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The Sea Around Us


Human beings, wrote the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, “are in a certain sense amphibious, not exclusively connected with the land, but with the sea as well.” Yet works of history are usually landlocked. Most historians write about particular states, nations, continents, or empires, and if they glance at maritime matters at all, it is in order to trace the naval, commercial, and imperial activities of their chosen territories. Terra firma still comes first. Abandoning this perspective, and approaching the past primarily by concentrating on stretches of water, is challenging and innately subversive. Just how challenging and subversive was shown by Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, which was originally published in French in 1949.

Despite his title, Braudel gave limited attention to the most powerful Christian monarch of the sixteenth century, and to the other major political figures of the time. His aim was to embrace “in a unified conceptual framework an entire sea and the lands that bordered it,” and he accordingly gave priority to such matters as climate, ecology, ports, trade, migration patterns, piracy and corsairing, the ebb and flow of winds and currents, and changes in shipbuilding and navigational techniques.1 Instead of putting in the foreground rivalry between nations and conflicts between the western and the Ottoman eastern Mediterranean, and between Catholics and Protestants, Braudel showed how, for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, political, cultural, and religious differences and allegiances were sometimes less important than shared involvement in the same inland sea.

His extraordinarily ambitious work seduced and impressed historians, but also antagonized more than a few of them. Some readers and reviewers found his book excessively materialistic, and insufficiently attentive to the influence of creative ideas and powerful leaders. Others were simply unimpressed by his audacious disregard of detailed political narrative and of established national and religious history and ethnic stories. Unsurprisingly, it has proved increasingly easy over the years for specialists to pick holes in the book’s large-scale generalizations; and self-confessed admirers and emulators of Braudel’s work, especially in the United States, are now sparse.2 Yet, whether they recognize it, or are willing to admit it or not, American historians have proved to be among his keenest disciples, not in regard to a sea, but in connection with an ocean. “Atlantic history,” writes Bernard Bailyn at the start of his new book, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours, “…is a subject that certain historians have found strange, that others have said does not exist and if it does exist it shouldn’t, [and] that at best has no easy or clear definition.” Nonetheless, he insists, the “Atlantic world,” which he takes to be “Europe and the Western Hemisphere, profoundly linked to the peoples and cultures of West Africa,” is “not the aggregate of several national histories, but something shared by and encompassing them all.” Atlantic history, he believes, must seek to embrace in a unified perspective an entire vast ocean and the lands connected with it.

There is a sense in which Professor Bailyn’s long career has always been closely bound up with the Atlantic. His first book, published over half a century ago, was on the relations between seventeenth-century New England merchants and London and other English ports. In subsequent early writings, he explored the extent to which colonial America and eighteenth-century Scotland might both be regarded as provinces of England, and why, in the 1760s and 1770s, the arch-loyalist Thomas Hutchinson found himself both at odds with Massachusetts patriots and ill at ease among Britons on the other side of the ocean. Then, in 1967, Bailyn’s famous Ideological Origins of the American Revolution traced how political ideas that had originated in Britain underwent a metamorphosis and became central to the American Revolution. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, Bailyn’s Atlantic perceptibly widened. His linked studies The Peopling of British North America: An Introductionand Voyagers to the West (1986) still concentrated on British emigration to America, but also drew attention to the simultaneous movements of people across the ocean from continental Western and Central Europe and from West Africa. In addition, Bailyn published some important essays (partly reproduced in his new book) that drew attention to “the unitary character of the entire Atlantic world”; in 1995 he founded the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World.

The impact and reach of this last initiative have extended far beyond scholars who concentrate on America. Usually meeting at Harvard University in August, and supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the seminar’s aim is to

advance the scholarship of young historians of many nations interested in aspects of Atlantic history …[and] to help create an international community of scholars familiar with approaches, archives, and intellectual traditions different from their own and ultimately to further international understanding.

A glance at some of the topics discussed at the seminar over the decade of its existence—the Atlantic trade in mahogany from Africa, British press gangs, the trade and relations of Bordeaux with the United States, Africans in seventeenth-century Peru, African seamen and the transatlantic slave trade, the Caribbean contraband trade, linguistic diversity in Old and New France, women of Amsterdam and their connection with Atlantic trade and shipping, the Haitian Revolution, marriage in colonial Chesapeake, sailors and celibacy—gives an indication of how diversely the field of Atlantic studies is interpreted, and how geographically capacious the concept of an Atlantic world has become.

Thirty, even twenty years ago, most scholars working on Atlantic connections in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries still concentrated on people who were white, and on the links and ruptures between Britain and its North American colonies. Now historians of the Atlantic are as apt to be interested in Caribbean and West African blacks as in Europeans and white colonists; and they are as likely to work on regions of South and Central America as on the thirteen colonies.

Instead of simply concentrating on the British Empire, students of the Atlantic have also become more attentive to Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Danish settlements in the Americas, though many younger Atlanticists are no longer much interested in the colonial policies and leaders of the old European empires. The erosion in the popularity of political history and the declining interest in European history at US universities have served—as the historian Carole Shammas recently observed—to reduce “interest in examining the place of imperial politics in the shaping of the transatlantic experience.”3 Early-twenty-first-century writers on the Atlantic world generally prefer to trace the movements of ideas, merchants, sailors, consumer goods, migrants, and slave ships across the ocean. Like Braudel in the 1950s, they have little time for chronicling kings and politicians.

As a result of these shifts, one scholar’s recent, half-ironic pronouncement that “we are all Atlanticists now” is at once understandable and necessarily imprecise.4 In part thanks to Bailyn’s advocacy, inspiration, and entrepreneurship, the richness and popularity of Atlantic history have burgeoned astonishingly, and it is a strong presence in textbooks and many university departments. At the same time it has become increasingly uncertain just what the subject involves, and how long it can continue as an ostensibly distinctive field of study. Bailyn’s purpose in his short and invaluable Atlantic History is to trace and celebrate the evolution of Atlantic history as an idea, and to set out his personal interpretation of its main contours in the period between the earliest European invasions of the Americas and the American Revolution.

Bailyn has always been critical of Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean world, and takes the opportunity here to minimize again its influence on historians of the Atlantic world. In part, this is because he views Braudel’s methodology as excessively “disaggretative” and static, splitting the past into “three dimensions”: the steady influence of the environment, “slowly rhythmed” social and economic changes, and the “short, quick, nervous oscillations” made up of human actions, particularly national politics. “The goal of history,” Bailyn insists, should rather be to show “continuous interaction in an evolving story” and, in regard to the Atlantic, this means charting how the ocean became “a connecting element between European, North American, Caribbean, Latin American, and West African history.” He offers as the “ultimate source” of this broad and protean Atlantic vision the writings not of a European historian but of an American journalist. In 1917, Walter Lippmann, another Harvard man, published an editorial in The New Republic urging US participation in World War I, and evoking the

profound web of interest which joins together the western world. Britain, France, Italy, even Spain, Belgium, Holland, the Scandinavian nations, and Pan-America are in the main one community in their deepest needs and their deepest purposes.

Lippmann subsequently retreated from his hope that wartime cooperation might serve to bring about some kind of transatlantic federation, but in his US War Aims (1944) he still insisted that national differences “from the Western Mediterranean into the whole basin of the Atlantic Ocean” were “variations within the same cultural tradition.” His views won support from another American journalist, Forrest Davis, who urged that—as well as being dictated by the struggle against Nazism—an “Atlantic System” was also, properly regarded, an old and organic growth.

Such arguments possessed obvious appeal in the aftermath of the war, and during the period of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the foundation of NATO, and the onset of the struggle with communism. Carlton J. Hayes, president of the American Historical Association, urged its members in 1945 to reject insular approaches to America’s past, and to keep in mind the country’s historic links with Europe and the threat to their “common culture” from an alien ideology:

The area of this common Western culture centers in the Atlantic and extends eastward far into Europe and along African shores, from Norway and Finland to Cape Town, and westward across all America, from Canada to Patagonia.

Americans, Hayes went on, were the “co-heirs and co-developers, and probably in the future the leaders” of this “Atlantic community and the European civilization basic to it.” As Bailyn rightly insists, growing interest in Atlantic history was never just a response to twentieth-century conditions or “the result of design or manipulation.” On the contrary, the subject has always attracted interpreters from different parts of the world, who have written “from many angles, for many reasons, from many motives.” This was true in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, when Pierre and Huguette Chaunu and Jacques Godechot in France and Angel Rosenblat in Argentina produced important Atlantic histories, and it remains true now. This said, it is striking how many of the most committed and distinguished non-American historians of the Atlantic world active now—J.H. Elliott, Philip Morgan, Nicholas Canny, Paul Gilroy, and Anthony Pagden among them—either work in the United States or have spent substantial periods of time here. For all its practitioners’ insistence that theirs is a subject that ranges over four continents, Atlantic studies have flourished most in the United States.

  1. 1

    The description of Braudel’s aims is J.H. Elliott’s in “Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation,” in The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, edited by David Armitage and Michael J.Braddick (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), pp. 233–234.

  2. 2

    For an early expression of Bernard Bailyn’s own skepticism about Braudel’s Mediterranean world, see the former’s “Braudel’s Geohistory—A Reconsideration,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Summer 1951), pp. 277–282.

  3. 3

    In her introduction to The Creation of the British Atlantic World, edited by Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 5.

  4. 4

    David Armitage in “Three Concepts of Atlantic History,” The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800, p. 11.

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