

     A second pedagogical essay, by Christoph Strobel, shows how students can make good use of William Wood’s 1634 account of the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts as a case study of Native American and European relations. His case study focuses on the native peoples of the New England as the Atlantic world was engulfing them.

     Next come two scholarly critiques of Atlantic regions. Employing his skills as an African American intellectual and a noted historian of Africa, Ibrahim Sundiata critiques how harsh realities and mythmaking have interacted in the construction African American history. His wide-ranging historiographical analysis argues that modern mythologies place an exaggerated emphasis on slavery and underrate the importance of racism. He argues that modern myths distort the African American experience as well as the history of Africa and world history.

     The final case study is by Nicolás González-Quintero, a doctoral candidate at University of Texas, Austin. Illustrating Rebecca Hayes’s suggestion of emphasizing the Caribbean and Latin America in the Age of Revolutions, he argues that the Spanish American wars of independence were a civil war among trans-Atlantic parties. One of the focuses of his study is how Spanish loyalists made use of bases and support in the Caribbean in an effort to extend the war and to reconquer the mainland. 

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 Martin W. Lewis and Karen E. Wigen, The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). Cf. E. J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 2006)

2 John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 17.

3 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vol., tr. Siân Reynolds (New York Harper and Row, 1975); Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

4 A good, though dated, overview of the European trading company surveys is John E. Wills, Jr., "Maritime Asia, 1500–1800: The Interactive Emergence of European Domination," American Historical Review, 98 (Feb. 1993), 83–105. Notable revisionist approaches are Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: the World System A.D. 12501350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Patricia Risso, Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995); and K. N. Chaudhuri, Asia Before Europe: Economy and Civilization of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge University Press, 1990). Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) expands on Chaudhuri’s efforts to rebalance the later imperial era.

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2019 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use