Bernard Bailyn
Bernard Bailyn; drawing by David Levine


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.

For Americans (though not just for Americans), the concept of an Atlantic world has proved immensely attractive because it offers a valuable corrective to the exceptionalism and parochialism that have sometimes characterized their history. Atlantic history has also been well suited to the United States’ shifting demographic, racial, and political makeup. Whether they are concerned with the history of relations between blacks and whites, or with the history of Hispanic culture in the US, for example, scholars can find fresh material in a field of study that brings together both of the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. “Atlanticism” can also appeal to what might be called regional patriotism. Atlantic history puts the “discovery” and the evolution of the New World at the heart of early modern history. Indeed, it sometimes does so to an excessive degree, for if Atlantic history works against isolationist interpretations of America’s past, it also has a tendency to reconstruct the history of Europe, and the history of parts of Africa, overwhelmingly in connection with a single ocean, and overwhelmingly, too, with reference to transatlantic ties. Bailyn quotes approvingly the verdict of D.W. Meinig:

Instead of a European discovery of a new world, we might better consider it as a sudden and harsh encounter between two old worlds that transformed both and integrated them into a single New World [my italics].

Yet this is an exaggerated claim, and Bailyn’s endorsement of it points to the reasons why the second part of his book—on the contours of Atlantic history—is less convincing than the first. As a means of exploring the very many connections that have existed among the ocean’s different peoples and territories, and of transcending entrenched geographical and political divisions, Atlantic history is valuable and enriching. It becomes far less valid and helpful, however, if historians make excessive claims for the discreteness and unity of this vast oceanic space. Bailyn accepts that the early modern Atlantic world was always “multitudinous” and in motion: but he also wants to argue that “there was…despite all the complexities, at least in rough terms, a common morphology, a general overall pattern.” “Europe and the Western Hemisphere,” he concludes, “profoundly linked to the peoples and cultures of West Africa…formed a distinctive regional entity.” This Atlantic world was characterized by “violent instability, cultural conflict and alienation, racism, and brutal economic dynamism” but also by “the ideals of the later years—self-government, freedom from arbitrary power, and a sense that the world lies open for the most exalted aspirations.” This seems closer to the expression of an article of faith than a demonstrable and fully comprehensive historical position.


The value for historians of exploring Atlantic connections, but also some of the limits of those connections, and some of the divergences between Old and New Worlds, emerge from Carla Gardina Pestana’s meticulous and highly detailed book The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640– 1661. The violent history of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland during this period, including a bloody civil war, the trial and execution of Charles I, the creation and fall of a reforming and military republic, and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, are well known and have given rise to a vast body of historical literature. But Pestana’s attempt to connect “these cataclysmic events,” which she rightly views as a revolution, with the development of England’s embryonic transatlantic settlements—its string of plantations from Newfoundland to Surinam—is novel and clarifying.

The 50,000 white inhabitants of the twenty-four Atlantic settlements claimed by Charles Stuart in 1640 were mainly first- or second-generation migrants and overwhelmingly English. Indeed, as Pestana remarks: “Proportionally more English people migrated to the Atlantic world in the 1630s than would be the case at any other time.” Many of these migrants were deeply interested in and grieved by the civil wars in their home islands, but—like large numbers of people in England’s own county communities—they were anxious to remain detached from an intensely dangerous, divisive, and unpredictable struggle. In the 1640s, settlers in Barbados even imposed forfeits on anyone mentioning the terms “Roundhead” or “Cavalier.” As in England, such apparent neutralism often owed more to prudence and fear than political and religious indifference. Once the new parliamentary regime was established after Charles I’s execution in 1649, Pestana writes, six plantations rebelled against it, and Virginia especially became for a while a haven for royalist exiles. But just as Oliver Cromwell and his forces ground down resistance to the new godly republic in the home islands, so England’s infant colonies were effectively brought under control by 1652.

Whereas there had been little resembling a centralized system of rule over the settlements before 1640, commercial links among them increased during the next two decades. At the same time, a more coherent imperial vision emerged in London that persisted after the Restoration, and there was an unprecedented intrusion of English naval and military power into the Atlantic when Jamaica was seized from the Spanish in 1655. Pestana also emphasizes another significant development. The “rights of freeborn English men” and new forms of religious toleration were discussed in print, speeches, sermons, and conversations in the different regions of the English Atlantic in the 1640s and 1650s as never before; but this development coincided—on both sides of the ocean—with, as Pestana puts it, a “determination to deny autonomy to others.”

By 1660, England’s colonial population had risen to 200,000, but many of the new arrivals after 1640 had crossed the Atlantic “in some state of unfreedom.” They were prisoners of war, or vagrants, or Roman Catholics, or political dissidents who had been transported overseas from England or its adjacent countries to serve as cheap colonial and coerced labor. Or they were black. By the 1650s, Barbados was importing two thousand African slaves every year.

But while showing how the revolution in England also brought about large changes in its American and Caribbean settlements, Pestana is careful to make clear how wide the Atlantic could be in the early modern era. She is skeptical of the way in which some exponents of Atlantic history have chosen to join early modern Britain and Ireland together with the American colonies by referring to the British Isles as an “Atlantic archipelago.” Her skepticism is convincing, since this is an inexact and ahistoric formulation; and she offers some closely observed examples of differences between English and colonial experience. In 1654, an English soldier called Benjamin Sawcer, newly arrived in Massachusetts Bay, was put on trial there for blasphemy. “Jehova is the Devel,” he is said to have exclaimed, “and hee knew noe god but his sworde.” Sawcer was tried for his life by a grand jury, but its members concluded, Pestana writes, “that a man from England might not know what he was saying and thus might be held to a different standard when he blasphemed.” Sawcer and the Massachusetts Bay’s jurymen shared a common language and substantially the same culture, but the jury still seem to have viewed him as not one of them.

In part, such differences were a natural result of distance and strikingly dissimilar physical surroundings. Historians of the Atlantic sometimes allow themselves to be more impressed by the growing volume of transoceanic trade, correspondence, and migration in the early modern era than by how slow and protracted such contacts and crossings continued to be until the coming of steam power and the telegraph in the nineteenth century. Yet in the age of sail, the three thousand miles between Britain and North America inevitably constrained communication and understanding—as they can still do even today. Pestana makes the point that because of the slowness with which information traveled, no English settler in North America or the Caribbean was in a position to “have received news of [King] Charles’s impending trial prior to his death.”

There was sometimes another source of division between inhabitants of England and its adjacent countries, and their colonial settlers across the Atlantic. As far as the settlers were concerned, England and ultimately Britain before 1776 were by far the most important overseas influence. But for the English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh, America was increasingly only one point of external reference among others. This was partly because early modern Britons were often more concerned with their European neighbors, but it was also because Britain increasingly possessed significant Asian connections, and not simply Atlantic ones.

It is here perhaps that the biggest flaw in the mighty conception of Atlanticism lies. Bailyn’s vision of the Atlantic world extends capaciously “from central Europe to Britain, Iberia, West Africa, and the Americas, with the Caribbean its western point.” Asia, though, is missing. Yet to the extent that the world was in motion in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and this was expressed in a wider transmission and exchange of commodities, ships, ideas, and people, the practice of singling out the Atlantic, and the lands connected by it, circumscribes our understanding of what was involved. European migration, military effort, and patterns of trade in the Americas during these centuries cannot be adequately understood without our also taking into consideration the other Europeans who were simultaneously migrating, fighting, and buying and selling in Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent (and ultimately in the Pacific). The reluctance in recent years to acknowledge “the place of [European] imperial politics in the shaping of the transatlantic experience” has helped to obscure this vital point, because it has allowed some scholars to forget that the rulers and traders of early modern France, Portugal, Spain, and most conspicuously Britain were out to construct global systems, not just transatlantic systems.

Bailyn suggests at the end of his book that it was not until the nineteenth century that a “global world system” came into being. Yet ever closer connections between all of the world’s continents in movements of goods, people, customs, and ideas, and a growing recognition that such connections were occurring, existed well before 1800. This was true not only of Britons or other Europeans. From the late sixteenth century, for instance, Asians from Spanish-controlled Manila were migrating in considerable numbers to Mexico. But Britain was involved in intercontinental connections to a conspicuous degree. As the Duke of Newcastle, the British secretary of state, observed in the 1750s: “every part of the world affects us, in some way or another.” Partly as a result of Britain’s precocious experience of what has been called proto-globalization, virtually every part of the globe also came in some fashion to affect early modern Britain’s Atlantic world. Marine archaeologists have established for instance that when an earthquake swallowed up the English settlement of Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1692, it also destroyed remarkably large quantities of Chinese porcelain that had been in use in households there. Perhaps as much as 20 percent of the goods that British slave traders exchanged for West African slaves in the eighteenth century was made up of fine, brilliantly colored textiles from Bengal and other parts of India. And when Bostonians organized their famous tea party in November 1773, it was Chinese tea shipped in by the British East India Company that they threw into their harbor.

Conversely, the political ideals that were put forward in Boston, Philadelphia, New Haven, and other American towns after 1776 were taken up and discussed not only by men and women in Europe, South America, and the Caribbean but also by people (not all of them white or Christian) in Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. As these examples demonstrate, the early modern Atlantic world was not self-contained or just shaped by four continents. It was increasingly the creation of all continents, and its influence extended beyond a single ocean.

In the light of current scholarly awareness of and consuming interest in such intercontinental connections, the future of the Atlantic past must now be in some doubt. It is likely that, if it survives, Atlantic history will increasingly be viewed and increasingly practiced as one part of the reconstruction of a world history.5 As Fernand Braudel discovered, organizing history around stretches of water inexorably alters and enlarges the way it is understood. Seas and oceans flow into each other. So too, properly looked at, do the histories of all humankind.

This Issue

June 22, 2006