The Atlantic slave trade continued into the 19th century, but the international trade was largely outlawed in 1807 by Britain. Slavery ended in 1865 in the United States and in the 1880s in Brazil (1888) and Cuba (1886). In many ways the history of the "Atlantic world" culminates in the "Atlantic Revolutions" of the late 18th century and early 19th century.
The Atlantic World comprises the history of Europe, Africa, North America and South America.
Travel over land was difficult and expensive, so settlements were made along the coast, especially where rivers allowed small boats to travel inland. Distant settlements were linked by elaborate sea-based trading networks. Since the easiest and cheapest way of long-distance travel was by sea, international trading networks emerged in the Atlantic world, with major hubs at London, Amsterdam, Boston and Havana. Time was a factor, as sailing ships averaged about 2 knots speed (50 miles a day). Navigators had to rely on maps of currents or they would be becalmed for days or weeks. One major goal for centuries was finding a Northwest Passage (through what is now Canada) from Europe to Asia.
Following Columbus and the earliest European voyages to the New World and the west African coast Africa and the division of the Americas between the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire was effected by the Treaty of Tordesillas. The West Coast of Africa played a special role as the source of slave labor. There emerged an elaborate network of economic, geopolitical and cultural exchange—an "Atlantic World" comparable to "Mediterranean World." It linked the nations and peoples that inhabited the Atlantic litoral of North and South America, Africa and Western Europe.
The main empires that built the Atlantic world were the British, French, Spanish , Portuguese and Dutch; entrepreneurs from the United States played a role as well after 1789. Some smaller countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, were active on a smaller scale.
The beginning of extensive contact between Europe, Africa, and the Americas had sweeping implications for the environmental and demographic history of all the regions involved. In the process known as the Columbian exchange, numerous plants, animals, and diseases were transplanted—both deliberately and inadvertently—from one continent to another. The epidemiological impact of this exchange on the indigenous peoples of the Americas was profound, causing very high death rates and population declines of 50% to 90% or even 100%. European and African immigrants also had very high death rates on their arrival, but they could be and were replaced by new shipments of immigrants. (see Population history of American indigenous peoples). Many foods that are common in present-day Europe, including corn (maize) and potatoes, originated in the New World and were unknown in Europe before the sixteenth century. Similarly, some staple crops of present-day West Africa, including cassava and peanuts, originated in the New World. Some of the staple crops of Latin America, such as coffee and sugarcane, were introduced by European settlers in the course of the Columbian Exchange.
Slavery and other labor systems
The slave trade played a role in the history of the Atlantic world almost from the beginning. As European powers began to conquer and claim large territories in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the role of chattel slavery and other forced labor systems in the development of the Atlantic world expanded. European powers typically had vast territories that they wished to exploit through agriculture, mining, or other extractive industries, but they lacked the work force that they needed to exploit their lands effectively. Consequently, they turned to a variety of coercive labor systems to meet their needs. At first the goal was to use native workers. Native Americans were employed through Indian slavery and through the Spanish system of encomienda. The Indians too often preferred to die of starvation rather than be slaves, so the plantation owners turned to African slaves via the Atlantic slave trade. European workers arrived as indentured servants or transported felons who went free after a term of labor.
The Trans-Atlantic Slave trade played a massive role in shaping the demographics of the Americas, especially in areas where huge plantations were the norm, such as in South America and the Caribbean. Roughly three quarters of immigrants to the Americas before 1820 were African, and more than half of these Africans were originally from West or central Africa. In Brazil, the population percentage of Africans was even higher, with about seven African to every one Portuguese immigrant. Because there was such a large population of Africans, it is unsurprising that African slaves aided in shaping the culture of these regions. In the early colonial period, there was a high prevalence of African spiritual practices, such as spirit possessions and healing practices. Presumably, these practices served as a point of connection and as an identity hold for slaves hailing from the same African origin. Such cultural practices allowed, at least to an extent, African slaves to maintain kinship structures similar to those that they might have seen in their homeland. In many cases, European authorities viewed spiritual positions that were highly esteemed in African societies to be socially unacceptable, morally corrupt, and heretical. This led to the disappearance or transformation of most African religious practices. For example, the practice of consulting kilundu, or Angolan spirits, was seen as homosexual by Portuguese authorities, a clear example of Eurocentrism in colonial societies, as European ideas of religion often did not match African ones. Unfortunately, there is a lack of documents written from the African point of view, so almost all information from this time period in these colonial societies is subject to cross-cultural misinterpretation, omission of facts, or other such changes that could affect the quality of description of African spiritual practices. Maintaining the integrity of cultural practices was difficult due to disagreement with European propriety and European tendency to generalize the African demographic makeup to merely “Central African,” rather than acknowledging individual cultures. Eventually, most African traditions such as Kilundu, which was ultimately reduced to the popular Brazilian dance “Lundu,” were either absorbed into other African traditions or were reduced to a ritual simply resembling the original tradition.
The extent of voluntary immigration to the Atlantic world varied considerably by region, nationality, and time period. Many European nations, particularly the Netherlands and France, only managed to send a few thousand voluntary immigrants. Though 15,000 or so who came to New France multiplied rapidly. In New Netherland, the Dutch coped by recruiting immigrants of other nationalities. In New England, the massive Puritan migration of the first half of the seventeenth century created a large free workforce and thus obviated the need to use unfree labor on a large scale. Colonial New England's reliance on the labor of free men, women, and children, organized in individual farm households, is called the family labor system.
The French colony of Saint-Domingue was one of the first American jurisdictions to end slavery, in 1794. Brazil was last nation in the Western Hemisphere to end slavery, in 1888.
The Spanish conquistadores conquered the Aztec empire in present-day Mexico and the Inca empire in present-day Peru with ease, assisted by horses, guns, and above all by the devastating mortality inflicted by newly introduced diseases such as smallpox. To some extent the prior emergence of the Inca and Aztec empires as regional powers aided the transfer of governance to the Spanish, since these native empires had already established road systems, state bureaucracies and systems of taxation and intensive agriculture that were in some cases inherited wholesale by the Spanish. The early Spanish conquerors of these empires were also aided by political instability and internal conflict within the Aztec and Incan regimes, which they successfully exploited to their benefit.
One of the problems that most European governments faced in the Americas was how to exercise authority over vast expanses of territory. Spain, which colonized Mexico, Central America, and the greater part of South America, established a network of powerful viceroyalties to administer different regions of its New World holdings: the Viceroyalty of New Spain (1535), the Viceroyalty of Peru (1542), the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1717/1739), and the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata (1776). The result was strong government that became even stronger during the Bourbon reforms of the 18th century.
Britain approached the task of governing its New World territories in less centralized manner, establishing about twenty distinct colonies in North America and the Caribbean from 1585 onward. Each British colony had its own governor and an assembly. The North American Thirteen Colonies developed a system of home rule and democratic self-government. Usually only property owners could vote but since so many free men owned property a majority could and did vote. It was the British threat against home rule, and its demand for control of taxation, that led to the American Revolution in the 1770s.
A wave of revolutions shook the Atlantic world, 1770s-1820s, including the United States (1775–1783), France and French-controlled Europe (1789–1814), Haiti (1791–1804), and Spanish America (1810–1825). There were smaller upheavals in Switzerland, Russia, and Brazil. The revolutionaries in each country knew of the others and to some degree were inspired or emulated them.
Independence movements in the New World began with the American Revolution, 1775-1783, in which France, the Netherlands and Spain assisted the new United States of America as it secured independence from Britain. In the 1790s the Haitian Revolution broke out with large scale killings. With Spain tied down in European wars, the mainland Spanish colonies secured independence around 1820.
In long-term perspective, the revolutions were mostly successful. They spread widely the ideals of republicanism, the overthrow of aristocracies, kings and established churches. They emphasized the universal ideals of The Enlightenment, such as the equality of all men. They emphasized equal justice under law by disinterested courts, as opposed to particular justice handed down at the whim of a local noble. They showed that the modern notion of revolution, of starting fresh with a radically new government, could actually work in practice. Revolutionary mentalities were born and continue to flourish to the present day.
As a historical concept
Historian Bernard Bailyn traces the concept of the Atlantic world to an editorial published by journalist Walter Lippmann in 1917. The alliance of the United States and Great Britain in World War II, and the subsequent creation of NATO, heightened historians' interest in the history of interaction between societies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
In American and British universities, Atlantic World history is supplementing (and possibly supplanting) the study of specific European colonial societies in the Americas, e.g. British North America or Spanish America. Atlantic world history differs from traditional approaches to the history of colonization in its emphasis on inter-regional and international comparisons and its attention to events and trends that transcended national borders. Atlantic world history also emphasizes how the colonization of the Americas reshaped Africa and Europe.
- Atlantic history, on the historiography of the Atlantic world.
- Age of Discovery
- Atlantic slave trade
- Atlantic Revolutions
- Colonial America
- New France
- New Netherland
- New Spain
- Piracy in the Atlantic World
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- Pierre Berton, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole, 1818-1909 (2000)
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