Atlantic History

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Atlantic History is a major new topic in history that came of age after 2000, after emerging in the 1980s under the impetus of American historians Bernard Bailyn of Harvard University and Jack Greene of Johns Hopkins University. Its theme is the complex interaction between Europe (especially Britain and France) and the New World colonies. It encompasses a wide range of demographic, social, economic, political, legal, military, intellectual and religious topics treated in comparative fashion by looking at both sides of the Atlantic. Religious revivals characterized Britain and Germany, as well as the First Great Awakening in the American colonies. Migration and slavery have been important topics. The integration of the European Union and the continuing importance of NATO played an indirect role in stimulating interest.[1]


Bailyn's Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World promoted social and demographic studies, and especially regarding demographic flows of population into colonial America. As a leading advocate of the history of the Atlantic world, Bailyn has organized an annual international seminar at Harvard designed to promote scholarship in this field.[2] Bailyn's Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours (2005) explores the borders and contents of the emerging field, which emphasizes cosmopolitan and multicultural elements that have tended to be neglected or considered in isolation by traditional historiography dealing with the Americas. This discipline integrates themes and topics that show the interrelationships between peoples, institutions, and events in Europe, Africa, and the New World. Bailyn's reflections stem in part from his seminar at Harvard since the mid-1980's.

Greene directed a program at Johns Hopkins in Atlantic History from 1972 to 1992 that has now expanded to global cncerns.


Games (2006) explores the convergence of the multiple strands of scholarly interest that have generated the new field of Atlantic history, which takes as its geographic unit of analysis the Atlantic Ocean and the four continents that surround it. She argues Atlantic history is best approached as a slice of world history. The Atlantic, moreover, is a region that has logic as a unit of historical analysis only within a limited chronology. An Atlantic perspective can help historians understand changes within the region that a more limited geographic framework might obscure. Attempts to write a Braudelian[3] Atlantic history, one that includes and connects the entire region, remain elusive, driven in part by methodological impediments, by the real disjunctions that characterized the Atlantic's historical and geographic components, by the disciplinary divisions that discourage historians from speaking to and writing for each other, and by the challenge of finding a vantage point that is not rooted in any single place.[4]

Colonial studies

One impetus for Atlantic studies began with the historians of slavery who started tracking the flows of slaves from Africa to the New World in the 1960s.[5] A second source came from historians of colonial America. Many were trained in early modern European history and were familiar with the historiography regarding England and the British Empire., which had been introduced a century before by G.L. Beer and Charles McLean Andrews. Colonialists have long been open to interdisciplinary perspectives, such as comparative approaches. In addition there was a frustration involved in writing about very few people in a small remote colony. Atlantic history opens the horizon to large forces at work over great distances.[6]


Some critics have complained that it is little more than imperial history under another name. Others argue that it is simultaneously too big (pretending to subsume the southern Atlantic continents, Africa and Latin America, without seriously engaging with them) and too small (arbitrarily isolating the Atlantic from other bodies of water.

  1. O'Reilly, (2004)
  2. See [1]
  3. A reference to the great classic, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (2 vol 1949) by Fernand Braudel (1902-1985).
  4. Games (2006)
  5. Curtin 91998)
  6. Games (2006)