Future Directions for the History of the Atlantic World
Between 1584 and 1590, the painter and colonist John White produced an extraordinary series of watercolors depicting the peoples, plants, and animals he encountered in the West Indies and Virginia. In 2007–2008, some seventy of these images toured the world as part of a traveling British Museum exhibition. Yet both the curators of this exhibition and the experts commissioned to write the catalog failed to note an important fact: White employed Spanish and Portuguese taxonomies to label many of the plants, fish, birds, and animals he encountered in the New World. Like his patron Sir Walter Raleigh, White had come of age in an England whose nominal king was Phillip II of Spain and whose national ambitions were delimited by the power of the Iberian empires. The mental horizons of early British imperial agents like White and Raleigh were strongly shaped by the works of Spanish and Portuguese naturalists, chroniclers, legal theorists, physicians, and writers. The subsequent trajectory of the Anglo-American world submerged these influences.
That such a prominent feature of White’s paintings went unnoticed is emblematic of a larger pattern in scholarship on British America and the Atlantic world more generally. Works of Atlantic history have repeatedly emphasized themes of interconnection, circulation, encounter, and exchange. Yet, national or linguistic boundaries often limit the underlying research behind these studies. Scholarship on British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese Atlantics follows separate trajectories, with the unhappy result that twenty-first century scholars sometimes fail to notice influences that would have been obvious to early modern individuals.
One major disadvantage of this “national Atlantic” framework is that it maps modernity’s more celebrated features – religious toleration, free market capitalism, democracy, and experimental science – almost exclusively onto the British and Dutch Atlantic. By contrast, the Iberian empires have been depicted as decadent, conservative, or mired in a particularly exploitative attitude toward their indigenous and enslaved subjects. All of these factors may have been true to varying degrees – yet they have too often been taken for granted as inherent historical patterns, part of a teleology by which the Protestant nations of Northwestern Europe and their colonies became distinctively “modern,” while the other regions of the Atlantic littoral (Latin America, Africa, and Iberia) remained “backward.” This is a dichotomy with a deep history in the politics of the colonial era: as Liam Brockey observes, “the way that Northern European historians have written about their own imperial enterprises has purposefully marginalized the history of their competitors.” The result is a longstanding perception of moribund Iberian empires overtaken by more “modern” British and Dutch mercantile systems.
(Co-authored with Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra)