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Reviewed by:
  • Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal
  • Erik R. Seeman
Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. Edited by Jack P. Greene and Philip D. Morgan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 384 pp. $21.95 (cloth).

This volume of original essays represents the state of the art in the rapidly growing field of Atlantic history. With a distinguished roster of contributors, this book will be the source of first resort for students and scholars seeking to deepen their understanding of the history and historiography of the early modern Atlantic world. The collection lives up to its subtitle: it is indeed a critical appraisal of the Atlantic paradigm, with both supporters and skeptics well represented. Even though predictions are perilous in this ever-changing field, it seems likely that Atlantic History will define the topic for years to come.

After a brief introduction by the editors and an opening essay by Joyce Chaplin on the contemporary meanings of the Atlantic, the essays are grouped into three parts. Part 1, "New Atlantic Worlds," is at once the most conventional and the most valuable. This section includes chapters that divide the Atlantic by imperial nations: there are contributions on the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch Atlantics. Some scholars have advocated moving beyond the nationstate as the organizing principle of the Atlantic world, but these five impressive essays display how this method of understanding the Atlantic still pays intellectual dividends. All five deftly combine synthetic historical overviews with analyses of the relevant historiography.

A. J. R. Russell-Wood demonstrates how the Portuguese Atlantic was distinctive in its multiple connections with the Indian Ocean. He also sensibly points out that "historians of national Atlantics are marching to different drummers" (p. 104). In other words, "the individuality of each nation's Atlantic experience … must be respected" (p. 104). [End Page 329] Laurent Dubois displays an extraordinary grasp of recent scholarship on the French Atlantic, citing perhaps a dozen dissertations that have not yet been published, which testifies to the vibrancy of this branch of Atlantic scholarship. Benjamin Schmidt writes with characteristic verve about the Dutch Atlantic, offering perhaps the most subtle and surprising essay in this section. His chapter focuses on the feedback loop between Dutch images of the Atlantic and actual Dutch participation in the Atlantic world. He argues for the constitutive power of representations: "early ideas of the Atlantic that developed in the Netherlands did not simply reflect or endorse the status quo, but effectively induced the new Dutch Republic to take action" (p. 165). Given that Schmidt's argument is so dependent on images and objects, his chapter suffers from Oxford's indefensible decision to publish this collection without a single image—not even maps, which would have been useful for almost all of the chapters.

Trevor Burnard's chapter on the British Atlantic is the most historiographical in the section, mostly because of the greater density of recent scholarship on the topic. In light of this larger literature, Burnard is ironically the most pessimistic of these five authors, wondering if "we may be reaching a point at which the limitations of this rapidly expanding subject are beginning to become apparent" (p. 130). The danger, as Burnard sees it, of the field sagging from its own weight, contrasts with the work on the Spanish Atlantic. Kenneth J. Andrien notes that the self-consciously Atlantic historiography of the Spanish Empire is "modest, particularly compared to the recent outpouring of works on the British Atlantic world" (pp. 56–57). As a result, Andrien largely avoids historiography and instead devotes most of his essay to a necessarily brief but extremely valuable history of Spanish colonial efforts in the Atlantic. Andrien argues that "the political, economic, and religious policies of the Spaniards attempted to establish an Atlantic system that was more 'closed' to outside influences than its later European counterparts" (p. 56). This is an intriguing suggestion, but without explicit comparison to other imperial Atlantics it remains to be demonstrated at greater length. This points to one of the conceptual problems with part 1: even though the editors insist in their introduction that "imperial boundaries were permeable and there was considerable crossing of imperial lines" (p. 9...


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