Volume 11, Issue 1
Thomas Benjamin. The Atlantic World: Europeans, Africans, Indians and their Shared History, 1400-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
The growth of Atlantic history has called for the production of textbooks to consolidate and render masses of new research into a coherent story. The new Atlantic history, as opposed to an older tradition which addressed primarily European expansion and its colonial activities in America, pays more attention to the non-European actors—Africans and Native Americans. Benjamin’s attempt falls firmly into this latter school, as indeed the work is structured around the meeting and interaction of European, Africans, and Indians.
The book begins with antecedents, a quick sketch of Africa, America, and Europe on the eve of contact that is fairly comprehensive, covering both mighty empires and decentralized polities in all continents. This is followed by sections outlining the mostly political interactions between them. “Conquests” deals with attempts of Europeans to conquer and dominate parts of Africa and the familiar stories of Spanish conquest in the Americas, and including the Portuguese conquest of coastal Brazil, rounded out by a short account of Morocco’s conquest of the Songhay Empire in West Africa. “Realms” outlines Spanish society in post Conquest America and similar Portuguese societies in Brazil and western Africa, notably Angola. A section following then brings in the northern Europeans, first by describing Spanish America’s international trade and the incursions of French, Dutch, English, and other Europeans into the realm, including the creation of colonies. Here Benjamin is admirably comprehensive, including colonial ventures in the Caribbean and South America and noting the work of the Dutch and other lesser colonial powers.
While Benjamin’s first part is unusual in its comprehensiveness, the story that he tells in is more or less an expected one. In the second half, however, he engages much newer themes. “Engagement” describes, again with multi-regional focus the way in which Europeans and indigenous Americans interacted in the New World created by the political maneuvering of the first section. After dealing with Spanish government in conquered America, Benjamin also brings in the missionary efforts, not only in Mexico and Peru, but also in Paraguay and in Canada. This is then followed by two back to back chapters dealing with the slave trade and the African experience in slavery, again showing a good regional balance between North and South America. An interesting and engaging chapter, “Partners” explores the wide ranging sexual and gender relations between Europeans and various non-Europeans ranging from the casual “wives of the coast” in Africa, through the elite marriages of Spanish conquistadors with Aztec and Inca nobility, to the temporary marriages of French backwoodsmen and their Huron consorts.
“Rivals” moves back to inter-European rivalries of the eighteenth century occasionally involving indigenous people as participants, followed by chapters that cover the Age of Revolution, including the American, Dutch and French Revolutions; then the Haitian Revolution, the liberation of Spanish America, and the independence of Brazil. The final chapter tells the story of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.
The Atlantic World is a good representation of the themes of the New Atlantic History, which focuses on exactly the sort of questions and interactions that Benjamin chooses. It is particularly commendable for the ease with which both Americas and Africa are included in the Atlantic World. He has been attentive to recent literature and themes, though as this is not a work of primary scholarship, the book adds little in any specific area to that fund. Furthermore, in some areas, notably the African sections, it presents some distressing errors. Benjamin, for example, presents the Portuguese presence in the Gold Coast in far too “colonial” a light, as if there had been a conquest. He also seriously misstates the story of Kongo’s engagement with Portugal, relegating its Golden Age from about 1580 to 1665 as a period of isolation and decay. His step is generally surer on the American regions. On the whole, then, the book is likely to be a worthwhile textbook for classes devoted to the New Atlantic History at the undergraduate level.
John K. Thornton Boston University