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Atlantic Ocean


ATLANTIC OCEAN. The emergence of a new world shaped by contact across and around the Atlantic is one of the single most significant historical developments of the early modern period. Before 1492 the Atlantic Ocean was bookended by two isolated hemispheres, one comprising Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the other, North and South America. Despite Norse settlements in Newfoundland and North America, and myths of Welsh and Irish voyages by Prince Madoc (also Madog ab Owain Gwynedd; 1170) and St. Brendan in 565573, there was no sustained and meaningful contact across the Atlantic before Christopher Columbus's (14511506) momentous voyage in 1492. In that year, a world of vertical connections was transformed into one of horizontal connections: the ensuing circulation of people, pathogens, commodities, and ideas created the Atlantic Ocean and transformed the four continents surrounding it. As a unit of analysis, the Atlantic Ocean transcends the geographic space of those regions literally touched by the sea itself. People who lived far from the ocean were affected by the new transatlantic and circumatlantic interactions of coastal regions. For example, despite location on the Pacific coast, California and Peru were drawn into an Atlantic world, as were African villages hundreds of miles from the coast when inhabitants were ensnared by the slave trade. By the late eighteenth century, the four continents surrounding the ocean were linked by any number of measures: European nations claimed dominion over most parts of the Americas; Europeans and Africans migrated across the Atlantic in the millions; American commodities transformed the economies of Europe and diets around the world. What happened in one corner of the Atlantic affected people and events elsewhere.

Before the fifteenth century, natural barriers impeded contact within and across the Atlantic. The Canary Current is a north-south flow that separates the Mediterranean from Africa. Its strong movement is mirrored in the winds, which blow in the same direction. As a consequence, while Europeans might sail to West Africa, they could not easily get themselves home again, and the currents and winds provided an impediment to any African voyages north. There were, similarly, strong westerly currents, such as the Equatorial Current from Senegambia to the Caribbean. This current made a western trip across the Atlantic quick, but getting home was a challenge without ships that could sail into the winds. Only with ways to circumvent these natural barriers could sustained contact and exchange develop.

Navigational and technological breakthroughs came first in the eastern Atlantic, as the Portuguese endeavored to develop sea routes to Asia and, closer to home, to west and central Africa. The impulse was trade: gold, salt, ivory, fabrics, and spicesall goods customarily carried by expensive land routes. Improvements in ship construction, most notably the use of triangular sails, enabled ships to tack more adeptly and to sail unconstrained by adverse winds. Navigational instruments, particularly compasses and astrolabes, assisted mariners in determining where they were, how far they had traveled, and how they might return home. These developments enabled mariners to travel off the coast for long distances, and ultimately brought Europeans not only to new places, but also more cheaply and quickly to places that were previously known. The process of European expansion began with the islands of the Atlantic: the Canary Islands (discovered in the 1320s and developed by the Spanish), and the Azores (discovered between 1427 and 1431), Madeira (first visited some time in the fourteenth century, and settled after 1420), and Cape Verde (discovered in the late fifteenth century), all colonized by the Portuguese, were exploited as agricultural colonies, valued particularly for sugar production. In Africa, the Portuguese established São Jorge de Mina (Elmina), off the coast of modern Ghana, in 1482 as a factory or trading post. This proved to be the model for most European engagement with Africa: Europeans reached the continent as supplicants, able to trade only with the permission of indigenous rulers who distributed monopolies and privileges in return for the benefits (in prestige, wealth, power, and commodities) they might accrue.

Columbus's momentous voyage in 1492 and the three voyages that followed can best be understood within this context of Portuguese maritime and commercial activity, although Columbus actually sailed with Spanish support. The Atlantic was shaped by Europeans' prior experiences elsewherein the Mediterranean, in Africa, and in the Atlantic islandsand came to take on its own distinct characteristics. If Europeans were motivated to explore the ocean for reasons of tradeto discover new routes to familiar destinations, to find new treasures, and to identify regions suitable for the cultivation of export cropstrade alone did not dictate the ultimate appearance of the transformed Atlantic. And if it was Europeans who had the initial impulse to explore the ocean and to chart not only its winds and currents but also the material and mineral wealth of the people who lived within and around it, the Atlantic Ocean that emerged was created by the people of four continentsEuropeans, Africans, and Americansand by the many cultural convergences and innovations that accompanied trade and conquest. The Atlantic Ocean was characterized by its discontinuities as well as by its coherence.


Soon after Columbus's voyages, one of the first challenges for Europeans was to assimilate intellectually the new people of the Americas. From a world characterized by a dichotomy between Christian and infidel, Europeans were forced through their interaction with Americans to find new categories and typologies. The American "savage" emerged as a secular version of the Old World's infidel. The struggle to devise appropriate ways of treating these new people occupied the attention of rulers and intellectuals, and was most vividly signaled in the 1550 debate in Valladolid between Bartoloméde Las Casas (14741566) and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (14901572 or 1573) over the status of the people of the Americas. Some Europeans attempted to assimilate these new people through their conversion to Catholicism. Missionaries followed and accompanied voyages of discovery and conquest, and the sixteenth century was a time of particular vigor for the Catholic Church in America, even as it suffered assault in Europe. Indigenous people, for their part, assimilated Christianity in distinctive ways, echoing the process of syncretism that had accompanied the spread of Christianity in Europe. Christian saints acquired the personality traits of indigenous gods, for example, and some Christian holidays received disproportionate emphasis among New World converts because of their close correlation with pre-Columbian belief systems, as was the case for All Souls' Day, or the Day of the Dead, still observed in parts of central America and the southwestern United States.

The assimilation of new people accompanied the gradual process of charting the New World and its many wonders on maps. The Dutch emerged as the great cartographers of the period, but precise delineation of the Atlantic was a protracted affair. Early cartographers filled empty spaces with sea monsters and descriptive text, allowing fanciful figures to mask ignorance. Cartographic schemes collided during the conquest of America, as illustrated most effectively in the Relaciones Geográficas, the questionnaires and accompanying maps compiled in New Spain for the Spanish crown in the 1570s and 1580s. Indigenous cartographers drafted 65 percent of these maps and employed their own conventions to delineate space, time, and history. They marked these events and places with toponyms, while Spanish clerks added Spanish text. These indigenous and European maps indicate that, for both Europeans and Americans, the process of assimilation and especially of real understanding of the New World was incomplete and hesitant.

Spain and, to a lesser extent, Portugal dominated the Atlantic for the first century of European engagement in the ocean. Bolstered by papal authority, Spain conquered and claimed the major islands of the Caribbean and the great former empires of the mainland, centered in the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru. The Portuguese claimed Brazil, although they sustained challenges from the French and Dutch. The northern European powers were slower to enter the western Atlantic, hindered in part by the dominance of Spain both in the Americas and in Europe and distracted by internal political and religious crises. Europeans also pursued profit in the Atlantic in ways other than settlement or conquest: fishing in the North Atlantic, for example, was a vital economic activity. When they did elect to settle colonies, they clung near the fringes of Spanish settlement. They sought their own great empires, but no Tenochtitlán or Cuzco awaited them. Instead of cities with buildings plated with silver and full of treasure, the French, Dutch, English, and Swedes who sought to establish colonies in North America and the Caribbean found for the most part semisedentary indigenous people, whose economies were poorly prepared to accommodate newcomers and whose cultures revealed little of apparent wealth that Europeans were able to identify. The perilous location of many of the colonies of Spain's rivals led to their destruction by the Spanish (as in the case of the French settlement at Fort Caroline in Florida in the 1560s) or to their abandonment because of problems of isolated location. Colonies were precarious enterprises, requiring good fortune, a favorable disease environment, generous financial support from the metropole, an ample supply of colonists, and a viable economy, whether based on agricultural production or trade. Easily one-half of all colonies were failures in the first two centuries of European settlement. Some colonies were lost through conquest, others were abandoned, especially because of indigenous resistance, while still others, such as the English settlement at Roanoke, simply disappeared.

By the eighteenth century a variety of colonial styles had emerged in the Atlantic. Trade factories (particularly in regions where indigenous economies provided desirable goods), plantations, and town and urban settlements were scattered around the western part of the Atlantic Ocean. In some of these settlements, Europeans were dependent on amicable relations with indigenous people in order to secure commodities. Europeans had displaced indigenous rulers, and in some regions indigenous people themselves had disappeared, replaced by Europeans and especially by Africans. These mature colonial societies had in most places established their own viable institutional lives, with churches, schools, colleges, social organizations, and institutions of governance in place to allow Creole elites to shape their own colonial world, although still under the regulation (either attentive or neglectful) of metropolitan governments.


With the very first vessels of exploration there traveled pathogens that ultimately transformed the societies of the Atlantic Ocean. European incursions were violent affairs, yet disease explains the diminished populations of the Americas more fully than does the brutality of conquest. The people of the Americas had been isolated for thousands of years not only from the Eurasian land mass, but also from many of the endemic and epidemic diseases familiar to Europeans and generally endured in childhoodsmallpox, chicken pox, mumps, measlesall of which were transported by European mariners, soldiers, and merchants. Columbus's second voyage brought an epidemic to the Caribbean; a smallpox epidemic ravaged Tenochtitlán in 1519 and facilitated Hernán Cortés's (14851547) conquest of Mexico; an epidemic similarly disorganized the Inca empire before Francisco Pizarro's (c. 14751541) assault in the 1530s. Disease also preempted conflict: a smallpox epidemic in southern New England in 16331634 so ravaged the Algonquins of the region that the Massachusetts governor John Winthrop interpreted the disease and its consequence of emptying the land of human habitation as a sign of God's favor for English colonization. When epidemics hit, an infected population might plummet as much as 90 percent. Epidemic diseases dramatically reshaped American societies. They facilitated European conquest, encouraged Americans to convert to Christianity, shattered connections to local traditions and histories, and caused the demise of some tribes and ethnicities altogether and the reformulation of others.

But pathogens were not the only travelers on European ships across the Atlantic. Plants and animals wreaked their own havoc. Pigs, cows, sheep, goats, and horses all damaged native crops that had not previously required protection from large domestic animals. America, in return, offered new food crops to the rest of the world. Maize, tomatoes, peppers, gourds, peanuts, and beans were American crops that transformed diets worldwide. Although American populations plummeted in the wake of contact, the diffusion of American food crops ultimately led to an increase in the world's population. And, finally, insects traveled across the Atlantic, none more destructive than diseasebearers such as the Aedes aegypti or the Anopheles mosquitoes, both of which flourished in the transformed arable lands of the tropics and among populations of newly arrived Europeans.


Europeans did not venture across the Atlantic Ocean in search of the potato: they initially sought routes to the coveted markets of Asia, but once they realized the geographic constraints of their world, they hoped to find in the Americas readily identifiable commodities for sale in Europe. The most precious commodities were minerals: the discovery of silver mines at Potosí in Peru (in present-day Bolivia) and at Zacatecas in Mexico in the 1540s brought unprecedented liquid wealth to the Spanish crown, which in turn catapulted Spain to a position of political dominance in Europe and inspired envy among European rivals. The Spanish fleet system, which saw all the riches of America travel to Spain in a convoy of ships, flaunted this wealth for all to see. The discovery of gold in Brazil at Minas Gerais in the 1690s similarly tantalized people with the promise of quick riches. Other commodities, especially food crops such as sugar, rice, and grains; luxury consumables such as tobacco and chocolate; dye goods such as indigo, madder, and cochineal; naval stores; and pelts, while less immediately lucrative, were in the long run of considerable economic and cultural value. These commodities transformed European tastes, diets, and economies; reoriented indigenous economies; depleted environmental and human resources; and generated enormous labor demands. The vital trades that emerged contributed to new cities in America: Kingston, Bridgetown, Charleston, Newport, Philadelphia, Cartagena, and Havana. In Europe cities grew as a direct result of the wealth and activity of Atlantic trade, as was true for Seville, Glasgow (an important tobacco trading center), Bristol, Liverpool, and Nantes.

Some commodities, such as sugar, created new worlds of their own. Sugar did not require the Atlantic Ocean for familiarity among Europeans, who encountered it as a luxury commodity used as a spice from their first forays to the eastern Mediterranean. But sugar's migration out of the Mediterranean and into areas of the south Atlantic well suited for its cultivation and modified to enhance the environment for productionparticularly Brazil and the Caribbeanmeant that the crop moved from a luxury to a staple. Sugar, moreover, demanded laborers who could be forced to work around the clock to satisfy sugar's cycle: with sugar came slaves.

For other commodities, such as pelts or dyewood, Europeans initially tried to trade with indigenous people. It is easy to overestimate the power of European traders and the appeal of their commodities. While much that Europeans offered was useful, in semisedentary societies there was a natural limit to the number of goods people wanted to transport with them from one home to another. Moreover, recipients of trade goods altered their function: whereas fabric and knives and axes might be put to familiar use, other commodities were acquired for their social, not utilitarian, value, and have been found by archaeologists in burial sites in North America. Indigenous people did not trade unthinkingly. European weaponry, for example, had limited utility in some conditions of indigenous conflict. A musket would not fire in the rain; at night, a musket flash would reveal the location of a hidden attacker. And weapons required constant maintenance. Thus indigenous people adapted European commodities for their own use. When the barter economy no longer enabled Europeans to extract the commodities and, later, the plantation labor they required, they resorted to slavery, as was the case in Brazil.

The range of commodities identified in the Americas was great, and the extraction of some commodities prompted profound environmental and social transformations. In Peru, Indians were compelled to toil in the silver mines, a debilitating and deadly labor. In North America, the French quest for pelts altered indigenous cultures and economies. Among the Montagnais of North America, for example, women produced 65 percent of daily calories through their farming activities, and held a significant position in society because of the value of the food they produced. The Montagnais, moreover, were matrilocal. But as hunters, men controlled access to furs, and thus controlled trade with Europeans. Through trade, they acquired goodssuch as alcohol and metal toolsthat conferred social prestige. Christianity, with its insistence on patriarchal family arrangements, likewise elevated the authority of men. Thus European trade and culture could alter indigenous gender conventions and cultural practices. Hunters also pushed farther inland in search of animals, not only encroaching on territory claimed by othersleading to overt conflicts, made more deadly with new European weaponsbut also depleting the supply of animals.

While the impact of European trade demands in the Americas could be enormous, historians continue to debate the impact of European trade with Africa. African rulers were able to dictate the terms of trade. Goods were produced specifically for export to European markets. Disease vectors inhibited European incursions inland, and only in Angola and at the Cape were Europeans able to claim any real political control. Yet the trade in Africa was not only for fabrics, salt, ivory, bronze, and gold, but also for peoplemillions of captives, whose great suffering complicates any discussion of the balance of power in European and African relations.


The transmission of commodities and pathogens was only one type of circulation in this period. This

Migrants to the Americas, 15001800    
Country of Origin/    
Region of Departure Number Date
Europeans (Country of Origin)    
Spain 437,000 15001650
Portugal 100,000 15001700
Britain 400,000 16071700
Britain 1 322,000 17001780
France 51,000 16081760
"Germany" 2 100,000 16831783
Total Europeans 1,410,000 15001783
Africans (Region of Departure)    
Senegambia 384,000 15191800
Sierra Leone 226,500 15191800
Windward Coast 144,000 15191800
Gold Coast 974,200 15191800
Bight of Benin 1,488,100 15191800
Bight of Biafra 1,058,800 15191800
West Central Africa 3,261,000 15191800
Southeast Africa 78,400 15191800
Total Africans 7,615,000 15191800
1. Includes between 190,000 and 25,000 Scots and Irish.    
2. "Germany" refers to emigrants from southwestern Germany and the    
German-speaking cantons of Switzerland and Alsace-Lorraine.    
SOURCE: For Europeans, this table reproduces Table 1.1 in Ida    
Altman and James Horn, eds., To Make America (Berkeley,    
Calif., 1991), 3; for Africans, Table 2 in David Eltis, "The    
Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A    
Reassessment," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 58    
(January 2001): 44.    

was literally a world in motion, symbolized by the migration of millions of people across the Atlantic. Most generally cast as a European story, in fact migration was dominated by Africans. Before 1800 an estimated 1.4 million Europeans migrated west across the Atlantic. They were joined by millions of enslaved Africans: an estimated 7.6 million departed Africa before 1800, out of a total through 1867 estimated at 11 million. The numbers of Africans and their American destinations on plantations in the tropics remind us that Atlantic migration was largely a story of Africans, sugar, violence, and coercion, focused on the Caribbean and Brazil.

High mortality in the Americas dictated these high rates of migration, particularly in the sugar plantations on which so many enslaved workers labored. High mortality also determined that some places in the Atlantic remained migrant societies for the entirety of the early modern period, shaped by successive waves of newcomers who always outnumbered the native-born population. Elsewhere, locally born peoplecalled Creoles if they were of European or African descentpredominated.

Most Northern Europeans migrated across the Atlantic in a dependent status. They traveled as bound laborers (indentured servants or engagés) from France and Britain, and as redemptioners from the Holy Roman Empire. Many acquired this status reluctantly: one study of late-seventeenth-century London found that people might wait in the metropolis a full year, first seeking employment in the city, before resigning themselves to failure at home and, in desperation, boarding ships for the colonies as servants. Some were seduced on board ships with promises of opportunity in the New World. Others were tricked and kidnappedthe term "Barbadosed" was coined to describe these illegal methods of procuring servants. Real opportunity was rare except for those servants who ventured to salubrious disease environments and who found good fortune and available land. For many, an early death ended the term of service. Migration was defined by its demographic peculiarities, which joined with early death to hinder the growth of colonial societies: migrants tended to be young and male, as much as 90 percent male for indentured migrants from France and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

These aggregates by nation, or by region of departure in Africa, obscure the dominance in any single settlement of particular regions within European nations or of particular ethnic groups among Africans. The story of cultural encounters within the Atlantic is a story of the creation of ethnicity and of nationality: people developed heightened senses of who or what they were when they met those unlike themselves. Historians continue to debate the ability of people to sustain and transmit home cultures from the eastern Atlantic across the ocean to the western Atlantic. In some instances, cultural attributes were muted, in others they disappeared altogether. But in those places where people might settle (by force or by preference) among others from the same region, they were able to continue cultural practices, whether in the form of language, music, worship, diet, dress, construction of homes, orwhere political circumstances permittedthe imposition of legal and political forms that shaped emerging colonial societies. At the same time that migrants endeavored to transport familiar cultural practices, residence in the western Atlantic forced and created cultural hybridity. We can see these contrasting trajectories in the development of new languages and the continued dominance of some Old World languages. In parts of eighteenth-century Saint Domingue, for example, the language of Kongo became the lingua franca because of the dominance of slaves from there. Elsewhere, pidgins emerged, as in the case of Gullah and Geechee in the Sea Islands of North America.

Native Americans, too, became migrants in this reconfigured world, although their experience as migrants has largely been overshadowed by their ordeal with the invasion of pathogens and Europeans. Some Americans fled Europe as refugees and exiles, others migrated toward them for purposes of trade and alliances, and still others were forced into labor requirements that took them far from home. These patterns of migration had varied effects on indigenous cultures and economies. In communities where religious beliefs were intimately connected to the physical space of home, religious foundations were fundamentally challenged, facilitating the appeal of elements of Christianity. New communities and ethnicities emerged out of amalgams of newcomers and old-timers in a process that was repeated throughout the Americas. Migration for all peopleEuropean, indigenous, and Africaninduced patterns of cultural adaptability, flexibility, and ultimately hybridity, in the same way that the circulation of commodities, information, and technology transformed all societies that surrounded the Atlantic Ocean.


With the very first appearance of Europeans and Africans in the Americas emerged new social and sexual relations and new mixed-race populations. These relationships generally reflected the power dynamics of conquest and colonial societies, with European men claiming rights to women's sexuality as well as to the material riches of a conquered society. Indigenous and enslaved women occasionally derived benefits from these alliances as well, especially for their children. These unions also furthered political and diplomatic goals. European traders in Africa sought alliances with prominent families through marriage or informal unions. The first Spanish conquistadors likewise secured their power and legitimacy in conquered territory in America through alliances with noblewomen. Isabel Montezuma, the daughter of Montezuma II, became a useful pawn for Cortés, who arranged for her to marry first her uncle and then a succession of Spaniards. Her marriage alliances established a pervasive pattern. The marriage of John Rolfe (15851622) and Pocahontas (c. 1595?1617) in Virginia in 1614 suggested that the English might follow the same example, but, ultimately, English sexual alliances with indigenous women tended to be informal. Whether officially sanctioned or not, throughout the Americas and in Africa, European men found sexual partners among indigenous women, many of whom, along with their mixed-race children, came to play important roles as cultural mediators. This population of castas, or mixed-race people, grewovertime.InNewSpaininthe seventeenth century, 5 percent of the population were classified as castas; that percentage grew to 22 percent by the end of the eighteenth century, and a 1792 census in Peru revealed a comparable ratio, with 27 percent described as castas. Throughout the Americas, a complex battery of racial classifications developed to describe these different combinations. In most parts of the Americas, moreover, a peculiar logic was at work that suggested that privileges should be available to people in accordance with their percentage of European blood: thus a person who was half-African and half-European had greater legal privileges than an African.

Demographic patterns within migration flows explain some of the varied unions and new populations that emerged in the Americas, but it is important not to disregard the importance of cultural factors. Different nations and empires integrated these unions and their offspring into colonial polities in a variety of ways. In almost every part of the Americas, the children of enslaved women and European or Creole men could be legally and socially recognized by their fathers. Sometimes they were freed; sometimes they were educated. Thus by the eighteenth century the most violent slave societies, including Jamaica, Brazil, and Saint Domingue, contained small but growing populations of free people of color, who participated in colonial society despite a range of legal and social encumbrances that hindered full participation. By the late eighteenth century, the free people of color of Saint Domingue constituted 5.2 percent of the colony's population, held one-quarter of the colony's slaves, and owned one-quarter of the real estate. The single notable exception to acceptance of these interracial unions was British North America, and is best witnessed in the actions of Thomas Jefferson (17431826), the Creole revolutionary and later third president of the United States, who, DNA evidence, documentary sources, and oral tradition strongly indicate, had a long-term relationship with his deceased wife's half-sister, the slave Sally Hemings (17731835), herself a product of two generations of such unions and, in the terminology of the time, a quadroon. Jefferson's public disavowal of this liaison, and his white descendants' bitter rejection of it, stand in contrast to the conduct of planters in other parts of the British Atlantic world and elsewhere in the Americas.


The movement and displacement of people, their connections with each other, the emergence of hybrid cultural forms and of new populations altogetherall point to the ways in which the Atlantic Ocean contained a new kind of culture by 1800, one whose hemispheres were no longer in isolation. One of the most visible symbols of the interconnections within the Atlantic came during times of conflict. War, for example, contributed to migration, as religious refugees and exiles (including Jews, Huguenots, Puritans, and pietists and other Protestants from the Holy Roman Empire) joined defeated (and enslaved) enemies and those displaced by the upheaval of wars in the Americas. Moreover, all European conflicts had their manifestations in the Americas. Thus from the beginning of European dominion in America, Spain's rivals targeted both Spanish settlements, attacked by privateers and more formal armies, and the Spanish fleet, most famously the one seized by Piet Hein (15771629) in 1628, an event celebrated to this day in song by football fans in the Netherlands.

Conflict in the western Atlantic also included formal battles. The eighteenth century was a particularly violent period, wracked by several major European wars, all of which had their manifestations in European holdings around the Atlantic. Particularly affected were those regions where multiple empires claimed territory in close proximity: the Caribbean, with adjacent islands held by rivals, and in some cases single islands shared between powers; the southeastern part of North America, where the French, Spanish, and English held adjacent territories; and the northeastern region of North America, where the French and English shared a volatile border. Often, the diplomatic resolution of wars in Europe left colonial issues unresolved, resulting in lingering resentments and unclear borders, which facilitated subsequent hostilities. Residents of the Americas found themselves at the center of global conflicts, however remote from Europe their settlements might seem. For some, these conflicts could be advantageous. Thus the Spanish governor of Florida enticed slaves from the British colonies to escape to his jurisdiction, promising them freedom and legal privileges should they do so. And indigenous tribes could manipulate these rivalries to their own advantages when Europeans needed to court allies. But international conflicts could also increase the precariousness of existence in border regions. The northern frontier of New England, for example, was the repeated target of French and allied Indian attacks, with regular raids on small frontier settlements. In 1704, French and Abenaki warriors destroyed one-third of the houses in tiny Deerfield, Massachusetts, during Queen Anne's War. The Atlantic world's biggest conflictthe Seven Years' War (17561763)commenced in North America in 1754 in a frontier dispute called the French and Indian War. The Seven Years' War culminated in imperial reforms in all the Atlantic empires, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and British, which illustrated their increased commonalities and their efforts to seek common remedies to European financial, political, diplomatic, and strategic concerns in their American holdings.

Although the histories of early modern Europe and of the Atlantic world are intertwined, the Atlantic requires its own periodization. If early modern Europe's terminus is 1789, that date dissects the Atlantic world's age of revolution at a critical moment. The Atlantic's age of revolution began in the British Atlantic world in the 1770s with the revolution that created the first republic in the Atlantic. It continued through the revolutions in France and Saint Domingue, the thwarted uprising of the United Irishmen, and into the early nineteenth century with the wars for independence in Latin America. Accompanying these revolutions were a number of resistance movements and aborted slave rebellions and conspiracies that were shaped by the diffusion of revolutionary sentiments and the opportunities for rebellion afforded by colonial conflicts. To separate these different episodes by ending the early modern period in 1789 is to deny the important connections that shaped revolutionary activity. A catechism of the United Irishmen from 1797 conveys this process of transmission and illustrates the ways in which the Atlantic world had become a single zone of exchange by the end of the eighteenth century.

What is that in your hand?
It is a branch.
Of What?
Of the Tree of Liberty.
Where did it first grow?
In America.
Where does it bloom?
In France.
Where did the seeds fall?
In Ireland.
Where are you going to plant it?
In the Crown of Great Britain.
(quoted in Whelan, p. 1)

Thus the standard political terminus for early modern Europe leaves the history of the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of a violent and transformative period, one that witnessed the disintegration of European empires, the creation of new republics (in France, the United States, and Haiti), the dispersal of new political ideas that empowered Creole elites, the creation of circumstances that facilitated the rebellion of slaves, the emergence of a formal and vigorous abolition movement, and the creation of colonies in Africa expressly dedicated to the provision of haven for former slaves. All of these events were connected and in some cases interdependent. By 1800, the Atlantic Ocean was circumscribed by four linked continents in the process of reformulation.

See also British Colonies ; Colonialism ; Columbus, Christopher ; Europe and the World ; Exploration ; Portuguese Colonies ; Shipbuilding and Navigation ; Shipping ; Slavery and the Slave Trade ; Spanish Colonies ; Triangular Trade Pattern .


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Alison Games

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Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean [Lat.,=of Atlas], second largest ocean (c.31,800,000 sq mi/82,362,000 sq km; c.36,000,000 sq mi/93,240,000 sq km with marginal seas).

Physical Geography

Extent and Seas

The Atlantic Ocean extends in an S shape from the arctic to the antarctic regions between North and South America on the west and Europe and Africa on the east. It is connected with the Arctic Ocean by the Greenland Sea and Smith Sound; with the Pacific Ocean by Drake Passage, the Straits of Magellan, and the Panama Canal; and with the Indian Ocean by the Suez Canal and the expanse between Africa and Antarctica. The shortest distance across the Atlantic Ocean (c.1,600 mi/2,575 km) is between SW Senegal, W Africa, and NE Brazil, E South America. The principal arms of the Atlantic Ocean are Hudson and Baffin bays, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea in the west; the Baltic, North, Mediterranean, and Black seas in the east; and the Weddell Sea in the south. More large rivers, including the Mississippi, the Congo, and the Amazon, drain into the Atlantic than into any other ocean.


The Atlantic has relatively few islands, with the greatest concentration found in the Caribbean region. Most of the islands are structurally part of the continents, such as the British Isles, Falkland Islands, Canary Islands, and Newfoundland. Iceland, the Azores, the islands of Cape Verde, Ascension, the South Sandwich Islands, the West Indies, and Bermuda are exposed tops of submarine ridges. The Bahamas are low coral islands that sit on the Blake Plateau, while the Madeiras are high volcanic islands.

Ocean Floor

The floor of the Atlantic has an average depth of c.12,000 ft (3,660 m). It is separated from that of the Arctic Ocean by a submarine ridge extending from SE Greenland to N Scotland; part of the floor (c.3,000 ft/910 m deep) is known as "telegraph plateau" because of the network of cables laid there. A shallow submarine ridge across the Strait of Gibraltar separates the Mediterranean basin from the Atlantic and limits the exchange of water between the two bodies. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (c.300–600 mi/480–970 km wide), a submarine mountain range extending c.10,000 mi (16,100 km) from Iceland to near the Antarctic Circle, generally follows the trend of the coastlines of the continents. It rises to an average height of c.10,000 ft (3,050 m), and a few peaks emerge as islands. The ridge, which is the center of volcanic activity and earthquakes, has a great rift that is constantly widening (see seafloor spreading) and filling with molten rock from the earth's interior. As a result the Western Hemisphere and Europe and Africa are moving away from each other. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge divides the floor of the Atlantic Ocean into eastern and western sections that are composed of a series of deep-sea basins (abyssal plains). The greatest depth (c.28,000 ft/8,530 m) is the Milwaukee Deep, in the Puerto Rico Trench, N of Puerto Rico. Scientific knowledge of the ocean floor dates from the Challenger expedition (1872–76).


Because of its shape, the Atlantic may be divided into two basins—North Atlantic Ocean and South Atlantic Ocean—each with a distinct circulation system. The clockwise-moving currents of the North Atlantic (North Equatorial Current, Antilles Current, Gulf Stream, North Atlantic Drift, Canaries Current) and the counterclockwise-moving currents of the South Atlantic (South Equatorial Current, Brazil Current, West Wind Drift, Benguela Current) are separated from each other by the Equatorial Counter Current; the Guinea Current off W Africa is a link between the two systems. At the Grand Banks off Newfoundland heavy fogs form along the front where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cold Labrador Current. The surface waters in the Atlantic's trade wind belts attain the highest salinity known in ocean water.

Commerce and Shipping

The North Atlantic Ocean has some of the world's busiest shipping lanes; the northern lanes are patrolled for icebergs. Commerce between the Mediterranean Sea and the NE Atlantic Ocean was initiated by the Carthaginians. From the 7th cent. AD, Scandinavians navigated the Atlantic; they probably reached North America c.1000. Trade routes along the coast of Africa were opened by Portugal in the 15th cent. and to the Western Hemisphere by Spain after the voyages of Columbus. The Grand Banks have traditionally contained some of the world's best commercial fishing grounds, but by the early 1990s the area had been overfished, and many species were depleted.


See V. H. Cassidy, The Sea around Them: The Atlantic Ocean, AD 1250 (1968); K. F. George, The Atlantic Ocean (1977); K. O. Emery and E. Uchupi, The Geology of the Atlantic Ocean (1984); S. Winchester, Atlantic (2010).

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Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean World's second-largest ocean stretching from the Arctic Circle in the n to the Antarctic Ocean in the s. Its name derives from the Atlas Mountains, which, for the ancient Greeks, marked the western boundary between the known and the unknown world. Its most striking feature is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs ns for its entire length. At the crest, the ridge is cleft by a deep rift valley which is frequently offset by ew transform faults. The age of the crust increases with distance from the central rift, and so there is little doubt that the rift has evolved by seafloor spreading and is associated with the movement of the Americas away from Europe and Africa at a rate of 2–4cm (0.8–1.6in) a year. The average depth of the Atlantic is 3700m (12,100ft). The greatest known depth is the Milwaukee Deep in the Puerto Rico Trench, at 8650m (28,370ft). The n clockwise gyre is dominated by the fast-flowing Gulf Stream, travelling at speeds of up to 130km (80mi) a day, and forming the w boundary current of the gyre. The s anti-clockwise gyre is atypical in having a weak western boundary current, the Brazil Current. Apart from oil (found mainly in the Gulf of Guinea), sand and gravel are the most important minerals from the Atlantic. The world's largest single offshore mining operation is located at Ocean Cay on the Grand Bahamas bank, where calcium carbonate is extracted in the form of aragonite. Valuable diamond deposits occur off the coast of Namibia. The North Atlantic contains the most valuable fishing grounds in the world, namely the cod fisheries around Iceland, s Greenland and the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Area: 82 million sq km (32 million sq mi).

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Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean One of the main oceanic areas of the world. It is relatively shallow, having an average depth of 3310 m; and it is the warmest (average temperature 3.73°C) and most saline (average salinity 34.9 parts per thousand) of the major oceans.

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Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean One of the main oceanic areas of the world. It is relatively shallow, having an average depth of 3310 m; and it is the warmest (average temperature 3.73°C) and most saline (average salinity 34.9 parts per thousand) of the major oceans.

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