- The Creation of the British Atlantic World
Few historians have been more influential than Jack P. Greene in defining the field of Atlantic history during the past few decades. This book—written for the most part by Greene's former students—is both a tribute to and recognition of Greene's ambiguous legacy. The collection begins with a quotation from his 1996 essay "Beyond Power," in which Greene championed Atlantic history as a corrective to "the history of nation-states, a mainstay and the last vestige of the paradigm of power." Despite this statement, much of the work of Greene and his students has underscored the importance of political power, whether local or imperial, in the creation of the Atlantic world. The essays in this collection offer diverse perspectives on the British Atlantic, but in the end they raise doubts about whether it is possible, or even advisable, for Atlantic historians to move "beyond power."
This collection sets itself apart from others by directly confronting the similarities and differences between Atlantic and imperial histories. On one hand, critics contend that Atlantic history is little more than imperial or colonial history under a different name, especially when it often uses imperial labels—the British or Spanish Atlantic, for example—to define its bounds. But as Carole Shammas notes in an illuminating Introduction, Atlantic historians tend to avoid "examining the place of imperial politics in the shape of the transatlantic experience" (p. 5), focusing more on the ability of diverse populations on the peripheries to shape their own experiences. This volume combines traditional political history with the more fashionable study of subaltern or minority groups, and as in any collection of essays, the results range from exemplary to unexciting.
Several of the essays follow recent trends in colonial and Atlantic history by stressing the permeability of national boundaries. April Lee Hatfield's selection [End Page 689] examines maritime networks in the seventeenth-century Atlantic, arguing that trading connections "not only linked individual English colonies with one another and with England but also connected residents of England's colonies to an international Atlantic world" (p. 140). The essay demonstrates how an Atlantic approach to colonial America can be valuable not just in breaking free of American exceptionalism, but also in seeing beyond empires to view the informal networks that bound the Atlantic world together. Roy A. Kea's essay on the life of an African Christian woman performs a similar task, showing how the process of conversion—in this case from Catholicism to Moravian Pietism—could give converts tools for survival in the brutal slave societies of the Caribbean, however much imperial masters intended to use religion for social control.
Despite these two examples, most of the essays reinforce the importance of political power in the making of a British Atlantic. In a case study of Thomas Yong's attempt to colonize the Delaware Valley in 1634, Mark L. Thompson advances the concept of "national subjecthood," claiming that English colonizers attempted to draw national boundaries on the contested lands of North America, fitting strange lands and peoples into European conceptions of politics and ethnicity. The concept has some problems, as Thompson equates ethnicity and nationhood in a way that seems more appropriate for later periods than the seventeenth century, but it does help to explain how distant rulers extended their authority overseas. David Barry Gaspar's account of an incident in Antigua in 1724 offers further evidence of the importance of royal authority. In that year an English captain kidnapped several Africans from the Canary Islands and transported them to the Caribbean, intending to sell the men as slaves. The Africans managed to escape in Antigua, and they protested their enslavement to the governor, claiming that as "Subjects to the King of Portugal" they were entitled to fair treatment under international law. Challenging some of our notions about the slave system, the governor agreed, and repatriated the men—not out of sympathy for the Africans, but in recognition of the...