The Idea of Atlantic History

Trevor Burnard

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online May 2010 | | DOI:
The Idea of Atlantic History

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
  • History
  • Regional and National History


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Atlantic history is a kind of historical analysis that historians have used since the late 1980s to organize profound transformations in the societies in the four continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean in the early modern era. It is, as John Elliott notes, “the creation, destruction and re-creation of communities as a result of the movement across and around the Atlantic basin, of people, commodities, cultural practices.” As well it is the analysis, as D. W. Meinig opines, of “a sudden and harsh encounter between two old worlds that transformed both and integrated them into a single New World.”(Meinig 1986) At its simplest, Atlantic history is a contemporary updating of a traditional historical problem—the settling of the Americas by Europeans and Africans and the displacement from those lands of Native Americans—to take account of late-20th- and early-21st-century sensibilities. Advocates of the utility of Atlantic history as an interpretative paradigm argue that Atlantic history is a full-blown field of study that can encompass older fields, such as European, North American, Latin American, and African history. It might also encompass imperial history and diasporic studies. Other scholars envision Atlantic history less as a field than as a means of conversation, a device whereby scholars interested in common problems throughout a loosely defined geographical region can talk to each other. What unites most of the emerging scholarship is a concern with movement and an unwillingness to be confined to national boundaries. It is also a field of inquiry that attempts to remove historiographical barriers between the early modern and the modern periods and between colonial- and nation-state-centered history. Atlantic history is mostly concerned with making connections rather than comparisons. Critics argue that Atlantic history is merely a made-up topic with no coherence except that which has been retrospectively imposed upon it. They also suggest that the proper frame of reference is global, imperial, or hemispheric rather than Atlantic. Nevertheless, Atlantic history is flourishing, not just intellectually but institutionally as well, with more and more work published with “Atlantic” in the title, with an increasing institutional presence in the academy and in public life, and with specific posts appearing on the subject at university history departments.

Article.  9206 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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