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L’histoire atlantique de part et d’autre de l’Atlantique – Journée d'études organisée par Cécile Vidal le 24 mars 2006 à l’EHESS, Paris
Simon P. Newman

Making Sense of Atlantic World Histories: A British Perspective



Cet article explore la manière avec laquelle les historiens en sont arrivés à dépasser les histoires nationales en adoptant des approches transnationales. Les historiens de l’Amérique coloniale ont dû pour cela considérer comment le monde atlantique avait connecté et affecté les sociétés de l’Europe, de l’Afrique et des Amériques à l’époque moderne.  L’article défend l’idée qu’il n’existait pas un seul, mais plusieurs mondes atlantiques différents, façonnés par la position, les expériences et la perspective de chaque individu. En utilisant l’exemple de trois Africains qui se sont retrouvés en Écosse au XVIIIe siècle, l’article illustre comment ces Atlantiques différents – pas seulement africain, nord-américain et européen, mais aussi religieux, économique et idéologique – peuvent être retrouvés et démêlés dans les parcours de vie individuels.

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Entrées d’index

Géographique :

Atlantic, Scotland

Chronologique :

18th century
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Texte intégral

1The colonization of the New World took the emerging nation states of early modern Europe out of their insular and provincial histories and identities. Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, and Dutch sailors, traders and colonists fanned out across Europe, to parts of Asia, West and later East Africa, and the islands and mainland of the New World, before venturing beyond them into the Pacific. The developing modern nation states of Europe may have built upon medieval foundations, but they were contingent upon active engagement with an ever-expanding world, and the importance of the oceans that connected nations and continents was clear for all to see.

  • 1  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, transl. Henry Reeve, New York, George Dearborn & Co., (...)

2Industrialization and modernization occurred in equally international contexts, yet the national histories that developed and were taught in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were often remarkably inward looking. Many historians sought to fashion nationalistic narratives of development that focused upon the unique aspects of their nation’s history. In the United States, in particular, an ideology of American exceptionalism developed, memorably articulated by Alexis de Tocqueville, who lauded the unique role and significance of the United States1. During the nineteenth century the United States and Great Britain spent relatively little time looking at one another across the Atlantic, or meditating upon how the ocean connected the two nations. Britain urbanized and industrialized at a phenomenal rate, and built an extensive overseas empire to provide the home islands with raw materials and markets. The United States looked inward and westward at a vast internal empire, conquering much of the North American continent in the name of manifest destiny, and fighting a bitter and bloody Civil War over the shape that this empire of liberty would assume. Even when the United States began looking outwards, with the Spanish-American War of 1898 resulting in American domination of Cuba, the U.S. regarded the Atlantic much as the British had, as a medium for the development of national commercial and military empires, a venue not for exchange but for the exercise of power and the assertion of supremacy.

  • 2  All of these ASA presidential addresses were published in the organization’s journal, the American (...)
  • 3  Joyce Appleby, “Recovering America’s Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism”, Journal of Americ (...)

3Over the past generation scholars in the United States have increasingly rejected the provincial approaches that have defined American history for generations. In North America, both the American Studies Association (ASA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have made significant progress in resituating American history and American Studies as they are taught and researched in the United States in a far more global and transnational context. The American Studies Association launched an International Initiative in 2004, and recent ASA presidents have promoted the transnational turn in their presidential addresses. Thus in 2006 Emory Elliott delivered an address entitled “Diversity in the United States and Abroad: What Does It Mean When American Studies Is Transnational?”; in 2004 Shelley Fisher Fishkin spoke about “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies”; while in 2002 Stephen H. Sumida asked “Where in the World is American Studies?”2. Joyce Appleby helped to launch a similar process in the OAH with her presidential address in 1991, which was entitled “Recovering America’s Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism”. Her address was published in a special issue of the Journal of American History dedicated to “Internationalizing the JAH.” Similar special issues have followed, including “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History”3.

4International politics also played a role in weakening insular national histories during the twentieth century, and as nations sought protection in transatlantic alliances one may trace the contours of a tremendously powerful political and cultural construction of the Atlantic world fashioned in the mid-twentieth century. Thus, even while they struggled to preserve imperial dominion in India and Asia, Britons in the late-1930s embraced a political vision of the Northern Atlantic world that bound together the United States and the British Isles while much of Western Europe succumbed to fascism, an oceanic union that culminated in the Atlantic Charter of 1941. Similarly, the single most important alliance to emerge from the ashes of that conflict as a new global Cold War began was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and as Europeans and Americans contemplated the greatest threat to human survival in history they found some measure of security and stability in conceiving of their membership of a larger, trans-national community vis-à-vis an Atlantic world.

5Early American historians helped to build upon these political realities, with comparative research and teaching, and a growing insistence upon Atlantic history as a means of illuminating and exploring the age of empire, colonization and new worlds in ways that did justice to the people and processes they studied. The histories of individual nations became less significant than the commercial, political, racial and other histories of an Atlantic world that was not confined within national borders. The larger political context remained significant, however, for the twentieth-century Anglo-American Atlantic world gained much of its meaning and significance in opposition to a readily definable “other”: at first this was a fascist and then a communist threat, and the shared characteristics and identities celebrated by late-twentieth-century Anglo-Americans emerged from this crucible of conflict. Historians saw similar processes at work in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as the English and then the British and their colonists defined themselves externally against the Spanish and the French, and internally against the Native Americans and the Africans they conquered and ruled. Encountering others around the Atlantic rim – from Ireland to the Chesapeake to Jamaica to West Africa – enabled the English and their colonists to develop a range of different yet intimately related English, British and North American identities.

  • 4 Pompa Banerjee, “John Smith’s True Travels: Turkey, Virginia, and Renaissance English Representatio (...)

6But while the political realities of the Atlantic Charter and then the North Atlantic Treaty Organizationencouraged and helped define the developing Atlanticist approach of late-twentieth century early Americanists in the United States and Britain, the very concept of an “Atlantic world” threatened to constrain them. Long before residents of the British Isles had begun traversing the Atlantic Ocean, the inhabitants of this provincial island group knew a great deal about the world beyond their shores. Elizabethan and Jacobean England was a society that knew about the expulsion of the Moors from Spain; traded with North Africa; invested in the Levant Company; and followed and even participated in the war between the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Captain John Smith, the great leader of the first generation of English settlers in Virginia had earlier in his life fought in the European war against the Ottoman Turks, and his experiences in the Mediterranean and south eastern Europe were woven into his experiences in and writings about Virginia: if Smith’s drawing, maps and writings helped construct an English Atlantic world, they did so in ways informed by experienced of worlds and ‘others’ beyond the geographic and imaginative limits of the Atlantic4.

  • 5  All of White’s paintings are reproduced in Kim Sloan, ed., A New World: England’s First View of Am (...)

7Similarly, John White’s striking watercolour paintings of the people and landscapes in and around Roanoke, England’s first mainland colony in the New World, were contextualized by his remarkable paintings of the peoples of a much larger world. White had painted, for example, a heavily tattooed Pictish warrior triumphantly holding a severed human head; a colorfully dressed Uzbek man; a Greek woman holding a rose and a pomegranate; and veiled Turkish women and a Turkish man armed with a scimitar. His evocative illustrations of the peoples, the flora and the fauna of the New World were often no more – and perhaps even less – exotic than those of people across oceans other than the Atlantic, and they bore witness to early modern English connections with all manner of peoples and cultures5.

  • 6 John H. Elliott, “Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation,” inDavid Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, (...)

8However, even against the backdrop of English ships crossing the smaller oceans that separated them from Ireland and mainland Europe, moving into and around the Mediterranean, exploring the western coast of Africa, and venturing beyond that coast to India and south east Asia, the North Atlantic was in fact far more than just another ocean, and it produced more than a simple mindset of connection between the Old and New Worlds. John Elliott has suggested that the Atlantic “began its historical existence as a European lake”, and he is surely right that it was Europeans who first imagined the new worlds promised by that ocean, and the much larger world that it opened and made possible. At least initially neither Africans nor indigenous Americans imagined the Atlantic and its possibilities in quite the ways that Europeans could and did, and in a very real way it was thus the Europeans who created the Atlantic6.

  • 7  Alden T. Vaughan, “Powhatans Abroad: Virginia Indians in England”, in Robert Appelbaum and John Wo (...)

9This is not to say, of course, that as the Atlantic world developed Africans and Native Americans did not share in the creation of new societies and cultures. Rather, it is to recognizethe degree of agency and power exercised by Europeans as they navigated and used the Atlantic, first as explorers, then as settlers, traders, warriors and agents of nation and empire. The Europeans enjoyed economic and military supremacy, but given that society and culture are fashioned by victims as well as victors, less powerful Europeans, Africans and indigenous Americans played significant roles in shaping the new societies of the Euro-American Atlantic world. Alden Vaughan has recently studied the twenty-five or so Powhatan Indians who travelled from early-seventeenth-century Virginia to England as either guests of the Virginia Company or as official envoys of the Powhatan Nation, and it is clear that their reports back to their own people had a revolutionary effect on Powhatan understanding of not just the European invaders but also of the Powhatan themselves and their place in the world, and of the Atlantic as the force that both separated and brought the English and the Powhatan together. It was not simply standing on the shore watching European ships off the eastern shore of North America that changed the Powhatan, but rather travel across the Atlantic and direct engagement with other Atlantic societies7.

10The emerging nation states of early modern Europe each imagined and constructed their own Atlantic worlds. As English colonies in the Chesapeake, New England and the Caribbean matured and spread, an English and then a British sense of the Atlantic world became ever more focused on a shared society and cultured fashioned in and between the world of the British Isles and thenation’s New World colonies. While trade, smuggling and warfare regularly drew Britons beyond their own particular Atlantic, the British North Atlantic became an ever more self-assured construction.

  • 8  John H. Elliott, “Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation”, p. 234.

11This was not, of course, the Atlantic world but only an Atlantic world, and a British one at that. John Elliott has suggested that we think in terms of three different early modern Atlantic worlds: a northern European Atlantic, a Spanish Atlantic, and a Luso-Atlantic linking Lisbon to Brazil. It was, he suggests, only in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries that the African slave trade helped merge these Atlantics, and Elliott argues for a larger and more comparative Atlantic framework8. A Braudelian perspective on the Atlantic would support Elliott, yet with the exceptionof some work on the slave trade, few historians of Northern Europe and North America have comprehended a sub-equatorial Atlantic as part of the world they study. At least one-third and possibly nearly one-half of the Africans who crossed the Atlantic in chains were bound for South America.

12If Europeans were the first to conceive of an Atlantic world, Britons conceived their Atlantic rather differently from Swedes, Dutch, French, Germans, Spanish and Portuguese. And over time, the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and Americas and West Africans constructed their own sense of an Atlantic world and their relationship with it. Some of the most exciting future research is likely to explore how these various Atlantics were aligned or misaligned, and the effects on the rather more tangible economic, social and political networks that bound the communities of the Atlantic rim together. Such work can operate from within nationalist historiography, and work on the slave trade and on seafarers has shown some of the potential of such an approach. Many seafarers spent only part of their lives aboard ship, and one can only wonder at how their experiences in the long months on the West African coast, in Caribbean and North American ports, and in a variety of ports outside of their own nation and its colonies – outside of their own nation’s Atlantic world – affected such men’s sense of the Atlantic world and their place within it. When they abandoned the sea and began new lives ashore at home or in the colonies, they surely carried with them remarkably rich experiences of the diversity of many Atlantic worlds: if they defined themselves and their society and culture in nationalist Atlantic terms, they did so in the context of their often extensive knowledge of foreign Atlantic worlds.

  • 9 David Eltis, “Atlantic History in Global Perspective”, Itinerario, vol. 23, 1999, p. 141.

13New transnational and global approaches to history encourage research in these directions, moving beyond understandings of Atlantic history based within national histories and narratives. It is, as yet, difficult to imagine a comprehensive history of the Atlantic transcending national histories, and in fact it is hard to imagine comprehensive histories of even one European nation’s Atlantic world. Yet it is harder still to imagine early modern history without the Atlantic and its creation of “a set of societies fundamentally different from what they would have been without participation in the new transatlantic network”9. We must continue to move Atlantic history beyond the parochial and the national, allowing it to feature in and illuminate world history as a whole. By thinking more profoundly than we have about the creation and collision of different Atlantic worlds, which when merged created something far greater than the sum of their parts, we can learn a great deal more about how Europeans, Africans and the people of the Americas came to make sense of their first encounters and their subsequent relationships, as their pre-Columbian worlds exploded.

  • 10  This account is based on materials in the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, which can be f (...)

14Early modern history abounds with examples of these interactions, and of the coming together of diverse Atlantic worlds. The Africans and African Americans who found themselves in Scotland provide some compelling examples. The trade in and for such people, as well as their labour on New World plantations, helped to create the commercial empire that defined the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic worlds. Yet the experiences and varying degrees of agency of Africans in these Atlantic worlds have often been ignored by historians. In 1750 the Virginian planter Robert Shedden took a young male slave named Jamie Montgomerie to Scotland, to be trained as a carpenter10.  Montgomerie joined the local church and was baptized by John Witherspoon, the eminent Presbyterian cleric who would later take over Princeton University and sign the Declaration of Independence. Witherspoon gave the slave a certificate testifying to his good Christian conduct. His training complete, Montgomerie refused to return with his master to Virginia, but he was taken from his bed, bound, and dragged behind a horse to Port Glasgow, where he was put aboard a ship bound for the Chesapeake.

15However, Montgomerie escaped and fled to Edinburgh, where he was employed as a journeyman carpenter by Peter Wright, until the publication of runaway advertisements in local newspapers led to his apprehension by an officer of the Bailie Court. The unfortunate Montgomerie sued for his freedom, and the procurator fiscal was appointed to act for him, but before the case could be heard Jamie fell ill and he died in the Edinburgh Tollbooth on 4 January 1757. Jamie Montgomerie had grown up in Virginia where he would have known men and women born in Africa, perhaps including one or even both of his parents. He had been unable to challenge his slave status in Virginia. But when he moved across the Atlantic he entered a rather different society, albeit one as keenly connected to and informed by the Atlantic as were West Africa and Virginia. For five years, living and working in Scotland, Jamie Montgomerie did not question his enslaved status: it was only when he was threatened with a return to Virginia and to the conditions of New World slavery, that he rebelled. Moreover, the ease with which he both found employment as a skilled craftsman in Edinburgh, and secured a meaningful level of membership in Witherspoon’s congregation, illustrates the relative liberty and equality that a New World slave might enjoy in North Britain.

  • 11  Court papers relating to the case of David Spens can be found in the National Archives of Scotland (...)

16A decade later religion played a similar role in the case of Black Tom, a slave brought back to Scotland from the West Indies by his owner Dr. David Dalrymple11. After spending a year in Scotland Tom was baptized as David Spens, presumably taking his name from Harry Spence, the minister who baptized him. When Dalrymple sought to return his slave to the West Indies Spens refused, and he was supported by various church members who agreed that his Christianity was incompatible with slavery. Two church members paid the not inconsiderable fine of £30 to secure Spens’ release from jail, but his freedom was confirmed only when Dalrymple died.

  • 12  Transcript of the story of George Dale, National Archives of Scotland, GD50/235/6. See also http:/ (...)

17A generation later, after Knight v. Wedderburn (1778) had declared slavery to be incompatible with Scots law, Africans and African Americans cast ashore in Scotland still did not fare well. George Dale, whose original name was Aino, had been born in central West Africa but along with several siblings he was captured by slave raiders in about 1775, when he was roughly eleven years of age12. Transported in chains to Jamaica, he escaped from a cruel master named McColl and served a term on the Hercules, a British privateer in need of crewmen. Temporary freedom came at a price, for during an engagement Dale’s foot was crushed and his leg seriously injured. Moreover, when the Hercules limped back into Port Royal, Jamaica, McColl quickly retrieved his property.

  • 13  John Sinclair, The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799. Edited by Sir John Sinclair, Volume (...)

18McColl was in ill health and decided to return to his native Scotland, taking Dale with him. Throughout the voyage McColl was so ill with “a very uncommon distemper of an epidemical nature” that none of the ship’s crew or passengers would attend him: without Dale’s faithful attention to his master, McColl would surely have died. Upon arrival in Scotland, however, a nation in which slavery was no longer countenanced, McColl dismissed Dale. Penniless, handicapped and without skills, Dale came close to starving, and he spent two years in the Glasgow workhouse before leaving to try and support himself with work in the city’s huge textile industry. Although still a young man, probably no more than thirty years of age when he gave an account of his life in 1790, Dale had been ravaged by an Atlantic world whose trade in people and goods had used him and rendered him lame. By this date there were approximately fifteen thousand looms operating in and around Glasgow, each employing approximately nine men, women and children13. Did Dale even realize that at least some of the fabric that he helped to produce was destined for West African markets, where it would contribute to the very slave trade that had ripped him from his home and family and cast him out into an Atlantic world that defined and destroyed him?

19In the case of Atlantic world Africans such as Jamie Montgomerie, David Spens, George Dale and others like them, some of whom had been born in Africa or who retained African social, cultural and religious traits, and all of whom had been enslaved in the Americas, and who had then lived and worked in Britain, and perhaps participated in the transatlantic Great Awakening, three different Atlantic worlds were embodied. For while only a few Africans and mulattoes traveled directly from Africa to Britain, the large majority of those who did had spent time in theCaribbean or North America, usually as slaves. This is a distinction that fewhistorians have noticed or inquired into, but it places such people within the relatively small cohort of early modern people with direct personal experience of Africa, the New World and Europe. While their numbers were relatively small, these African Americans were far from invisible residents of Britain’s larger port cities, and until the arrival of Loyalist émigrés in the 1770s and 1780s, theyconstituted the first significant group of American ex-patriots: more significantly, they embodied the merging of different Atlantic worlds and identities, encompassing political legal, religious, labouring, gender and other aspects of society.

20There was not one but rather there were many different Atlantic worlds in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is all but impossible for a historian today to amass the language skills or to master the diverse secondary literatures in a way that makes a comprehensive Atlantic history possible, for the Atlantics of the African, Iberian, Western European, Caribbean, North American, Central American and South American worlds were enormously different. What is more practical is an approach that recognizes how different social and cultural forces brought such worlds together. Building out from the examples of individuals such as Jamie Montgomerie, David Spens, and George Dale, we can see how the Atlantic worlds of West Africa, of the middle passage of the transatlantic slave trade, of plantation slavery in the New World, of life and work aboard the ships that traversed the very ocean itself, of religion, work and respectability in Europe, all came together and were experienced by individuals who enjoyed relatively little freedom and agency, but yet were actors in these different Atlantic worlds. By pursuing research into religion, political ideology and ideologies of rights, and both free and unfree labour, we may begin to enhance our understanding of how Atlantic worlds shaped the early modern world.

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1  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, transl. Henry Reeve, New York, George Dearborn & Co., 1838.

2  All of these ASA presidential addresses were published in the organization’s journal, the American Quarterly. See Emory Elliott, “Diversity in the United States and Abroad: What Does It Mean When American Studies Is Transnational?”, American Quarterly, vol. 59, 2007, pp. 1-22; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies”, American Quarterly, vol. 57, 2005, pp. 17-57; Stephen H. Sumida, “Where in the World is American Studies?”, American Quarterly, vol. 55, 2003, pp. 333-352.

3  Joyce Appleby, “Recovering America’s Historic Diversity: Beyond Exceptionalism”, Journal of American History, vol. 79, 1992, pp. 419-431. See also “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History”, Journal of American History, vol. 86, 1999, pp. 965-1307.

4 Pompa Banerjee, “John Smith’s True Travels: Turkey, Virginia, and Renaissance English Representations of the Ottoman Empire”, in Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet, ed., Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

5  All of White’s paintings are reproduced in Kim Sloan, ed., A New World: England’s First View of America, London, The British Museum Press, 2007.

6 John H. Elliott, “Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation,” inDavid Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, ed., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, New York, Palgrave, 2002, p. 234.

7  Alden T. Vaughan, “Powhatans Abroad: Virginia Indians in England”, in Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet, ed.,Envisioning an English Empire, pp. 49-67.

8  John H. Elliott, “Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation”, p. 234.

9 David Eltis, “Atlantic History in Global Perspective”, Itinerario, vol. 23, 1999, p. 141.

10  This account is based on materials in the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh, which can be found in CS 234/S/3/12. These include the original deed of sale for Jamie, 9 March 1750; a deposition by Robert Shedden, 22 June 1756; answers for James Montgomery to the Petition of Robert Shedden. See also (accessed 23 August 2007). I am grateful to John W. Cairns, who highlighted this case in a seminar on slavery in Scotland presented to the Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, 9 November 2005.

11  Court papers relating to the case of David Spens can be found in the National Archives of Scotland, CS236/D/4/3 box 104 and CS236/S/3/13. See also (accessed 23 August 2007).

12  Transcript of the story of George Dale, National Archives of Scotland, GD50/235/6. See also (accessed 23 August 2007).

13  John Sinclair, The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799. Edited by Sir John Sinclair, Volume VII.  Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, East Ardsley, Wakefield, E.B. Publishing Limited, 1973, pp. 295-296.

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Simon P. Newman, « Making Sense of Atlantic World Histories: A British Perspective », Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Colloques, mis en ligne le 24 septembre 2008, consulté le 22 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/nuevomundo.42413

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Simon P. Newman

University of Glasgow

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