Skip to content

Atlantic Essay Imagination Migration Slavery World

In the absence of a good contemporary monograph on Atlantic migration, readers may consult partial or larger studies and edited volumes. Hanson 1940, despite the general title, considers only European migration to what is, in early 21st century, the United States, portraying it in positive terms as an escape from Old World poverty and constraint. Two edited collections, Altman and Horn 1991 and Canny 1994, approach the process of migration more critically while maintaining the emphasis on European migration to the Americas. Schnurmann 1998 compares English and Dutch migrant communities. Klooster and Padula 2005 and Klooster 2009 are edited volumes incorporating African as well as European dimensions of Atlantic migration. Cohen 1997 analyzes diasporas across time and space. A stunning synthesis, Hoerder 2002, considers Atlantic migration within the wider context of global migrations in the past millennium.

  • Altman, Ida, and James Horn, eds. “To Make America”: European Emigration in the Early Modern Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    Six essays on the migration to the Americas from Spain, England, France, and Germany between the 16th and 18th centuries.

  • Canny, Nicholas, ed. Europeans on the Move: Studies on European Migration, 1500–1800. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    E-mail Citation »

    Essays on overseas migration from Spain, the British Isles, and continental Europe as well as on the medieval European background of Atlantic expansion.

  • Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203228920E-mail Citation »

    Succinct overview of the phenomenon of diaspora from ancient to contemporary times. Topics considered include the African diaspora and the settlement of the British Empire.

  • Hanson, Marcus Lee. The Atlantic Migration, 1607–1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1940.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674332614E-mail Citation »

    Published posthumously by Arthur M. Schlesinger, who edited the manuscript and wrote the forward. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1941. This work presents the classic interpretation of migration to America as a passage to freedom and opportunity. Reissued in paperback by Simon (London) in 2001.

  • Hoerder, Dirk. Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822384076E-mail Citation »

    Parts 2 and 3 of this encyclopedic survey of global migration focus on the 16th to 19th centuries, but Atlantic migration is treated alongside other migration systems worldwide, for example, in Asia and the Pacific.

  • Klooster, Wim, ed. Migration, Trade, and Slavery in an Expanding World: Essays in Honor of Pieter Emmer. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Four of the twelve essays concern European overseas migration; two deal with the Atlantic slave trade.

  • Klooster, Wim, and Alfred Padula, eds. The Atlantic World: Essays on Slavery, Migration, and Imagination. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Intended for classroom use, this edited collection introduces students to the flows of people, commodities, and ideas in the early modern Atlantic. It features four pairs of essays on four themes, including the role of port cities, European migration, and the African diaspora.

  • Schnurmann, Claudia. Atlantische Welten: Engländer und Niederländer im amerikanisch-atlantischen Raum, 1648–1713. Cologne: Böhlau, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Comparative study by a German historian of Dutch and English merchants and colonists in Europe and America, with an emphasis on trade and communications networks.

  • Your annual conferences on “The History of the Atlantic World” spurred a generation of innovative scholarship. Universities throughout the West now feature courses on Atlantic history. The American Historical Association instituted a prize specifically for Atlantic history. Please sketch for us the contours of the subject you shaped. What is Atlantic history?

    The subject is really a region’s history over three centuries – the region that is defined by the great networks of social, economic, political and cultural ties among the four continents that form the Atlantic basin – the two Americas, Africa and Europe. The study of the subject creates a transnational perspective for individual events within that area. You see specific events developing in a different way. So it is the study of the interactions, the parallels and the contrasts among events that developed in this huge oceanic region which was distinctive. In the 19th century Atlantic history began to merge into a larger global history, but for 300 years – after the conquest of the Americas up through the end of the colonial period – it had its own history, and that history is useful to keep in mind in studying any part of it.

    You argue that the early Atlantic world had distinct characteristics. What were those characteristics?

    There are three basic, broad defining characteristics. One, of course, is that it’s a colonial era for the Western hemisphere. For 300 years, from 1500 to the independence movements at the end of the 18th century, the Western lands were colonies, different from other dependencies, and were profoundly affected by the European powers. They in turn were transformed by the colonies they ruled. Spain, Britain, the Netherlands and Portugal all were colonial powers during that period. In many ways the Atlantic region depended greatly for its character on the relationship of the colonies to the imperial centres.

    Second, the region – Africa, Europe and the Western hemisphere – was greatly dependent on the slave trade. By the early 19th century the slave trade was challenged if not completely eliminated, but for 300 years the forced migration of Africans to the Western hemisphere was a central characteristic of Atlantic history. It closely united Europe, West Africa and the Americas. Four times as many Africans migrated to the western hemisphere than Europeans through this 300 year period. Finally, the early modern era was a pre-industrial world dominated by commerce, agricultural developments and extractive industries, as opposed to manufacturing.

    As those three basic circumstances shifted, with the end of the slave trade, the end of colonialism and the beginning of the industrial revolution, the distinct phase of Atlantic history came to an end and the Atlantic world merged into a larger global world.


    Atlantic History

    Bernard Bailyn


    You trace the topic’s genealogy in a 2005 book of essays entitled Atlantic History: Concept and Contours, which is your first selection.

    There are two essays in the book. In the first, I describe the external circumstances, political and cultural, that shaped the historical awareness of the Atlantic world as a subject in itself. The circumstances just before, during and after World War II had a great influence on historians’ thinking about the Atlantic as a region, as did the increased exchanges of scholars among different regions in the postwar years. The Atlantic became formulated as a field of historical study in the early 1990s, though there had been important antecedents.

    Please explain in a little detail the political forces that caused the field to coalesce.

    In a way, it was Roosevelt and Churchill who defined the Atlantic region through their collaboration, and then after the war, with NATO and other intergovernmental agencies developing, that sense became more pronounced. But it isn’t those external political forces, important as they were, that shaped the field so much as the developing scholarship on transnational migration and economic interdependence. It became obvious, for example, that Portugal’s development of Brazil depended as much on London bankers as it did on tribal wars in Africa. Many such discoveries came together to create a sense of unity within this vast region of the world, independent of politics.

    You once said that you initially approached history, as a young man recently returned from World War II, with a rough agenda to explore “the relation between European and American life” and “the interplay between social history and intellectual history”. Where did that agenda come from and how did it affect your interest in a new framework for early American history?

    To say what shapes your thinking is very hard. I suppose to some extent I was more keenly aware of a very broad Atlantic world because of the war than I would have been otherwise, but that approach came as much from my own study and thinking about history. My first publications, in the early 1950s, were explicitly about Atlantic history, before I tried to formulate the subject. My first large book was about the transfer of ideas from Europe to America and how those ideas fared here, the force they gained in these political and cultural circumstances. All this developed from basic research. In specific terms, influences are very hard to trace.


    Empires of the Atlantic World

    JH Elliott


    Empires of the Atlantic World by Oxford don John Elliott is your next book selection. Please introduce us to this 2006 work.