Atlantic Empires

Micah Duhaime

Due to its potential scope, the study of Atlantic Empires in early modern history, and Atlantic history more broadly, taps into a nigh-limitless array of historical connections, themes, events, and processes. Thus, for the purpose of explicating the trajectory of this subfield of history in a focused manner, this bibliography is divided into categories—Protestant Empires (including the British and Dutch empires), Catholic Empires (including Spain, France, and Portugal), receiving and opposing religious Atlantic Empires, or rather, historiography of Atlantic Empires more focused on the colonized than on the colonizers, and, lastly, integrated scholarship on Atlantic Empires, which takes a synthetic or more comparative approach to the preceding categories.

Two historians, Charles Boxer and Robert Ricard, emerge as emblematic scholars of early scholarship on Atlantic Empires. Ricard’s book on Catholic Empire, entitled The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico: An Essay on the Apostolate and the Evangelizing Methods of the Mendicant Orders in New Spain, 1523-1572 published in 1933, was among the first scholarly works to link conversion to Christianity with colonial conquest. Boxer’s three books on empire included in this bibliography, The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800 (1965), The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825 (1969), and The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion, 1440-1770 (1978), as well as Ricard’s Spiritual Conquest of Mexico reflect the common characteristic of early scholarship in the field by focusing their attention on the European actors and heavily relying on the literary publications of these Europeans for their historical analyses. Thus seen, early scholarship on Atlantic Empires lacks the important elements of the perspectives and voices of those on the receiving end of empire, which are needed to shed light on processes of syncretism and negotiation, as well as cultural boundaries between peoples, and can be categorized as scholarship focused on the creation or practice of colonial expansion.

Turning to the more contemporary scholarship on both Protestant and Catholic Empires that emerged around the turn of the century, and comprising the remainder of entries from the first two categories of this bibliography (such as Games, Clossey, and Armitage), we see a methodological shift toward a more intellectual and institutional approach to the study of Atlantic Empires. While this batch of contemporary scholarship on Protestant and Catholic empires does not fully incorporate the roles, voices, and agency of the colonized peoples, it diverges from earlier work, like that of Ricard and Boxer, by moving beyond the mere creation and practice of colonial expansion in order to understand the development of ideological and identity based motivations behind the process of imperial expansion. In doing so, these studies begin to uncover the syncretic and Atlantic characteristics of empire.

In the 1990s, parallel to the scholarship that took an intellectual and institutional methodological approach discussed above, another contemporary mode of scholarship on Atlantic Empires emerged, (seen in the ‘Receiving & Opposing Religious Atlantic Empires’ category of the bibliography,) which attempted to qualify and correct preceding scholarship by incorporating a focus on the colonized on both sides of the Atlantic, such as native and enslaved peoples. These studies published within the past twenty years, such as Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001) and Amos Megged’s Exporting the Catholic Reformation: Local Religion in Early Colonial Mexico (1996), all diverge from focusing on the creation and practice of empire, as well as the from the studies of imperial ideology and identity, in an effort to better incorporate the agency and influence of colonized populations and the cultural and religious negotiation and syncretism between the colonized and colonizers. Thus seen, this approach serves to illuminate previously ignored voices and facets within the imperial process, helping avoid the proclivity for Eurocentric understandings of Atlantic empires.

A third category of contemporary history concerning Atlantic Empires lies in the final category of this bibliography, entitled ‘Integrated Scholarship on Atlantic Empires,’ and comprises scholarship that uses a synthetic or more comparative approach than the preceding categories. John Elliot’s Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (2006) is a comparative history of the British and Spanish Atlantic Empires that emphasizes how the respective contextual timing and environment’s of these empires affected them differently. Unlike Elliot’s institutional and contextual emphasis, Anthony Pagden’s Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c. 1500-c. 1800 (1995) takes an intellectual emphasis through its comparative history of Spanish, British, and French imperial ideologies. Patricia Seed’s Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (1995) is a work of comparative history in which she explores the array of ceremonies that the English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Dutch performed, between 1492 and 1640, to enact their taking possession of the New World. In doing so, she bridges the gap between histories of Europe and the colonial Americas by mapping cultural conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic, and also complicates the tendency to homogenize disparate empires by highlighting the fact that Europeans were not just divided culturally from natives, but also from each other. Collectively, these comparative studies complement the recent scholarship on receiving empire, as well as the scholarship on the institutional and intellectual characteristics of empire, by articulating the Atlantic scope of these interconnected themes.

The most recent work on the bibliography, Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic (2010), a collection of nine essays edited by Linda Gregerson and Susan Juster, deserves special note. Viewed as a whole, this collection of essays gives comprehensive attention to the themes in contemporary scholarship on Atlantic empires, such as the religious and ideological roots of empire, cultural boundaries and particularities, the voice of the colonized, and the syncretic and dialectical evolution of religion on both sides of the Atlantic. Thus seen, it essentially represents a high point in this subfield’s historiographic development toward a more nuanced and synthetic handling of Atlantic empire, and, hopefully, the direction in which the subfield is moving into the future.

Protestant Empires

Armitage, David. The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (2000).

Armitage argues that Protestantism and Republicanism are limited in their ability to explain the ideological origins of the British Empire, and instead asserts that the emergence of a British identity, (as Protestant, commercial, free, and maritime in nature) only emerged as a post-hoc rationalization of characteristics that had actually emerged in a random, contingent, and complex manner in the mid-seventeenth century. In doing so, he denies the role of religious apocalyptic and salvific motivations as ideological precursors in the formation of the British imperial identity.

Boxer, Charles. The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800 (1965).

Boxer’s book presents the story of the rise of the Dutch provinces of Holland and Zeeland, in which he explores the causes of this success and makes a convincing case for the interaction between the ruling classes in the Netherlands and the lower classes in the process of achieving domination of European seaborne commerce and the expansion of the Dutch empire overseas. In regard to the common image of Dutch religious tolerance, he makes a striking divergence. Boxer’s view is that the Calvinists, when obliged to practice toleration, were not so much above intolerance as beneath it, arguing that, a people whose economic life depends on trade cannot afford altogether to give way to religious prejudice.

Claydon, Tony. Europe and the Making of England (2007).

This book studies the English peoples self-identification and identification as European in the period between 1660 and 1760, in the effort to dispute the image of the English during the period as insular and xenophobic. Claydon denies that this was an age of secularization, and instead argues that the English had a religious affinity to continental Europe in which the confessional division and debates of the English led some to view themselves as part of a “Protestant International” and others to a wider association with ‘Christendom’ as a whole. He asserts that it was largely this variegated religious affinity to Christians on continental Europe that led the English build its empire by intervening abroad in the alleged defense of Christendom and the Protestant Reformation.

Games, Alison. The Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660 (2009).

This book is a study of how England grew from a state too weak to intrude effectively on European affairs in 1560, to become a powerful kingdom with global reach by 1660, allowing for the expansion of the British Empire. Games argues that the political and religious division, and the economic and military weakness of England in the 16th century caused the state to approach overseas ventures through joint-stock companies, composed of private investors and royal monopolies, whose participants were thrust into foreign regions full of risk, and became the primary enactors of early English colonial ventures with substantial latitude from the Crown to engage in a diverse and experimental range of colonization. In order to succeed and survive in these far-flung ventures, they had to adopt a strategy of “accommodating cosmopolitanism.” Individual actors made a web of connections and built upon precedent knowledge and experience in conceiving and realizing future colonial ventures. This book’s image of cultural accommodation acknowledges the syncretic relationship across Atlantic connections, and the emphasis on the collective dialectic influence of individuals helps complicate the tendency for homogenous conceptions of Empire.

Pestana, Carla Gardina. Protestant Empire: Religion and the Making of the British Atlantic World (2008).

In this study on the intersections and conflicts between peoples and beliefs in the Atlantic basin, Pestana and Gardina demonstrate how anti-Catholicism and the conglomerate fragmentation of Protestant religious confessions in British territory led to the development of a broader Protestant global identity and imperial community, framed in opposition to Catholic faith and force in the religious salvific competition for souls. They argue that this global Protestant identity created an ideological community would survive and transcend the Anglo-American political rift in 1776, and facilitated the reemergence of Anglo-American affiliation and allegiance that would continue to the present day.

Ward, Kerry. Networks of Empire: Forced Migration in the Dutch East India Company (2009).

Ward recasts the histories of Dutch colonial sites, particularly those in South Africa and Indonesia, as continually and syncretically imprinted by the beliefs and actions of people from elsewhere in the Dutch Empire by highlighting the collective and individual connections between people within Dutch East India Company colonies.

Catholic Empires

Boxer, Charles. The Church Militant and Iberian Expansion, 1440-1770 (1978).

Collection of 4 essays on Iberian ecclesiastical imperialism focusing on the aims and attitudes of the Portuguese and Spanish branches of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the Christianization of indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia, and America. Like other examples of early scholarship on empire, this book focuses its attention on the European actors and heavily relies on their literary publications for its historical analyses. Consequently, it lacks the important elements of the perspectives and voices of those on the receiving end of empire, which are needed to shed light on processes of syncretism as well as cultural boundaries, and can be categorized as scholarship on the creation or practice of imperial colonization.

Boxer, Charles. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825 (1969).

This study addresses themes such as the countervailing influences of the Inquisition and the missionary orders, the pervasiveness of racial and other forms of prejudice throughout the Portuguese empire, and the lasting cultural influence of Portuguese language and religion. However, like following suit with other early scholarship on empire, this book focuses its attention on the European actors and fails to give voice to the Africans, Asians, and Brazilians it discusses.

Clossey, Luke. Salvation and Globalization in the Early Jesuit Missions (2008).

In this book, Clossey attempts to reexamine, and re-label, the period typically referred to as the Catholic Reformation. In doing this, he argues that the explanatory device of “Global Salvific Catholicism” should be used for understanding and contextualizing this period, and serves to frame Catholic Empire on an integrated global scale as an institutional program, ideology, and communal identity, as opposed to the more isolated national and religious identities within respective Catholic monarchies.

Greer, Allan and Kenneth Mills, “A Catholic Atlantic,” in The Atlantic in Global History, 1500-2000 (2007).

Like other recent scholarship on empire, in this look into the historiography on Catholic Empire, Greer and Mill emphasize the dialectical and syncretic nature of religious imperialism, as well as the need for continuing research on Catholic Empire from a more Atlantic perspective.

Ricard, Robert. The spiritual conquest of Mexico; an essay on the apostolate and the evangelizing methods of the mendicant orders in New Spain, 1523-1572 (1933).

This book traces the spiritual, as opposed to the military, conquest of Mexico, between 1523 and 1572. While this early book unsurprisingly focuses its attention on the thoughts and deeds of the European actors, Ricard’s work can still be seen as paradigmatic of early scholarship linking conversion to Christianity with colonial conquest.

Receiving & Opposing Religious Atlantic Empires

Diouf, Sylvaine. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (1998).

This book examines the collective experiences of African Muslims enslaved in the New World in order to parse out the role of Islam in the lives of both individual practitioners of and in the American slave community as a whole. Diouf argues that these enslaved Muslims maintained their religious and cultural integrity and identity, and remained primarily servants of Allah rather than subjects of Christian masters. In doing so, she asserts that even when forced to convert, these Muslims did so only through a superficial pseudo-conversion in order to mask their continued dedication to Islam for self-preservation. She concludes her narrative by asserting that the orthodox Islam brought by enslaved Africans to the New World did not survive in America because new converts were not made and children were not taught the traditions requisite to preserving the religion through subsequent generations.

Frey, Sylvia and Betty Wood, Come Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830 (1998).

This book explores the processes by which the conversion to Protestant Christianity of African-born slaves and their descendants occurred up to 1830. In doing so, they assert that this religious transformation was a complex reciprocal movement involving black and white Christians, in which both Christian communities influenced each other. Additionally, by examining the similarities in ethnic identities in the British Caribbean and mainland North America, Frey and Wood demonstrate a common movement between mainland North America and Caribbean Afro-Protestant Christianity, which transcended national boundaries.

Hastings, Adrian. The Church in Africa, 1450-1950 (1995).

This book studies the Christian Church, as an institution, in Africa, covering five centuries—from the rise of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the 15th century and the early Portuguese missionaries right through to the Church and its key role in Africa today. In doing so, Hastings looks at numerous aspects of Christianity in Africa, including its relationship to traditional African values and customs, politics, and the comparable rise of Islam in Africa during the period. Additionally, in regard to the early modern period, he argues that the crucial reasons for the early European missionary forays’ failure to establish an African foothold for Christianity were the inability to adapt Christianity to its African context, instead trying to replicate and impose a European model on the missionized, as well as the collaboration of many of the early missionaries with the slave trade.

Heywood, Linda and John Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (2007).

In this book, Heywood and Thornton seek to show the ongoing impact of West Central Africans on English and Dutch colonies. They attempt to accomplish this by demonstrating that most slaves who arrived to British America in the first half of the 17th century, approximately 80%, were captured by Anglo-Dutch pirates from Portuguese slavers off the coast of Kongo and Angola, and therefore originated from African societies long engaged in heavy cultural exchange with Portugal. They assert that this syncretic culture revealed itself in many ways, but particularly through the adoption of Africanized Christianity. They argue that this cultural and religious proximity of Atlantic Creoles to European enslavers contributed to Christianizing other African slaves that did not initially share this syncretic experience prior to enslavement, and they also argue that the shared Christian background afforded Atlantic Creoles of the founding generation a conspicuous ability to navigate freedom and social mobility in the New World.

Megged, Amos. Exporting the Catholic Reformation: Local Religion in Early Colonial Mexico (1996).

In his book, Megged examines local religion in southern Mexico during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He argues that, while mendicant orders in the early part of this period engaged in meaningful dialogues with native nobles—such as in utilizing Maya world views to convey Christian concepts—ecclesiastics were more inclined to preach order and conformity by the seventeenth century due to the post-Tridentine emphasis on subordinating local beliefs to universal symbols and regulations. Despite any change in mission policy attendant to the Catholic Reformation, Megged writes with a strong emphasis on the dialectical process of cultural and religious “negotiation” through repeated dialogues between the missionaries and Indians, such as the use of numerous myths and metaphors in Tzeltal-language sermons and publications, which suggests that Christian rituals and terminologies relied in part on Maya cultural concepts. Additionally, Megged highlights how the small number of Spanish religious meant that Indian men could take leadership roles in the religious sphere, functioning as de facto priests in some situations, allowing them greater agency in the negotiation process.

Morrison, Kenneth. The Solidarity of Kin: Ethnohistory, Religious Studies, and the Alongkian-French Religious Encounter (2002).

In this collection of essays exploring Catholic missionary relations with several northeaster Algonkian peoples during the seventeenth century, Morrison asserts that Native Americans’ religious life and history have been misinterpreted, and the idea of conversion itself is an inappropriate way of interpreting the changes that contact with the Europeans brought to Algonkian spirituality. Instead, Morrison argues that American Indians were aware that missionary teachings were challenging their identity and social solidarity, and turned to their own traditions and rituals for guidance in assessing Christian claims. In doing so, he reconstructs the Eastern Algonkians’ worldview by demonstrating the indigenous modes of rationality that shaped not only their encounter with the French but also their self-directed process of syncretic religious change.

Richter, Daniel. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001).

This book is an ethnohistory of Native Americans, in which Richter seeks to advocate taking a new perspective on the historical narratives of Native American and Early American history by literally facing east from the core of Indian Country toward the areas of European colonization that long comprised its peripheries. In demonstrating this re-imagination of history, for example, the last two chapters reorient understandings of the Seven Years War and the American Revolution—looking particularly at the Creeks, Cherokees, Iroquois, and numerous Indian nations of the Ohio Valley—as a period of simultaneous Indian and American wars of independence from 1750 through 1815. Additionally, by highlighting the role of Native Americans as consumers and producers for the Atlantic economy, as well as their martial and diplomatic exploits that enabled them to play imperial powers off of each other during colonial wars, Richter demonstrates their centrality to the process of empire building in North America as well as their agency and importance within Atlantic history.

Integrated Scholarship on Atlantic Empires

Elliot, John. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830 (2006).

This book is a comparative study of the Spanish and British empires, in which Elliot weaves together the histories of each. He emphasizes the fact that, although aspirations and problems in empire-building may have been similar, the particular timing and environment in which the Spanish and British respectively operated in the early stages of settlement meant that they would inevitably develop differently, particularly in the respective roles of the crown and in the relationship between newcomers and indigenous peoples within colonial sites. However, Elliot argues that Spain’s attempt to integrate the range of ethnicities emerging out of colonization into its imperial system and England’s desire to ignore miscegenation led to the identical outcome of both empires ending: Spain worked with creoles, giving them limited political opportunity; England did not, and instead attempted to homogenize their cultural identity by refusing Natives and Africans membership into English communities, eschewing mechanisms of imperial control, such as those employed by Spain, that were used to bring stability and social cohesion to racially mixed societies. In doing so, this book essentially attempts to build off of the contributions of earlier scholarship in complicating the history of empire in order to synthesize the importance of contingency, context, cultural particularities, and dialectical Atlantic scope in its attempt to better understand these religious empires.

Gregerson, Linda and Susan Juster, eds., Empires of God: Religious Encounters in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

Empires of God is a collection of nine essays by historians and literary scholars of the English, French, and Spanish Americas focused on the formative period of European exploration, settlement, and conquest between 1500 and 1760. This collection is divided into three parts, entitled “Launching Imperial Projects,” “Colonial Accommodations,” and “Violent Encounters,” and its essays are focused on the following set of common questions: How did religious communities and beliefs create empires, and how did imperial structures transform New World religions? How did Europeans and Native Americans make sense of each other’s spiritual systems, and what acts of linguistic and cultural transition did this entail? And, what was the role of violence in New World religious encounters? This collection’s attention to the themes of the newer scholarship on Atlantic empires, such as the religious and ideological roots of empire, cultural boundaries and particularities, the voice of the colonized, and the syncretic and dialectical evolution of religion on both sides of the Atlantic essentially constitutes a high point of a more nuanced and synthetic handling of Atlantic empires within the historiographic development the subfield.

Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France, c. 1500-c. 1800 (1995).

This book is a comparative study of intellectual attitudes toward empire in Spain, France, and Britain, in which Pagden argues that, despite the diversity of their empires, Spanish, British, and French writers produced very similar ideological explanations and justifications for their actions. He asserts that these ideological explanations and justifications were derived from the experience of the Roman Empire and transformed by early modern Christianity into respective visions of a Christian world order contemporaries believed would elevate colonial subjects into the state of ‘full humanity’ and salvation.

Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (1995).

This comparative study explores the array of ceremonies that the English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch performed, between 1492 and 1640, to enact their taking possession of the New World territories. Seed argues that these ceremonies were rooted in divergent understandings of how to constitute authority that were only intelligible to citizens of each respective culture, and incomprehensible to aliens, and created insurmountable cultural boundaries that divided Europeans from each other as well as from native peoples. She goes on to assert that the impossibility of finding a common cultural denominator that would permit proper translation and understanding between these countries’ respective protocols for legitimizing authority extended to the state level, and was the main cause for the mutual hostility that prevailed between European empires in this period. In doing so, her argument bridges the gap between histories of Europe and the colonial Americas by mapping these cultural conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic, and also complicates the tendency to homogenize disparate imperial enterprises by highlighting the fact that Europeans were not just culturally divided from natives, but also from each other.

Top