It is not always easy, in our world of lightning-fast communications, to appreciate that there was, as historian David Armitage claims, a "prehistory of globalisation". One of the greatest monuments to that pre-history was the idea and reality of an "Atlantic world" - a place that lay at the heart of the first age of global imperialism.
Yet the history of the Atlantic as a highway of trade and colonisation, of the outward spread of European cultures and the creation of Hispanic, French and British worlds in the Americas, has not always been agreed upon. Some scholars commit fully to the idea that the Atlantic world, as a zone of cultural interaction, provided a better explanatory framework for the modern world than hermetically sealed histories of nations and regions in isolation. Sceptics aver that the cultural and demographic migrations that created the Atlantic world do not require meta-narrative supremacy over more traditional ways of looking at history. They fear the concept may subsume the people of the ocean's rim within a singular story of Atlantic identity, with a corresponding flattening of their distinctive cultures and experiences.
Jack Greene and Philip Morgan's fine new book constitutes the latest attempt to weigh the visions and views of devotees and sceptics of Atlantic history. In a lucid and wide-ranging introduction, they make their own position clear by wrestling with the criticism of Atlantic history and defending it, blow by blow. In so doing, however, they recognise pitfalls and alternatives.
There has been a splurge of writings on Atlantic history since the term was first used more than 40 years ago to capture oceanic, transnational exchanges. Much of the subsequent scholarship has focused upon particular regions, themes or nations within an Atlantic setting. The British Atlantic, for example, has been the subject of several important studies. However, relatively few studies capture the fuller extent of the Atlantic world: the North and the South; the anglophone and the non-anglophone.
Greene and Morgan consciously stretch their coverage beyond the anglophone world and the slave trade. To achieve this they have commissioned numerous exciting essays on Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch and French Atlantics, which provide trenchant digests of the works in their respective national historiographies and open up a world of scholarship to an English-speaking audience that otherwise would have remained hidden.
A second important approach of the volume looks at how the old world interacted with the new during the creation of the Atlantic world. Again, the focus moves beyond European nations. This section includes, for example, an excellent essay by Morgan on the vital importance of slavery within the Atlantic world, and on indigenous Americans and the limits of Atlantic history (by Amy Turner Bushnell).
The third part of the book discusses the Atlantic world in relation to what we may term systemic histories - histories that span geographical and temporal space beyond mere region or locality, and in many cases beyond the Atlantic itself. Greene's own contribution on hemispheric and Atlantic history and Nicholas Canny's on Atlantic and global history provide characteristically lucid cases in point. Just as the book begins with an excellent introductory overview of the contours of Atlantic history, it ends with a fascinating essay, "Beyond Atlantic History", which reasserts some of the collection's more contentious points.
As with all new trends in historiography, the heroic phase of exploration and discovery usually ends when universities institute programmes dedicated to their study. Under such circumstances, new trends become establishment forces. But, as Greene, Morgan and their contributors show, the Atlantic remains an exciting unit of historical analysis and one that will yield further important works yet.
Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal
Edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan
Oxford University Press
384pp, £58.00 and £12.99
ISBN 9780195320336 and 20343
Published 15 January 2009