The Atlantic in World History (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

Atlantic history is a way of envisioning the making of the early modern world that was a
historiography that arose in the 1970s, became more fully developed in the 1990s and 2000s,
and has now become an established field of historical inquiry by 2020. My synthesis of
Atlantic history, based as being a practitioner of such history for nearly thirty years, provides
for students and the general reader a quick introduction to this interesting field. It is a field
that is diverse and which means different things to different people but at bottom is an
exploration of movement across the ocean and between the four continents of Africa, the
Americas, and Europe – that movement being the movement of people, things and ideas. It
starts with European involvement in Africa in the mid-fifteenth century and Columbus’
epoch-making voyages to the Caribbean from 1492. It ends in the mid-nineteenth century,
with the abolition of slavery in most New World societies. It explores the ways in which the
peoples and the environments of Atlantic places were linked together, in ways that were both
good and bad, but always historically interesting. I show how the Atlantic has been more than
just an ocean – it has been an important site of circulation and transmission, allowing

exchanges and interchanges between various peoples in ways that have profoundly shaped
the development of the world, beyond as well as within the Atlantic.
The Atlantic world was about more than slavery, the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation
system sustained by African slavery. Thus, slavery is only part of a book in which gender,
religion and trades are extensively discussed. Nevertheless, slavery is a vital part of the
Atlantic world and indispensable to its workings Thus, slavery courses throughout the
volume as a major theme in Atlantic history. I explore its Iberian origins, its African
dimensions and its apogee in the eighteenth-century Caribbean and North America before
examining how the most central institution in Atlantic history, outside empire and the
monarchy, was abolished in a very quick time, with the movement for abolition begun by a
determined and small number of evangelical Britons in the last eighteenth century. William
Wilberforce, of course, was principal among this small group of committed early
abolitionists. Wilberforce and his friends were supported by resolute black abolitionists and
was built in part out of enslaved resistance to enslavement occurring in the Americas. The
most important slave resistance to planter power was in Haiti between 1791 and 1804 – an
event that has a prominent role in my chapter on the age of revolutions.
I end my account by recalling the quintessential American song `Oh! Susanna’ written by
Stephen Foster in 1847. It is a very African and Atlantic song as well as an American song –
a `negro melody,’ as Foster called it. It is a comic, indeed tragicomic, retelling of an enslaved
person left behind in the many breakups that characterized African American slavery in the
nineteenth century. It is a song written by a person of European heritage using the voice of a
descendant of Africans wanting to leave a place which had once been Native American land.
Thus, it unites through culture the ways in which peoples of the Atlantic were brought, often
unwillingly, together. These many connections point to the relevance of Atlantic history
today and to why it is such an exciting field that really helps us understand how the modern
world is shaped as it is.
book cover

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