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  • The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850 ed. by Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan
  • William F. Connell
The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450–1850. Edited by Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 752 pp. $150.00 (cloth).

Atlantic world scholarship, for its practitioners, presents the challenge cogently identified by Carole Shammas in her essay on Atlantic households in this volume, where she wrote that “for many of us, the information we have is largely based on knowledge of one part” (p. 362). Historians are usually intimately familiar with a specific region, kingdom, nation, subject, or methodology. The Atlantic world requires [End Page 194] those historians to analyze something complementary but which they are generally and perhaps necessarily unequally well versed. The more thoughtful and introspective essays in this volume acknowledge such imbalances. Indeed, the works cover a vast temporal and territorial space peopled by a varied array of distinct cultures that came together in some fashion in the period 1450–1850. Shammas and others in this collection recognize correctly the value of comparative studies of different regions that the Atlantic world encourages. The current volume synthesizes the scholarship of the last sixty years with the blunt force of thirty-five topical essays authored by preeminent scholars—many of whom have established their professional reputations defining this very field. The work begins with an introduction by editors Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan, and concludes with Emma Rothschild’s brilliant and thoughtful essay that demonstrates how profitably we might expand the frame of the Atlantic world beyond the mid nineteenth century. The most important essays in the collection demonstrate well how macrohistorical synthesis can reveal lacunae but also, on their own, make important connections that deepen historical knowledge and understanding.

Divided into four main sections, the book describes the Atlantic world as an integrated and coherent entity with eras that reveal a distinct emergence, consolidation, integration, and disintegration for the regions of Europe, Africa, and the Americas that border upon or were deeply influenced by the Atlantic. The essays cover a variety of subjects. Some are rather traditional studies of European expansion, African migrations, indigenous American identity, and nation- or kingdom-based studies of the Atlantic. Others emphasize transnational themes and question traditional categories of analysis. There are also essays on specific genres including navigation, migration, sensory experiences, and ecological and environmental histories, all of which suggest nontraditional integrative forces of the Atlantic. Innovative essays on law, economics, race, and identity are also included. The section titled “Disintegration” covers the collapse of colonialism and the breaking apart of the Atlantic world as it existed in the defined period. The concluding essay begins with the provocative question “where does it end?” One might also wonder if the apparent end of Atlantic history implies the beginning of a larger and integrated global history, a conclusion that world historians will demur.

The chapters are relatively short, largely devoid of primary source analysis and useful in a way a handbook should be—that is, descriptive of the state of research. Essay authors generally reference their contributions to the field, and all were written by accomplished and [End Page 195] recognized scholars. Each essay ends with a select bibliography, which many readers will appreciate. The editors appear to have collected essays that promise to initiate new inquiry. There are also a number of important and useful maps that detail prevailing winds and currents, major regions, migratory patterns out of Africa, sailing routes, and areas of national influence in the Atlantic. One modest complaint, however, is that illustrations are inconsistently supplied within the essays, even when they might be helpful. Further, authors generally do not refer to the maps at the beginning even when such mention would aid in understanding.

The periodization is not particularly new, but the essays generally provide analysis that makes clear their innovations in approach. The book preserves as a bounding time frame the era of the slave trade and also recalls the old age of empires and the imperial expansion of Europe. To its credit, however, the collection does not reify or describe in new ways old orthodoxies. Slavery and the economies...


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