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Book Review


Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan, eds. The Oxford Handbook of The Atlantic World 1450–1850. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, Pp. xviii + 671, includes index, figures, and maps. (cloth).


     During the past two decades, the field of Atlantic Studies has had many books and even encyclopedias related to its field, but so far not so many handbooks. Therefore, Professors Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan's new Oxford Handbook of The Atlantic World 1450–1850 is a welcome piece of work which focuses on the years previous and the centuries following the dramatic year of 1492, when Europe "officially" met America for the first time. The contributors of these 37 essays aim to provide new, cross-cultural perspectives in the studying and understanding of Atlantic history, that is the numerous interactions between three continents using a combination of academic domains.

     If one needs a tentative definition, Atlantic Studies are the multidisciplinary and often interdisciplinary analysis of the relationships, exchanges, and mutual influences among the three continents surrounding the Atlantic Ocean: Europe, Africa, and the Americas, including the Caribbean Islands and the poles. Scholars in this field use and combine interdisciplinary methodologies in order to understand historical, cultural, political, social dimensions. Studying just one country on either side of the Atlantic Ocean does not make this sort of research labeled as "Atlantic Studies" as such; one needs a comparative approach in order to identify a set of influences and to adopt an interdisciplinary, if not a transdisciplinary, vision.

     The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World 1450–1850 does not use the category of Atlantic Studies as such, and instead uses the term Atlantic History, which is similar in some regards. In their introduction, Nicholas Canny (National University of Ireland) and Philip Morgan (Johns Hopkins University) center their whole approach into the concept of movement: "Beginning in the fifteenth century, people, plants, pathogens, products, and cultural practices – just to mention some key agents – began to move regularly back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean" (p. 1). In a detailed presentation, the co-editors rightly highlight three of the numerous revolutions that occurred within the Atlantic World during eighteenth century: "a sugar revolution, a consumer revolution, and an information revolution" (p. 11). Indeed, many profound changes in everyday life happened in just a few years on these three continents, mainly because they came into contact with one another (p. 11). As Canny and Morgan put it, "tastes certainly expanded enormously, diets were transformed luxuries became necessities, and consumption patters were profoundly altered" during this short period of time (p. 11).

     Ethnic and cross-cultural dimensions appear throughout this collection of essays, from the slave trade to Aboriginals; they also include material on the existence of Creoles (who were "neither immigrants nor indigenes, but locally born peoples usually drawn either from newcomers alone or from mixtures of newcomers and natives, increasingly self-aware and conscious of themselves as separate and distinctive") (p. 12).

     Chapter 2 investigates how the three continents were  before their "first encounter;" that is, before a stream of interactions and exchanges just a few years before the point of no return of 1492, focusing on trade, explorations, and everyday life. Here, Joan-Pau Rubiés demonstrates that "the process by which c.1490 three different continents came to be connected by Atlantic navigation could only have been led from Europe" (p. 37).

     Most chapters concentrate on one specific dimension, such as in chapter 4 on the early encounters between Native Americans and European explorers in the Caribbean. In chapter 6 ("Knowledge and Cartography in the Early Atlantic"), Matthew Edney argues that "the Atlantic has never been a natural, predefined stage on which humans have acted: like all special entities, it is a social construct that has been constituted through human activities" (p. 87). His chapter highlights the evolution of maps (already with latitudes and longitudes in 1492) and the scholarly discourses of geography in the era of Columbus, a discipline which was in fifteenth century labeled as "cosmography" rather than geography (p. 87). Another chapter discusses the tragic theme of violence in European and American societies during the early modern period, with a revisiting of the "civilizing process" in Africa and in America (p. 118). The following chapter by David Shields presents refinement, sensual pleasures, and the arts in many dimensions (music, food) from one continent to another. This is the kind of original chapter that opens new historical dimensions (tastes, "the senses") for teachers and students as well. Not many authors in Atlantic Studies have opted for such original approaches based on art and culture (Komara, 2005).

     The dark theme of violence reappears in many chapters. For example in chapter 10, Wim Klooster argues that violence was then legitimated between empires including the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French and the English: "military and commercial motives were often intimately linked" in what is coined here as "predatory activities" (p. 166). Slavery and theft were the norm for commerce and trading: "Soon, planters in the English and Dutch colonies also reaped the rewards of privateering, buying enslaved Africans from raiders who had stolen them from Portuguese slavers" (p. 166).

     Among many strong points, some contributors succeed in relying on sources that are not exclusively taken from English publications, which therefore improves the diversity of contexts and perspectives offered here.

     An interesting essay with an original focus, chapter 28 discusses categories and group identities during the colonial period: Europeans, of course, but also Indians, Africans, and many "other categories of belonging," for instance based on religion (p. 492). Beyond the familiar themes and phenomena such as slavery, Tamar Herzog analyses as well the coexistence of Europeans and Africans in ports in Kongo during the slaving era; stigmatization and stereotypes (such as "Blacks are always slaves") from the colonial era are studied as well (p. 491). Her conclusion is like an invitation for investigating imaginary pasts as European settlers (but also Africans and Indians) often idealized their unknown origins: "Cultivating stories about their glorious origins and nobility, early modern settlements in both Europe and the Americas often imagined themselves as corporate bodies or closed communities" (p. 494).

     The last section of essays gives some comparative points of view, such as the American Revolution seen from an Atlantic perspective (p. 523). This same comparative, interdisciplinary approach is used again in the study on the Haitian Revolution (chapter 31) and for the analysis of popular movements in colonial Brazil (chapter 32). In the excellent final chapter, Emma Rothschild makes a plea for a new cultural history of ideas, with a focus on "the states of mind; of the Atlantic as a world-view or Weltanschauung" (p. 646). In her praise of Atlantic Studies as a broad, innovative, interdisciplinary field, Emma Rothschild appreciates the fact that whenever using this new approach, "Atlantic and other transnational histories have liberated historians from the confining classifications of national historiography" (p. 646). Nowadays, not many historians and scholars would dare to say that in public because they often see themselves as the guardians of their discipline.

     However, despite its obvious qualities and strengths, there are three minor problems with this book. First, colonial Canada and Nouvelle-France do not get enough coverage in this collection; very few chapters mention the French Atlantic. Furthermore, in Chapter 14, some remarks regarding French Canada seem to lack of bibliographical sources (p. 240); in her conclusion, Professor Silvia Marzagalli even neglects to include the small islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon (near Newfoundland) in her summary of the remaining French possessions on the American continent (p. 250). The second problem is about the reliance on dated secondary sources used in many chapters; usually, handbooks are supposed to provide some new directions and up-to-date scholarship about timely topics and about how the discipline has evolved in recent years. But in many cases here, the works cited in bibliographies at the end of many chapters are often ten, sometimes twenty years old (see pp. 37, 218, 251, 601). The third problem involves the bibliographical references in all chapters: all footnotes (and there are hundreds in this book) lack the names of the books' publishers for every reference, which sets a very bad example for students.

     Although there are many dates and names of places provided in these pages, it is clear that The Oxford History of the Atlantic World should not be used merely as a directory or repertory of important dates to remember, but rather as a series of rigorous demonstrations and explanations about what the dynamics and motivations were for travelling and trading in such risky conditions from 1492-onward. The other underlying issues in many chapters is simply "where do we come from?" and "How come we are living here and not where our ancestors used to live?" The fundamental questions are going well beyond the realm of historical studies.

     While this book might be too complex (and too expensive) for undergraduates, teachers could certainly use it for their course preparation or perhaps for inspiration for assignments or exams. Scholars and graduates in a variety of fields, from history to American Studies and Comparative Studies will find here a solid reference. On the other hand, doctoral students in search of a theme for an interdisciplinary thesis might find here an inspiration and many points of view. Teachers in history and historical studies will probably appreciate the richness of these many perspectives.

Yves Laberge, Ph.D., is a Canadian sociologist and associate member of the research group in American Studies, EA 1796, ACE, Université de Rennes 2, in France. He can be reached at



Thomas Adam ed., Germany and the Americas: Culture, Politics, History, Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio Press, 2005.

James P. Byrne, Philip Coleman, and Jason King, eds. Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio Press, 2008.

Edward Komara, ed., Encyclopedia of the Blues, New York, Routledge, 2006.

Bill Marshall ed. France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, History, Santa Barbara, ABC-Clio Press, 2005.


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