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Book Review


Thomas Benjamin, The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and Their Shared History 1400—1900. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press (2009). Pp. xxx-721 $46.99 (paper)


     Thomas Benjamin's magnum opus, with 666 pages of text, forty maps, many illustrations, tables and primary source documents, a seven page glossary, and a twenty-three page "select" bibliography, plus a useful index, is a significant addition to the growing body of scholarship on Atlantic history. Benjamin divides his book into three parts, each of which could be a separate book by itself.

     Part I, which he gives the somewhat poetic title, "The Ocean Shall Unloose the Bonds of Things," starts with a chapter titled "Antecedents" setting the fifteenth-century stage in the four continents and offering nearly equal coverage to the Americas. In Benjamin's treatment, the Americas, Atlantic Africa and Western Europe may have been, in the fifteenth century, roughly equivalent in population and wealth, constituting together about a third of the earth's fifteenth century population. Benjamin writes, "In 1500, Latin Christendom was a minor civilization [but] [b]eginning in the fifteenth century Western Europe would … create  an Atlantic World that would begin to surpass [the] great [Eurasian] …  civilizations" (47). However, Benjamin does not attribute Europe's ascent only to geography. "[T]he beginning of the 'Rise of the West," he maintains," preceded the expansion of Europe into the Atlantic" (47). Part of the explanation for Europe's rise, he argues, can be found in Europe's superior management of information technology, with the mass printing of books and its fifty-six universities in the fifteenth century.

     In the next three chapters, "Commencement," Conquests" and "Realms," Portugal and then Spain emerge as the principal agents for historical change in the Atlantic World prior to the seventeenth century, although Benjamin rather gamely attempts to portray the Africans and Native Americans as more than passive victims. What Benjamin's rendition does show is that some Africans and Native Americans were complicit in the enslavement and subjugation of masses of their fellow countrymen. The Portuguese in the sixteenth century established a globe girdling oceanic network of trading posts, centered in the Atlantic islands and African coastal kingdoms, based on slavery and plunder. Their holdings in Brazil were of lesser importance in the sixteenth century. The Portuguese traded with African kings, mostly for slaves to man the sugar plantations they established in the Atlantic islands and, after the middle of the sixteenth century, increasingly in Brazil. The Portuguese repaid these African kings by supplying guns for the increased warfare occasioned by the burgeoning slaving.

     The Spanish erected a glittering empire on the conquered civilizations in Mesoamerica and the Andes. From the assets of traumatized heirs of the Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations, the Spanish constructed one of the world's greatest empires. For both Spanish and Portuguese, the Americas and Africa were a vast pool of forced but inexpensive laborers, which they used promiscuously and wastefully. The Spaniards, in the sixteenth century, with the abundant source of labor at their disposal, constructed opulent cathedrals, convents and other magnificent testimonials to their piety but, by the end of the century, harsh treatment combined with Old World pathogens produced a demographic disaster that seriously depleted the Native American labor supply.

     In Part II, "Europe Supported by Africa and America," Benjamin discusses the Atlantic world in the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth century. The author emphasizes the burgeoning of merchant capitalism in Western Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, together with the important role of the Dutch West India Company in the first half of the seventeenth century, along with the growing importance of English and French colonial efforts in the second half of the seventeenth century. The most important Atlantic enterprise of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was the plantation complex centering on the Caribbean and the Brazilian coast. The European demand for plantation products, particularly sugar, but also tobacco, coffee, cocoa, rice and cotton, rose steadily through these centuries. Plantations supplying these products flourished, and the plantations' need for forced labor ensnared peoples as diverse as the Pequots on the New England frontier, the Cherokees and Creeks of the North American southeast, and the Tupi and Ge of the Brazilian sertao. There the Paulistas and other professional slave hunters depopulated vast areas in their attempts to satisfy the growing demand for forced labor on the sugar plantations. In spite of this, the principal source of forced labor was the African slave trade.

     In Chapter 7, "Uprooted," Benjamin rather clinically describes the slave trade as a standard and lucrative branch of commerce. Profits of the slave trade supplied the wealth undergirding much of the growing prosperity of Western Europe and America, and the most respected financial institutions battened on the slave trade. Benjamin's prose, although detached, paints the brutality of the slave trade in stark colors. On the Middle Passage (the voyage from Africa to the ports in the Americas), Benjamin writes, "The slave decks became unspeakably horrid during the course of the voyage" (354). Mortality was high in the shipping of captives across the Atlantic, but Benjamin notes that the crewmen who guarded the slave cargos often died at higher rates than the captives. Slave rebellion and diseases to which the Africans had developed some immunity made the slave transport a dangerous business. According to Benjamin, the vast majority of immigrants to the Americas in colonial times were African slaves, stating that, "Of the more than six million souls that traveled to the Americas from 1492 to the American Revolution in 1776, only one million were Europeans" (371). In his discussion of the long-term effects of the slave trade on Africa, Benjamin remarks on the ongoing debate, but does not advocate for any of the contending positions. Did the subtraction of nearly eleven million people depress population and economic growth in Africa? Did the slave trade encourage warfare among African peoples? What was the slave trade's effect on political development? In Benjamin's view, the jury is still out.

     Chapter 8, "Bondage: The Atlantic Plantation Complex and the Cultures of Slavery," discusses the development of slave societies in the Americas. Benjamin distinguishes between societies with slaves and slave societies. An example that Benjamin does not cite, but which may fit this distinction, is that colonial New England was a society with slaves, while South Carolina was a slave society. In slave societies, slavery was the dominant cultural institution, shaping the economy and politics, and influencing the religion and mores of the land. Slavery controlled the slave owners as well as the slaves. In this chapter, Benjamin highlights the varieties of plantations and the several systems that the plantation owners employed to extract labor from the slaves. While brutality was always present, slave regimes also sought to enlist the slave's cooperation. Benjamin discusses the use of the "task" system, the "allowance" system, and the system by which the slaves were given plots of land to support themselves. Slavery was less brutal when slaves were given some control over plots of land and its produce. As the plantation system reached its apogee in the eighteenth century, the imperatives of profit maximization intensified the brutality of slavery. This was true especially in Brazil and the sugar islands of the Caribbean, where slaves were sometimes worked to death in a few years and the slave stock was continuously replenished by fresh imports from Africa. Slaves resisted their bondage in a variety of ways, from simple slowdowns of the work pace to rebellion and suicide. Benjamin discusses these forms of resistance, as well as some of the more widespread rebellions in Brazil, and the maroons in Surinam and Jamaica.

     In Chapter 9, "Partners: Women and Men in the Making of the Atlantic World," Benjamin discusses the role of patriarchy, racism and  "miscegenation" in the development of accommodation among European, Native American and African peoples principally in the Americas, but also in some of the Portuguese enclaves in Atlantic Africa. Patriarchy was the rule wherever European culture became rooted, but there were also areas of life where women moved beyond the subordinate role to become political and, especially, economic agents. Benjamin mentions women rulers such as Queen Isabella, as well as the approach toward partnership in some European family situations. Benjamin lauds Western European culture for its softer patriarchy, arguing that, "In no other culture in the world was there a querrelle des femmes, a debate about the nature of women and their roles in society" (427). One occasion for women's power that Benjamin does not cite, but which would be appropriate, is the women's worlds of the many Catholic convents in Spanish America.

     Part III, "A New Order of the Ages," is the culminating section of Benjamin's work. It deals with the Atlantic world at its apogee, when it was an identifiable region of historical processes, before it merged into the less discrete era of globalization. Chapter 10, "Rivals," is an interesting discussion of the colonial wars between Britain and France in the "Long Eighteenth Century," from 1689 to 1815. In this long struggle, Britain achieved the hegemony over the Atlantic world and became the greatest world power of the nineteenth century. This is mainly a chapter of military narration, and includes the colonial wars of the eighteenth century, as well as the American Revolution, in addition to the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire.

     Chapters 11 and 12, "Liberty" and "Equality," explore the American, French, Dutch, Haitian and Latin American Revolutions and wars for independence. And finally, Chapter 13, "Freedom," summarizes the abolition of slave trade and slavery in the Western world. It is a large order that Benjamin manages to accomplish in only forty-five pages, with which he ends the main text of his admirable work.

     The Atlantic World is a survey of the impact the major colonial actors--the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch the French and the British--had on the Native Americans and Africans in the New World. One wishes that the text presented more voices and perspectives from the non-European victims. Nevertheless, The Atlantic World synthesizes material from a wide array of sources and should be read by those interested in Atlantic, Latin American, and United States history as well as world history. It would also be useful as a supplementary text in courses on Atlantic history.

Wilfred Bison is a professor emeritus from Keene State College who now lives in Florida. He can be reached at


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