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Books

The Atlantic, the ocean that made the modern world

26 November 2012

11:31 AM

26 November 2012

11:31 AM

Just as the classical world was built around the Mediterranean, the modern world was built around the Atlantic. The Romans called the Med ‘Mare Nostrum’ – Our Sea. The Atlantic, on the other hand, was a place of contest for centuries. European nations fought for supremacy and plunder upon it, traded for wealth across it, and scrambled for territory around it.

According to John K. Thornton, author of A Cultural History of the Atlantic World 1250-1820, the creation of an ‘Atlantic World’ was driven by the hunger of European states for hard cash. Money was needed to support the fantastically expensive armies which, from the late Middle Ages onwards, European nations were obliged to maintain as they engaged in a prolonged arms race. The rewards of trading with West African nations (rich in gold and other things) and colonising Atlantic islands in order to grow valuable crops like sugar led governments to encourage daring voyages of exploration. Eventually European sailors mastered the peculiar currents of the Atlantic, which was amongst the last great bodies of water to be made navigable (long after people were travelling regularly over the Indian and Pacific oceans).

Once Europeans could cross and re-cross the Atlantic, previously isolated communities became drawn into interlocking political, economic and military systems. European ambitions drove the development of these systems, but they were not shaped by Europeans alone. The civilisations that evolved around the Atlantic were formed by the nature of the meetings Europeans had with other peoples. In Africa they found powerful states with strong armies used to fighting on horseback. With the exception of Portugal’s conquest of Angola, colonisation was impossible. The scramble for Africa would not begin until the 19th century. Until then, Europeans maintained precarious outposts and traded with African elites (entering the existing African slave trade soon proved particularly lucrative).

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In South and Central America, on the other hand, it was possible to take advantage of rivalries within the Inca and Aztec empires. The Spanish became players in what could be described as a series of civil wars which overthrew rulers. The Spanish and Portuguese were able to extend their control over the continent by outmanoeuvring the local allies who had been indispensable during the actual fighting. A new elite with both European and American ancestry soon began to form as Europeans married the daughters of their allies in order to consolidate power.

In North America centralised states and empires had largely given way to a patchwork of free association societies by the time Europeans made contact. These free associations were characterised by economic and social equality, democratic decision making processes, and an absence of coercive authority. They could not be conquered because there were no powerful rulers who could accept defeat on behalf of their nation and, lacking much permanent property, the free associations had little reason to fight hard to defend territory. Instead they tended to fall back into the interior allowing Europeans to settle colonies. These colonies gradually expanded away from the ocean placing Europeans and Americans in a generally antagonistic relationship. This process continued into the 19th century until the West was ‘won’ by the United States.

John Thornton tells the sweeping story of five centuries of contact between the continents of the Atlantic World. Inevitably, as the story becomes more complex, the narrative clarity which enlivens his description of the early voyages of discovery gives way to a mosaic of related stories. A concluding section on the revolutions that swept through North and South America from 1770 to 1820 provides some sort of closure. Europe’s domination of the Atlantic world declined from this point as the Atlantic World began its transformation into a system of friendly and competing powers ringed around it (this process continues today as, thanks to ten years of economic growth, West African nations like Nigeria begin to assume a new place in the world). But this ending feels as much like a bookend as it does a natural conclusion. It’s also worth asking whether this is really a cultural history, or a history with some culture in it (a section on ‘Culture, Transition and Change’ is not ideally integrated with the rest of the book). Nevertheless this is a rewardingly ambitious attempt to write a history of half the world over half a millennium. Familiar stories assume a completely new significance and familiar places are given a whole new geography. And Thornton’s underlying assumption – that anyone who wants to understand the world today needs to understand the history of the Atlantic World – is more than justified.

Austen Saunders is a Phd student at Cambridge University.

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