Atlantic Ocean

The Atlantic Ocean played a critical role in the colonization of America as the conduit for people, goods, microbes, and ideas from the Old World to the New. The Atlantic was never completely controlled by any single national group, though by the time of the American Revolution, the North Atlantic had come to be dominated by the English. Prior to the eighteenth century, first Viking Norsemen, then in successive waves the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and English adventurers, embarked from the European continent to make contact with and then colonize the Americas. These European emigrants would be joined by millions of Africans, forcibly transported across the Atlantic in the Middle Passage. Throughout the colonial era and beyond, the Atlantic would play a crucial role in the formation of America, composing a transnational region and subregions involving similar economic structures, state formations, political discourses, and institutions, as well as complex relations, identities, and practices involving class, race, and gender. Celtic and Viking explorers were the first Europeans to venture out into the Atlantic, the Norse reaching as far as Newfoundland around the year 1000, but they created no lasting colonial settlements. Beginning in the fourteenth century, the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores were colonized by the Portuguese, and the Spanish followed suit by conquering the Canary Islands in the 1490s, exterminating the indigenous Guanche population in the process, a precursor to the epidemiological disasters that would occur with all of the indigenous American populations. In 1492, Columbus sailed west across the Atlantic in the name of the Castilian Crown, thinking he would find an alternate route to the spices of the East, thereby circumventing the Portuguese who were monopolizing the Cape route around Africa. Instead, he stumbled into the New World and began the centuries-long process of European colonization of the Americas. The English explorers came next, induced by the rich North Atlantic cod-fishing grounds of the Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, that provided a staple food product for the maritime European populations. The Dutch and French soon followed suit, establishing North American, South American, and Caribbean trading outposts that would eventually develop into settler colonies. Once these European colonies were firmly established in the seventeenth century, the transmission of human experience across the pond continued apace. Royal officials, merchants, planters, and manufacturers organized workers from four continents and created a new transatlantic economy. The currents of the North Atlantic are circular, so ships sailing from Europe pass by Africa across to the Caribbean and then to North America, where the Gulf Stream moves north to connect with the Labrador and Arctic currents, taking vessels eastward toward Europe. This natural circulation was conducive to the so-called triangle trade, where, in theory ships from Europe packed with manufactured goods would sail to Africa to trade for slaves, then continue to the Americas to unload manufactured goods and slaves in return for sugar, tobacco, and timber. In addition to the purposeful movement of people, goods, and ideas and the unwitting transmission of Old World microbes, the Atlantic was itself a site of significant geopolitical and strategic importance throughout the colonial period. Before the establishment of professional navies in the eighteenth century, privateers and pirates plied the seas, plundering ships while practicing a rough form of democracy: electing captains, distributing wealth equally, even establishing a form of insurance for members who became injured or otherwise incapacitated. Once the navies were established, they utilized the North Atlantic seaboard as a blockading ground, the English doing so first with great success against the French in the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in North America). The favor was returned when the French blockaded the English during the American Revolution. Thus, the Atlantic Ocean played a crucial role in colonial America. This role encompassed critical areas of historical inquiry, ranging from migration and diasporas to commerce and finance; scientific, military, and technological diffusion; artistic production and tastes; transmission of disease; conquest, colonization, and imperialism; and race relations. Kevin P. McDonald See also: Armada, Spanish; Navy, British; Slave Trade; Trade; Transportation, Water; Triangle Trade. Bibliography Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon, 2000. Meinig, Donald. The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective of 500 Years of History. Vol. 1,Atlantic America, 1492 1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986. Richardson, David. “Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” William and Mary Quarterly 58:1 (2001). 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