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Book Review


Egerton, Douglas R., Alison Games, Jane G. Landers, Kris Lane, and Donald R. Wright. The Atlantic World: A History, 1400-1888 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2007). 530 pp, $42.95.

     In the past, professors charged with designing a syllabus for a course on the Atlantic world have been forced to compile a hodge-podge of texts to be used in place of a single textbook. While that approach may be desirable from the perspective of introducing students to a variety of scholarly approaches and theories, it lacks the simplicity of assigning a single primary text. Douglas Egerton and his fellow authors have at last resolved this dilemma through the recently released The Atlantic World: A History, 1400-1888. While not a cure-all for the needs of instructors, nor a comprehensive study that will satisfy the research needs of scholars in the field, The Atlantic World is a solid introductory text that surely will become a staple of college syllabi throughout its area of focus.

     The roster of authors who cooperated in the writing of this book is just one aspect of many that should attract potential buyers. Each of the authors is coming to the book after significant experience in the field of Atlantic history. As readers of this journal know, one frequent obstacle to writing "good" World (or Atlantic) history is an author's established ideas from a previous national history background. For example, many historians will have focused their careers on U.S. history, European history, Mexican history, etc . . . before attempting to branch out through collaborating on a regional or global history text. The Atlantic World is a notable exception to that pattern. Douglas Egerton, Jane Landers, Kris Lane, and Donald Wright have all taught and written in the field of Atlantic history. Co-author Alison Games is one of the leading scholars in the field who has contributed immensely to its development as a separate area of research and teaching.

     The several authors of The Atlantic World successfully avoid the most common pitfalls of textbook writers. The narrative of this book flows smoothly, making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine which author was responsible for which section. Furthermore, significant texts listed in the "Selected Readings" section at the end of each chapter are often incorporated into the narrative, rather than simply added for decorative purposes or to artificially inflate the book's recommended bibliography. Most refreshingly, from the perspective of global and Atlantic historians, is the holistic approach taken by the text. Unlike some earlier global histories, which were merely Western Civilization texts with a few added chapters of non-western history thrown in, The Atlantic World is conceived in, and written from, the vantage point of a balanced survey of the broader region.

     The book begins by outlining the methodology and conceptual framework in which the authors will be operating. Presenting a brief overview of the field of Atlantic history, the authors proceed to establish the geographic and chronological boundaries which will govern their work. While graduate students and their professors would certainly desire a more rigorous historiographical essay to begin the text, the material contained in the Introduction will be quite sufficient to acquaint undergraduates with the key issues of the field. It is interesting to note that the book covers the period from 1400 to 1888. The opening of the European "Age of Exploration" is an easy choice for a starting date for any textbook such as this. The authors acknowledge, however, the challenges in agreeing upon an ending date. They eventually decided upon 1888, marking the end of slavery in the Atlantic world. This brief discussion in the Introduction marks an excellent place to open the discussion with students as to the important role of the historian in selecting a time frame for study and the significance of that changing perspective. (2)

     Moving on to define the key concepts of Atlantic history in Chapter One, the authors explore both the geographies and anthropologies of the region and its varied inhabitants prior to the start of cross-cultural interaction. Chapter Two then provides an overview of the European, African, and American "pre-histories" prior to the first sustained Atlantic connections. Giving fair treatment to both economic and cultural incentives for expansion, the authors document the growing interest among Europeans in foreign exploration. By the end of Chapter Two, the stage has been set for the arrival of the Spanish to the "New World."

     Chapters Three and Four chronicle the European entry into the Americas, focusing first on the Spanish and then later expanding to include Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch voyages and settlements. The authors explore religious, political, military, economic, and cultural motivations that drove European interests in exploration and conquest. Continuing both chronologically and thematically, they next turn their attention to questions of population and labor. Chapter Five explores early migration and settlement patterns and describes the initial development of Indian slavery. Caribbean and North American plantation systems are also discussed, as are relations with native populations in North America. In Chapter Six, the authors focus more specifically on the development of the Atlantic slave system. Sugar, cotton, and other economic motives figure prominently in this chapter, as do descriptions of the Middle Passage and early slave revolts. Racial or ideological motives behind the introduction of African slavery are noticeably lacking from this chapter.

     In Chapter Seven, the authors address the issue of trade. They focus extensively on the impact of developing Atlantic trade on urban areas located on both sides of the ocean. This trade also led to a rise in piracy and the introduction of new tariffs. The authors explore the creation of "Cultures of Consumption" centered on drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, as well as beverages such as chocolate and coffee. Cloths, weapons, and other commodities also became significant cultural influences both for Europeans and for indigenous populations in Africa and the Americas. The plight of the native African populations is explored in the final section of Chapter Seven, an especially well-narrated survey of the consequences of slavery in central and western Africa. (240-51)

     Chapter Eight explores the growing mixture of races and lifestyles present in the Americas during the Atlantic era. Mestizos and Mulattos, among the many permutations of race, became new social categories in both North and South America. At the same time, trading centers along the African coast evolved into multiethnic cities. Cultural communication, as well as marriage and sex, brought together races and lifestyles on both sides of the Atlantic world. Race became a significant legal and social issue throughout the Americas as Europeans sought to maintain their status above that of native and slave populations.

     Chapters Nine through Twelve narrate various aspects of the broad movement towards independence within the Atlantic hemisphere. The authors begin by exploring the various wars of the Seventeenth century and their impact on life in the Atlantic world. Economic and territorial competition eventually culminated in the Seven Years' War which, as the authors state, "spread like a brushfire around the globe." (305) Subsequent European efforts at administrative reform within their colonial territories only served to aggravate the concerns of colonists and hasten thoughts of independence. Riots and protests in Boston, Philadelphia, Quito, and Potosí in the mid-1700's are cited as evidence of growing resentment among both North and South Americans. The tensions eventually overflowed in the United States in the War for Independence, profiled in Chapter Ten. The authors take a broad view of the American Revolution, charting it in a chapter that stretches from 1754 to 1783. They are also careful to show the "big picture," including events in the Caribbean and the decision-making process of European governments debating support for the rebellious American colonies.

     Next, in Chapter Eleven, the French and Haitian revolutions are presented alongside one another. As suggested by the subtitle of this chapter, "The Season of Irony," the authors emphasize the seeming hypocrisy of fighting for Liberté, égalité, fraternité in France while at the same time denying freedom to slaves in Haiti. Just as was done for the American Revolution in the previous chapter, careful attention is given to events throughout the Atlantic world while the two French-speaking revolutions are raging in their midst. The final chapter of this section, Chapter Twelve, focuses attention on the collapse of Portuguese and Spanish rule in the Americas. Here, the authors choose to highlight what they term "American agency" as the motivating factor behind Latin American revolutions and categorize the Napoleonic Wars in Europe as merely an opportunity seized by Creole patriots eager for independence. (391) Within this atmosphere of imperial collapse, it is Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States who are seen as the rising stars of the Nineteenth century.

     The Atlantic World concludes with two chapters which return to the previous focus on economy and society. Chapter Thirteen considers the rapid spread of industrialization in Europe and North America and the consequences of that spread for Black Americans, Africans, and Latin Americans. Finally, Chapter Fourteen describes the struggles for abolition in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. By the end of this period, as the authors indicate, "the greater Atlantic region was being drawn more fully into a world system . . . increasingly linked by communication, commerce, ideology, and war." (492)

     As seen in this review, Douglas Egerton and his colleagues' Atlantic history textbook is a comprehensive and wide-ranging survey of political, social, cultural, and economic events in all facets of the Atlantic world. While emphasis on ideological motives is minimal, both for slavery (as noted above) as well as for Atlantic revolutions, this is only a minor detraction from an outstanding textbook. With maps, illustrations, and several charts, this text is user-friendly for undergraduate students. The numerous sidebars focusing in greater depth on relevant issues and individuals provide excellent points of departure for class lectures. Instructors will be grateful for the short bibliographies at the end of each chapter, and scholars will appreciate the smooth and efficient way in which historical arguments and primary source quotations are woven into the narrative. Hopefully, work will be underway in the near future on a teacher's guide containing suggested discussion questions and Internet links, although such a supplement will only serve to enhance an already outstanding classroom tool. As suggested in the title to this review, The Atlantic World is a textbook whose time has definitely come. This is a book which will certainly find its way onto many required reading lists in coming semesters.


William E. Doody
Saint Vincent College and Indiana Area School District


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