Map of the Atlantic World
Francis Parkman and Jesuits New France

Image from one of Parkman’s books showing the ‘heroic’ nature of European colonizers

For centuries, those who have studied and written about the past have focused their attention on the exploits of the kingdoms and empires of Western Europe. This perception that, following 1492, European history became world history so distorted the views of historians that even topics such as the transatlantic slave trade and Native American experiences with white settlement and disease became seen through the lens of European powers such as England, France, and Spain. Francis Parkman is often cited as the classic example of such scholarship. In his works, Parkman viewed Native Americans as the “primitive inhabitants of North America”1 who were about to bear witness to “a great and significant drama enacted among untamed forests.”2Yet, when describing missionaries to New France, Parkman described them as having “the patience of saints, the courage of heroes, and an intent truly charitable” with which they “put forth a nimble-fingered adroitness that would have done credit to the profession.”3Indeed, after reading a history book written even in 1900 one walks away with the sense that European civilization simply rolled over the world like a tidal wave, washing away barbarism and leaving civilization in its place. Or, as one such writer put it in 1918, European colonial powers proved “able and ready to take up the white man’s burden.”4

As the subject of history progressed, more modern historians began to look outside the European tradition to explain the events of the past. These scholars, often denoted as cultural and social historians, wanted to understand history through the eyes of those who left little to no documentation, and how people other than Western European elites viewed the phenomenon of the Early Modern period and era of European expansion across the Atlantic Ocean. Coming into its own in the 1980s and 1990s, this era of historical scholarship gave agency back to Native Americans, Africans, and all their marginalized ancestors (be they dubbed métis, mestizo, or mulatto by the historical record). In the words of Daniel Richter, “historians, students, and interested readers… still too often exclude native peoples from the narrative mainstream of North American development.”5 This academic paradigm carries on today, with many wonderful scholars and historians broadening our understanding of human societies and their histories.

But, even as this generation of scholars demonstrated the absolute absurdity of the theses that underwrote works by authors such as Francis Parkman, historical inquiry remained largely divided along geographical lines. These divides proved so divisive that one scholar quipped, “Historians of Peru sometimes find themselves barely within hailing distance of those of Mexico, and to historians of New England those of the Chesapeake may seem equally remote.”6 Even today, if you peruse the web pages of any history department at any university, you’ll find French historians, American historians, Latin American and Caribbean historians, and so on.

Map of the Atlantic World

Map of the Atlantic World

At its roots, the concept of the Atlantic World came about as a means to connect seemingly disparate stories and weave them into a larger tale of humanity. And that’s exactly why it’s so fascinating. It is only with such a comparative paradigm that we can see how, “in the Atlantic, Indians and Africans and European settlers, traders, and migrants encountered foreign and exotic societies and were forced to come to terms with challenging physical and social environments,” and how “in doing so they reinvented themselves, and contributed to the reinvention both of the societies they encountered and of their home cultures.”7 Through the Atlantic World paradigm, we can compare the lives of the Wendat and Bretons and how they understood and dealt with the imperialist impulse of missionaries emanating out of Paris. We can understand how the lives of Africans on the Gold Coast were similar or different to the lives of Tupí-Namba in Brazil as they both dealt with increased warfare and slavery as a result of Portuguese incursions. Through the lens of the Atlantic World, it is even possible to cross national borders, and study what members of the imperial elite from kingdoms such as Spain and France viewed as their mission in the Americas.

Via these trans-national and comparative paradigms, historians are discovering new stories to be told, and filling out our understanding of how our world came to be. In the words of two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Bernard Bailyn:

“This broad perspective is no doubt only one of several ways of viewing comprehensively the development of the peoples of the Western world in the early modern period, and no doubt it will in time be superseded by or absorbed into other formulations. But at this stage it seems to organize freshly and coherently material that is otherwise scattered; the interactions and contrasts it reveals are illuminating; and for all its complexity, the world it comprehends has a unity that distinguishes it in the course of recorded history.”8 

Resources: 

  1. Francis Parkman, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth-Century, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1892), vi.
  2. Francis Parkman, Count Frontenac and New France under Louis XIV: France and England in North America (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1903), vi.
  3. Parkman, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth-Century, 207.
  4. William Bennett Munro, Crusaders of New France: A Chronicle of the Fleur-de-Lis in the Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1918), 2.
  5. Daniel Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), viii.
  6. John H. Elltiot, Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. Nicholas Canny and Anthony Pagden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987, 3.
  7. The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, Second Edition. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 1.
  8. Bernard Bailyn,The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, Second Edition. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), xix-xx.