The Princeton Companion to Atlantic History
Princeton University Press (Footprint), $109 hb, 567 pp, 9780691148533
Atlantic history and the closely related phrase 'Atlantic World' refer to a geographical/historical way of thinking about interactions among peoples of Europe, Africa, and the Americas between about 1500 and 1900. Practitioners of Atlantic history, like other scholars washed up from the wreck of nation-based historical writing, find it impossible to comprehend the processes that made the modern world without looking beyond state frontiers. They have likewise cut loose from concepts that dominated historical studies sixty years ago like 'the Rise of the West', the Age of Exploration, and Imperialism. The trouble with such perspectives was that they cast history as a cavalcade driven by a few European actors on a road to preordained world domination. As China and India reclaim their historic positions at the top of the global pecking order, other explanatory models are required to explain how we all got where we are – whether it is Manhattan, Paris, the Amazonian rainforest, or Haiti.
The new Atlantic historians do not practise Big History in the David Christian mode. They pay no attention to the Big Bang or to the formation of continents. They do, however, interest themselves in a long sweep of climate change. For instance, the so-called 'Little Ice Age' stretching from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century exacerbated droughts in North Africa and North America that set a great many people in motion, generating new kinds of conflict and economic interaction.