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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.4 (2002) 839-858

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North Atlantic Universals:
Analytical Fictions, 1492–1945

Michel-Rolph Trouillot

The world became global in the sixteenth century. Europe became Europe in part by severing Latin Christendom from what lay south of the Mediterranean, but also through a westward move that made the Atlantic the center of the first planetary empires. As such empires overlapped or succeeded one another within the modern world system, they brought populations from all continents closer in time and space. The rise of the West, the conquest of the Americas, plantation slavery, the Industrial Revolution, and the population flows of the nineteenth century can be summarized as "a first moment of globality," an Atlantic moment culminating in U.S. hegemony after World War II.

I argue here that a reevaluation of the density, speed, and impact of the global flows that constituted this first moment of globality unsettles now-dominant narratives of world history. Not only do these narratives emerge as convenient fictions of the North Atlantic, but the very terms and categories commonly used to frame the story—from older North Atlantic universals such as modernity to the more recent globalization—appear more problematic than once [End Page 839] thought. I insist on modernity as revisited from the Caribbean historical experience to highlight the problematic character of North Atlantic universals. 1

As couched here, the first moment of globality, the Atlantic moment, encompasses five centuries of world history and the shrinking of huge continental masses, including Asia. The designation does not refer to a static space but to the locus of a momentum. The global flows of that era were not restricted geographically to societies bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Spain's conquest of the Philippines, the British conquest of India, and U.S. control of Korea all pertain to this moment. It is no accident that such non-Atlantic ventures often took place when the power that launched them claimed partial or total control of the Atlantic Ocean. In short, it is the continuous centrality of the Atlantic as the revolving door of major global flows over four centuries that allows us to speak of a single moment.

Our contemporary arrogance overplays the uniqueness of our times, and may blind us to the dimensions of what happened before we were born. It may therefore be useful to document the density, the speed, and the impact of the global flows that made up this Atlantic moment. I emphasize the earliest centuries for two reasons. First, we are less likely to now realize the importance of these early flows. Second, the evidence shows that the momentum of change was planetary from the start.

The Beginning of Planetary Flows

In 1493, when Columbus returned to the Caribbean island he had named Hispaniola, he was on a different mission than on his first trip. In his seventeen ships were not only the instruments of conquest that he carried on his first voyage, but also loads of crops, fruits, seeds, and animals, including sheep, pigs, goats, cattle, chicken, onions, radishes, chick peas, wheat seeds, and grapevine plants. If the image evokes a colonial Noah's Ark, it is in part because Columbus had purposes similar to those of the biblical patriarch: he carried these crops and animals for future reproduction in the Antilles. 2 Given the tropical climate of the Caribbean, it now seems fanciful that Columbus envisioned growing wheat or making wine in what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Yet we need to remember that his successors succeeded quite well in winemaking half a century later in unexpected places such as Chile and California. Columbus's second trip prefigured the [End Page 840] massive movements of goods, crops, animals, and commodities that contributed to the Atlantic moment of globality.

Indeed, novel also in that second trip was Columbus's certainty that he or others would be able to go back and forth between the old and the new world. The contents of his ships were premised on the continuity of planetary flows, both those he wished for...


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