The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850, ed. Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2011; pp. xviii + 671. £85).
This review first appeared in English Historical Review Dec. 2012, Vol. 127 Issue 529, pp. 1532-1535.
The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850
Edited by Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan
Reviewed by Michael A. McDonnell, University of Sydney
The stated purpose of the Oxford Handbook series is to offer authoritative and up-to‐date surveys of original research. Aimed primarily at scholars wanting an overview of a defined subject area, or graduate students looking to read their way into a new field, the Handbooks are supposed to offer critical examinations of the progress and direction of debates, as well as a foundation for future research.
For the most part, the Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World succeeds admirably in achieving these aims. Edited by the internationally renowned scholars Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan, the volume consists of no fewer than thirty‐seven commissioned essays by leading scholars from across Europe and the Americas (though, admittedly, the bulk of these contributors are based in the United States). Morgan and Canny have also done a great job of bringing senior scholars into conversation with emerging and recently established experts in their respective fields. In their introductory essay, and through a four-part chronologically organised schema, the editors have also managed to maintain some coherence in the volume—no mean feat, given the period covered and the range of topics canvassed. Indeed, as they note, creating a narrative framework for this diverse field was one of their key goals.
Briefly put, this framework begins with the emergence and consolidation of several Atlantic worlds in the course of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, followed by their integration as an interdependent whole by the eighteenth century. Such interconnectedness was made manifest from the late eighteenth century, when challenges and collapse in one area often led to significant disruption in others, if not in the whole system. While the broad outlines of this narrative arc reflect a standard story‐line in the field of Atlantic history thus far, the editors were also keen that the volume be ‘mould‐breaking’ (p. 2). To achieve this, the editors eschew a Eurocentric approach and note the need to acknowledge the persistent influence of Native Americans and Africans especially in at least shaping their own place in this developing new world, if not in shaping the broader outlines of that world. They are also keen to distinguish the Atlantic world as a place in which human agency, rather than just environmental conditions, drove events.
Given the many interests at play, this has also meant emphasising the diversity of experiences, settlements, and outcomes in the Atlantic at least as much as, if not more than, the similarities. Still, over time, winds and tides prevailed to help bring a level of integration to this world that ranged from the social, to the economic, and the legal and political. So too, did the Atlantic Ocean’s extensive riverine systems: remarkably, the editors note, the continental areas drained by rivers emptying into the Atlantic are about twice as great as those entering into the Pacific and Indian oceans combined—allowing a deep, and perhaps unique, penetration of the hinterlands. Finally, Canny and Morgan stress the primacy of warfare in both dividing and integrating the Atlantic world in the eighteenth century. Imperial rivalries, frontier conflicts, and revolutionary wars combined to create crises of both integration and disintegration.
Having set an ambitious agenda, with lofty aims, the editors have not been disappointed by their many contributors. Parts I and II deal with the emergence and early consolidation of the different Atlantic worlds. Opening essays introduce us to now familiar starting-places—the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Atlantic islands, and the lure of seaborne trade to West Africa and beyond. They also provide an introduction to the peoples involved in the opening of the early Atlantic, including, refreshingly, the diverse inhabitants of West Africa and the Americas, not just the usual cast of European characters. Still, the focus in most of these early essays is on European voyaging and movements and the creation of new maritime networks and knowledge among Europeans. Africans and Native Americans influence these developments, but they are not usually the primary subjects, or actors. This is, perhaps—and unfortunately—a fair reflection of the field at the moment. Essays in these opening sections range widely, from more traditional accounts of European voyaging to conceptually innovative essays on violence and the Atlantic world, the senses and the arts. There is also a wonderful comparative essay by Kevin Terraciano on native responses to changes wrought after 1492 in New Spain, Peru and North America.
Perhaps inevitably, though, summations of ‘The Iberian Atlantic to 1650’ and ‘The Northern European Atlantic World’ (although, strangely, nothing specifically on the early Spanish Atlantic), while useful, tend to repeat much of what is covered in thematic essays on ‘Atlantic Seafaring’ and ‘Knowledge and Cartography’. They also reach forward far into the period of ‘integration’ which is the theme of Part III. Yet those who dip in and out of the collection will appreciate these potted summaries (indeed, one suspects that few readers will work cover to cover through these chapters). Moreover, there are many rewarding insights to be found among them—such as A.J.R Russell‐Wood’s illuminating focus on the importance of Atlantic archipelagos in the Portuguese Atlantic World.
The overlap with Part III is perhaps intentional, since the editors are at pains to stress both the development of diverse Atlantic Worlds and their eventual integration—noting that this happened at different times in different places, and unevenly. Here, most of the essays focus on comparative or integrative themes. There are essays on the movement of goods and ideas, on plants and animals, on people and the places they created. There are also suggestive essays about emerging social, religious, legal and political institutions across the Atlantic. Yet often these essays reveal that while broad thematic comparisons might yield narratives that stress integration, the details reveal more differences than similarities. Provocative and illuminating essays, such as those by Kenneth Mills on religion and Tamar Herzog on identities, for example, show that the creation and re-creation of religious and other identities in the Atlantic was a complex process, highly contingent on local circumstances and the particular mix of people, culture and ideas in contact. They were also liable to fragment and divide as much as to unite and integrate. Here, the editors’ insistence on essays that take human agency seriously undermines the larger narrative that they suggest. While the Atlantic might have looked integrated as an economic system, it is less easy to tell a story of social, cultural, or even political integration across the whole.
The struggle of some essayists to make broader comparisons across imperial and colonial borders only emphasises this problem. Moreover, the overlap between Parts III and IV suggests a narrowing of the idea of integration to the point where it is difficult to discern where it existed at all. Essays here focus on the ‘disintegration’ of this system from about 1760 through the 1820s and beyond. New work on popular movements and rebellions sit alongside those of the ‘formal’ revolutions in the Hispanic, British, and French worlds. The end of the old Atlantic world also brought quite dramatic, and sometimes unexpected, results—as the essays on the fate of Native America and Africa testify. Although some of the essays in this section deal with the disintegrating connections between disparate parts of the Atlantic, the sudden reversion back to discrete essays on the many Atlantic worlds suggests that it is difficult to discern commonalities across the revolutionary waters. Moreover, the local and particular origins of so many of the rebellions and revolutions again give the lie to a previously integrated Atlantic world.
None of this is to criticise the individual and often rich essays that make up this collection. But it does suggest that it might be time to abandon the idea of a broader ‘Atlantic narrative’. Attempts to create one—even as admirably ‘mouldbreaking’ as this one—seem to constrain rather than inspire. So far, most of the larger‐scale narratives which Atlantic historians have tried to construct still have the shape of the old story of European overseas expansion, or operate within the colony-to‐nation framework. In that respect, they are in danger of obscuring at least as much as they illuminate, reinforcing rather than breaking down older historiographical boundaries. We need not abandon Atlantic history altogether—many of the essays in this collection attest to the fruits of staying with it. But we should rethink the larger picture. In one of the most conceptually innovative essays of the Handbook, Elizabeth Mancke comes closest to articulating the liberating potential of the field when she notes that Atlantic political history can do much more than repackage the old colony‐to‐nation narratives. Rather, ‘it offers a way to reassess critical developments in modern history: the linkages between commerce and colonization; the resilience of non‐ European political systems; the role of international relations in supporting and mediating Atlantic expansion; and the deployment by Europeans of Atlantic practices in other parts of the world’ (p. 398). We need more views of this Atlantic world from such different perspectives. We need to re‐imagine what kind of macro‐story we might hew from the myriad of new micro‐histories. We need to look at this world inside‐out, and from bottom‐to‐top. The essays in this Handbook, while successfully reflecting the current state of the field, also provide some illuminating suggestions as to how we might yet do that.