How To Become An Atlantic Historian Without Really Trying

From time to time [1], I reflect on how one becomes something without conscious intention, or creates things without doing so consciously.  What is most striking to me is how these things happen in deeply obscure fields of study where decisions made on a whim end up proving to be far more interesting and far more decisive than one thinks, because one has been set up for a long time to become something that one was not conscious of.  Today, I would like to talk about Atlantic History and how I accidentally and somewhat thoughtlessly became an Atlantic historian through a great deal of very long preparation that occurred beneath the level of conscious thought and plan on my part.  It is something you would likely appreciate as well, dear reader, because what is true for me is probably true of others as well in other areas of life.

We will start from the end and work backwards.  I became conscious of being an Atlantic Historian only after reading the literature of Bernard Bailyn and others who were quite conscious about Atlantic history and how it was practiced [2].  Reading about the contours of the field and how it was studied and how it integrated different strands of cultural, economic, social, political, and intellectual history together was of course of deep interest to me.  After all, I am someone whose interests in history are fairly voracious and who loves looking at the connections that draw together disparate lines of research and different subject matters that are often viewed in isolation.  Without consciously being an Atlantic Historian I had long been interested in precisely those areas that mark one out as an Atlantic Historian.

For example, my master’s degree in military history was conducted without any particular focus on Atlantic History, but with a great deal of interest in the connection between Europe and the United States.  There were books, for example, which pointed to the way that European ways of war were implanted on the shores of the Americas with settlers, and how techniques learned in fighting against the local indigenous people became part of the Euro-American toolbox in conceptualizing wars and how they are fought.  Additionally, my own capstone paper dealt with the spread of German military ways into Chile after the Civil War of 1891, and though Chile’s history is largely viewed as Pacific History, the conflicts between Chile and the United States and Chile’s goals of military power and imperial expansion and ties with European ways of war certainly demonstrate the complexities of Atlantic History, although I did not view my own particular paper as being part of a larger context at the time of showing the spread of intellectual history from Europe to the Americas in a postcolonial framework of military advisers and arms contracts and land deals for settlers from overcrowded parts of Germany, all of which are clearly relevant aspects of Atlantic History.

Nor was this the first time that areas of my own study and research had proven themselves to be concerns of Atlantic History.  I have always had a great deal of interest, for example, in the transfer of religious ideas (such as the Sabbatarian beliefs I hold) from Europe to the Americas through population transfer as well as writing and cultural development, as well as in the migration of peoples from Europe and Africa to the New World.  During my early adulthood, for example, I traveled to West Africa to help teach computers to some people there and during the trip I visited the slave fort at Elmina, with its chilling and dark sense of great evil centuries after the slave trade ceased from that cursed location.  Being of a slightly migratory family myself, especially over the last four generations of my family, I have pondered population transfers and what drives people to leave home and seek a better life somewhere else, questions that matter a great deal to Atlantic History, it should be noted.  Whether I was reading about the cultural groups of North America or pondering my family history and its complexities, I was already thinking in ways that lent themselves to the approach of Atlantic History, albeit one that was integrated with European, African, and North and South American history.

These roots go back a long way, long before I finished high school.  I was born in Western Pennsylvania in a family that has a history in the region going back into the eighteenth century, and I have visited historical reenactments of the Battle of Bushy Run, which was an important part of Pontiac’s Rebellion in the aftermath of the French & Indian War.  I have visited Fort Necessity, where George Washington’s efforts sparked a massive global conflict that went from the Philippines to Prussia to the Americas in a truly global war, and near where my family lives is the presumed location of the body of General Braddock, whose death after the Battle of the Monongahela was the nadir of Anglo-American efforts in that war.  Moreover, I grew up in Central Florida, in an area that celebrated its history of piracy and that was not far from the place where Ponce de Leon sought the fountain of life and found his death instead, and where the Spanish set up a fortress in St. Augustine and established their own lonely outpost in the Southeastern United States.  All of these matters were part of the cultural history I grew up with and understood from my youth, not necessarily realizing all of the connections between different elements, but certainly interested in the movement of people, in problems of exploration and settlement and migration and economic links, all of which would be issues of my own life as well.

Why does all of this matter?  To be sure, I am not only an Atlantic Historian, but a historian whose interests are very broad.  That is likely the case for many others as well.  My interest in military history, for example, includes an interest in issues of war and society, matters of naval history as well as logistics, and includes an interest in the transmission of ideas and ways of war and the portrayal of war within popular culture.  All of these interests tend to seek ways of bringing coherence into what is a complicated picture.  Atlantic History, being a large framework that seeks to integrate regions together through social, political, military, and economic links, is one of the ways that disparate links which can easily be viewed in isolation gain from a look at the larger context, in which periphery and core relate to each other in an uncertain and complex dance and where actions in one place spark reactions in others and pull and tug at complex threads in still other places altogether.  The nodal and interconnected aspects of our world have certainly been around for quite a while, and it is worthwhile to recognize that the nodes and threads themselves are worth studying as well in their own right and recognizing as a larger and diverse and complex whole.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Graduate School, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How To Become An Atlantic Historian Without Really Trying

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Education Of A British-Protected Child | Edge Induced Cohesion

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