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Islands in the Making of an Atlantic Oceania, 1400-1800

John R. Gillis
Rutgers University


"The events of history often lead to the
islands.  Perhaps it is more accurate
to say that they make use of them."
Fernand Braudel1

        Civilizations think about islands in very different ways. The inhabitants of pre-colonial Polynesia saw themselves as inhabiting a sea of islands, connected rather than divided by water and thus more like an aqueous continent. "Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it,..." writes Epile Hau'ofa, "Their world was anything but tiny."2 For them the sea was home, a place rather than an interval between places. Connected to the sea around them, islands were are not perceived as small or insular. They were the center of the world, and every bit as up-to-date as any mainland.

        Europeans and North Americans brought a very different understanding of oceanic islands to the Pacific. For them the sea was a void rather than a place, and what they perceived from their continental perspectives as islands in the far sea appeared small, remote, and isolated whatever their size or proximity. For them the Pacific isles were not only spatially but temporally distant. Joseph-Maria Degerando wrote in 1797 that the traveler there was "exploring the past; every step he makes is the passage of an age. Those unknown islands that he reaches are for him the cradle of human society."3 The notion that Pacific island cultures represented undisturbed examples of earlier stages of mankind continued to dominate western anthropology until relatively recently.

        But these contrasting understandings of islands should not obscure the degree to which something like a sea of islands once existed in the Atlantic itself. During the early modern period its islands were closely connected with one another and constituted a world of their own, very much at the leading edge of the developments of the day. Atlantic cosmographies differed in important respects from those found in the Pacific the sea, for example, remained a non-place for most westerners but islands took on an importance that they only later ceded to the continents. This paper attempts to explain this moment by placing it in the context of economic, social/cultural, and political developments unique to the early modern period.


        We have such difficulty recovering the history of this Atlantic Oceania because according to the western historiographical canon laid down in the nineteenth century history begins and ends at the edges of continents, and dwells almost exclusively on their interiors. "Although history is ostensibly about people, it has tended to become overwhelmingly about 'lands,'" writes Ian Steele. "Countries are given histories that can portray areas of soil as living social, economic, and political beings, whereas oceans are viewed primarily as vast and empty moats between those histories."4 In the story as it is usually told, that which lies beyond the shores is either prelude to or aftermath of the grand continental narratives.

        But what if we were not so attached to the myths of continents, less enamoured of a continental telos that would have us believe that everything begins and ends at the shoreline? It might be possible to imagine other narratives in which oceans play more important roles than continents, becoming historic places in their own right. There is every reason to do so because, as J.H. Parry has demonstrated, "The Great Age of Discovery was essentially the age of the discovery of the sea," reminding us that "for the most part, the explorers sought not new lands, but new routes to old lands."5 Waters that had been obstacles now gave unprecedented access. Before the fifteenth century, "the Ocean led nowhere; in the next centuries people would see it led everywhere."6

        In the revised narrative history moves off rather than onshore.  The Atlantic becomes a sea of islands linked as much to one another as to continental littorals. The Chinese saw it that way, publishing a guide in 1701 that lumped together Europeans, Africans, and Americans as the "people of the Great Western Sea."7 In the rewriting of history, it would not be territory itself but access to territory that would be of central economic, political, and social importance. The extraterritorial, including seas and rivers as well as islands, would come into their own as agents rather than as passive objects of continental imperatives.

        As the geographer Philip Steinberg has pointed out, during the early modern period "the sea was fought over not as a space to be possessed but to be controlled, a special space within world-society but outside the territorial states that comprised its paradigmatic spatial structure."8 Charles Maier has reminded us that "territoriality has not been a timeless attitude in human societies." It was the product of the emergence of the modern continental nation state and now that in this latest phase of global development its boundaries have become more porous, the relationship between land and sea is also changing once again.9 A longer perspective, taking into account the early modern period, enables us to see that continentalism is a defined period, bracketed by times when the extraterritorial and the extracontinental, when oceans and islands were of much greater importance than they have been given credit for. One could even venture to say that the initial stages of western modernity have been as much a matter of islands as continents. What might be called the Age of Islands, 1400-1800, not only alters our sense of periodization, but cuts us adrift from the mainlands of history itself. It not only alters the when of global history but the where as well.

        We need to accept John Pocock's invitation "to let our mental vision travel out into a diffusion of pelagic cultures lying beyond 'Europe' and 'civilization' as conventionally imagined."10 This is the only way to recapture the true relationships of lands, oceans, and islands, and to give them historical as well as geographical parity. The cumulative effect of the Age of Discovery was to alter Europeans' conception of both land and sea. The oceans became something between rather than something beyond.11 Perceived as more like great lakes than a single body of impassable water, and no longer placeless, the Atlantic and the Pacific could be seen as connecting rather than separating all lands, islands as well as continents. As a consequence, Europe's sense of itself was profoundly altered. From being the western margin of an Orbis Terrarum dominated symbolically and economically by the Middle and Far East -- the Cap d'Asia as Valery described it -- Europe came to see itself as being the center of the world.12 No longer itself a frontier, it acquired its own frontiers, temporal as well as geographical, the most important of which was the sea itself.


        The discovery of the Americas was unintended and as Robert Lopez once preceptively remarked: "Indeed, for a moment it looked as if Europe would reject the unresolicited gift of 1492."13 Europe was absorbed by its own internal problems and would soon be fissured by the Reformation. The Black Death a century earlier had solved the overpopulation problem, making it very difficult to get its people to settle the New World. Most who ventured overseas were looking for both a quick return on their investment and an equally quick return home. During the sixteenth century it was gold and silver that lured the Spanish onshore.14 The French and English launched similar searches for treasure, but when these proved unsuccessful they had to settle for fish and furs. These enterprises did not involve permanent settlement until the seventeenth century, however, and, when that finally happened, it was first on islands, not mainlands. Fishing required no continental connection at all, while the fur trade trade was in the hands of well organized Native American peoples. The North American continent was by no means empty; and initially inland settlements were not only impossible but unnecessary as far as trade was concerned. Europeans were content to visit the coasts on a seasonal basis, taking advantage of the already well defined trading networks of Native Americans. Fishermen had set a precedent for the use of islands early on by camping there in the summer months. Newfoundland and islands along the New England coast served this purpose well into the sixteenth century, but never led to permanent populations.15

        Islands had the advantage of being accessible to the mainlands but fortifiable against the Native Americans onshore. Islands therefore became forward bases in both fishing and fur trading. Sable Island, a whaling station off Nova Scotia founded by the Marquis de la Rock, became the first French colony to last more than a year. But its colonists were minor criminals rounded up for the purpose, and in 1603 they turned on their guards and escaped their island prison, thus ending the enterprise.16 The Dutch had their trading post on Manhattan Island and the English also looked to islands, first to Roanoke and then Jamestown, for their first permanent settlements. But the colony on Roanoke Island was a failure, and  Jamestown came close to disaster. It was only when a suitable export crop, tobacco, proved profitable that the inland dimension of the Virginia experiment was assured.17

        The preference for islands was second nature to Europeans, who had been developing what David Ringrose calls "island empires" long before they ventured beyond the Pillars of Hercules.18 Beginning with the crusades, the islands of the Mediterranean had been strategic stepping stones. As Fernand Braudel described it, Europeans moved "crab-wise from rock to rock," rarely going far inland.19 The Aragonese invaded Mallorca and Menorca in the thirteenth century, turning the former into an entrepot of free trade and low taxes, which attracted a polyglot population of Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The Aragonese island empire ultimately included Sicily and Sardinia. It dominated the coastline of Tunisia, giving access to the north African coast and connection with the sub-saharan gold trade. At the same moment, Genoese communities were spreading throughout the Mediterranean islands, constituting yet another loosely constructed trading empire. Islanders themselves were active in colonization, the Mallorcans being at the forefront of exploration and settlement. In this period intrusions on the mainlands remained "shallow and feeble," a measure of how European imperialism was a seaborne operation from the very beginning.20

        In the eastern Mediterranean the Venetians had important colonies on Crete and Corfu. There they developed not only trading networks but export economies based on sugar. Its production began in Syria and Palestine, but when control of these areas was lost in the fourteenth century, the technique was moved to Cyprus, and then to Crete and Sicily. There it became associated with slavery, so that when in the fifteenth century the Genoese took sugar production to the Azores and the Madeiras they imported Africans as the newest slave supply. Columbus introduced sugar in San Dominque in 1493. From there sugar and slavery spread throughout the Caribbean.21

        When the eastern Atlantic islands began to attract European attention in fourteenth century, their discovery and colonization was another multinational enterprise, with Mallorcans and Catalans, together with the Portuguese, taking the lead. By the mid-fifteenth century there existed what Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has called the "Atlantic Mediterranean," projecting itself gradually south and west from the Canaries and Madeiras to the Cape Verdes and Azores. On the African coasts islands served Europeans as trading posts and prisons for slaves awaiting transhipment. There were not only Genoese, Castillans, and Mallorcans, but French and Flemish involved in trade and colonization.22 And these archipelagos were now connected with northern nodes of trade and exploration in Ireland and England. There is evidence that Columbus sailed on Portuguese ships to Galway and Bristol, and that he may even have gone to Iceland.23

        The expansion further west was therefore not such a great leap as we have been led to believe by those who see 1492 as representing a great historical turning point. On the contrary, its late medieval origins are now reasonably clear. Europe's maritime technology and navigational skill had been honed by centuries of experience. But no less significant was insular romanticism and late medieval millenialism, without which the the thrust westward is inexplicable.24 Columbus believed that the discovery of islands was a prelude to the Second Coming. And islands continued to hold pride of place in millenialist dreams which were increasingly oriented toward the west in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.25 Divine providence did not lead automatically from sea to land; and destiny did not become landlocked until the nineteenth century, when the future, evisioned as Manifest Destiny, finally departed from islands and attached itself to continents.

        Renaissance Europeans tended to think of the world archipelagically. This facilitated the shift from a closed cosmologies of the Middle Ages, where everything was perceived as analagous to everything else, to a fractured perspective in which "insularity comes to stand for a kind of knowledge, a distinctly partial knowledge that counters the totalities of  institutions and regimes."26 Insularity in the early modern period seemed liberating rather than confining, for each island could be imagined as a different world, offering new possibilities to a Europe which had for so long conditioned to thinking according to one model of the world. This was the moment when the mappaemundi, showing a single earth surrounded by an impassable ocean, finally gave way to vision of multiple lands and seas. It was also the time of the isolario, or books of islands, compendiums of facts and fiction organized around chapters on islands real and imagined, which encouraged speculation on the diversity the world's peoples and cultures, reflecting but also facilitating the process of global encounters that Europe had embarked upon.27

        Thinking archipelagically, Europeans initally understood the Americas to be islands. A firm distinction between island snd continents was slow in emerging, and Australia was also perceived as insular when it was first encountered in the eighteenth century. Islands remained the favored location for western dreams and fears throughout the early modern period. Edenic and utopia isles would continue to fill the mental maps of Europeans until the nineteenth century.28 Later, islands were viewed as instruments for a more secular kind of progress and the objects of scientific exploration. Richard Grove has argued that islands like St. Helena were the world's first laboratories for environmental science. Islands were particularly appealing because they were "in practical environmental as well as in mental terms, an easily conceived allegory of a whole world."29  Islands were also sites for early anthropological speculation.

        But their status as microcosms did not necessarily result in their being seen realistically on their own terms. Quite the contrary, islands would remain until the eighteenth century a site of mythologization. Even as some islands, like the Canaries, lost their paradisical associations, others, especially those further to the west, took on mythic dimensions. Eden first relocated to the Caribbean and then to the American mainlands before moving on in the eighteenth century to the Pacific.


        "The Sea is the only Empire which naturally belongs to us, conquest is not in our interest," wrote the Englishman Andrew Fletcher in 1698.30 Few of the great ancient empires had relied so much on sea power; nor had the states of Asia bothered to militarize their adjacent seas. But now Europe used the one resource that gave it an advantage, namely its skill in shipbuilding and navigation, to create something quite unprecedented, what Charles Boxer felicitously christened seaborne empires.31

        With the exception of Spain, the European empires were more insular than continental.32  It will be remembered that the initial objective of the voyages of discovery was trade: and trade on the European, African, and Asian coasts was often conducted from islands.33 The islands of the Caribbean were easily mistaken for Asian archipelagos. Initially the Spanish were not looking for empty lands, but trading partners; islands "were best if they were inhabited, preferably by docile and industrious people."34 The Spanish would ultimately find riches on the American continents, but other European powers did not readily follow them inland. Northern European empires tended to hug the coasts and focus on islands.

        When the trading possibilities of Atlantic islands proved disappointing or their populations proved hostile, Europeans turned to the strategy of conquest (often accompanied by genocide against indigenous peoples) and extraction of resources. This was first visited on the Canaries. Then it was the turn of the Azores and Madeiras, which were first stripped of their native timber.35 The next step was the importation of European herds and crops, altering forever the ecology of these places. The production of sugar using slave labor, already perfected on Mediterranean isles, was first transferred to the near Atlantic islands and then to the Caribbean. And islands were to remain the preferred locations for plantation economies for almost three hundred years.

        "When we think about the expansion of Europe we often conflate an oceanic presence -- or a bounded presence on an island or a littoral -- with continental territorial control," writes Elizabeth Mancke.36 She rightly notes that with the exception of the Spanish control of the seas and islands was not just a prelude to territorial possession, but as an end in itself. As for the northern European powers, which would surpass Spain in the development of commercial capitalism, empire was a matter of access, not of possession. Leaving aside New Spain, interiors of the Asian, Africa, and American continents were neither known nor coveted until the nineteenth century. What was desired was access to the goods, including slaves, that were  produced in the interiors. This was best achieved by control over the coasts and coastal islands. The success of just such a strategy in the Mediterranean in the late Middle Ages led to its extension to the African coast in the fifteenth century, and its ultimate projection to all the world's regions by the end of the eighteenth century. In some cases, the relationship between mainlands and islands was actually reversed, with the later exercising sovereignty.  In order to encourage migration to the Cape Verde archipelago, the Portuguese sovereign granted the first settlers a monopoly of trade on the creeks and shores of Senegal, causing them to be known thereafter as "the rivers of Cape Verde." However,  Europeans were content to let the peoples of the interior, whether they be African slavers or Native American fur traders, control that end of the business. Indeed, they preferred it that way.37

        What might be called the early modern empires of access were empires on the cheap. With the exception of Spain, most even the strongest Renaissance kingdoms were weak and poor by world standards of the time. Their legitimacy was dependent on dynastic claims over peoples who were linguistically, culturally, and ethnically heterogenous, and  over territories that were noncontiguous. In short, their domains were more like archipelagoes than like continents. Borders mattered much less in polities where allegiances were organized hierarchically rather than horizontally, where sovereignty was attached  to persons rather than to territories.38 In a world of verticle rather than horizontal perspectives, Europeans at every level were willing to accept authority from above, even when this power was from the outside. Loyalties to extraterritorial authorities which would be quite unacceptable in the modern territorial nation state were routinely accepted until the nineteenth century, when boundaries finally severed sovereignty from individuals and vested it in clearly defined lands and peoples.

        Early modern kingdoms did not possess the kinds of standing armies necessary to occupy territory outside their own domains and certainly not overseas. They were used to wielding power at a distance, handing out lands as feudal fiefs and concessions, rather than ruling them directly. The most powerful empire within Europe, that of Charles V, has been described as being more like "a modern multinational corporation than a state."39 Crowns did not yet possess a monopoly on armed force and continued to rely on private individuals and groups as extensions of sovereign power. Granting charters, fiefs, and special powers was the way in which European expansion had proceeded in the later Middle Ages and this would continue to be the practice right up through the eighteenth century. The Portuguese found they could keep Azores going only by encouraging the settlement of Flemings.40  To achieve their goals, kings readily indulged the "insular romanticism" of the nobility, freely handing out fiefdoms on islands that were only presumed to exist. Columbus may have thought he would be rewarded with the legendary Antilia, which he fully expected would be one of the stepping stones to Asia.41 Monarchs could afford this generosity because the supply of unclaimed isles seemed inexhaustible. It was a cheap and easy way of extending patronage. This worked well as long as the reality of the Atlantic isles was still obscured by the legends conjured up by enduring insular romanticism.

        As Philip Steinberg has demonstrated, Europeans did not regard the oceans as something to be possessed, but as a force field of struggle for control over key sea routes and nodal points. In the prevailing theory of mercantilism, trade was the primary source of wealth and "the sea was an important connecting space to be dominated as a means of controlling trade."42 The oceans were regarded as extraterritorial, and islands also belonged to this category, regarded not, as integral parts of the home country, but more like pawns to be traded on a world chessboard of power politics. The European powers were quite willing to trade away their own nationals when it suited them. To secure their monopoly on the world nutmeg trade, the Dutch were willing to offer Manhattan for the tiny islet of Run in the Banda archipelago of Indonesia. There is no question but that islands were the most traded, fought over, renamed, cherished and forfeited, instantly recognized but also immediately forgotten places on earth in the early modern period.43

        In the absence of a standing navy, the licencing of seagoing privateers also allowed kingdoms to make claims with little or no cost to themselves. In the long term a distinction between noble and ordinary pirates would have to be drawn, but that did not happen until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when freebooting began to complicate internal European politics and monarchies found it necessary to place tighter controls over their surrogages on land as well as sea.44 By the mid-eighteenth century European states felt they had no choice but to make the settlers pay for their own protection. When new taxes and laws were imposed, the loyalties of the colonists were sorely tested. The result was that the continental parts of the empires of access broke away. Significantly, most of the islands (with a few exceptions like Haiti) remained more or less loyal, and today virtually all that is left of European imperium is insular.45


        The politics of Atlantic Oceania in the early modern period were feudal in origin, but their economies were anything but medieval. While land continued to be the basis of European status, wealth, and power at home, this was not the case in the Atlantic world. It was access, not possession, which offered the greatest rewards for the commercial capitalism that gained its greatest momentum on the sea, not on land. This was an extraterritorial economy in which money was to be made in transactions between widely scattered markets. Merchants invested in inventory, not directly in production. In a system that resembles in some ways the economics of current global capitalism, merchants left it to the producers to shoulder the costs of the instruments of production, labor discipline, and time lost when demand fell and the labor force was idled. Urban merchants warehoused both raw materials and finished products in what we called at the time "factories," but they preferred to keep production at a distance.46

        The merchant capitalists operated from within urban enclaves in their homelands or abroad under charters issued by foreign rulers. Commercial capitalism functioned extremely well in this archipelagic environment. Having no territorial ambitions of its own, it was satisfied in playing off one sovereign power against another. Profits were made by attempting to calculate when to release or withhold inventory, or by controlling markets according to mercantilist principles. What was crucial was not possession, but access.

        Access to sources of slaves required no possession of African territory, something that was in any case beyond the power of Europeans to achieve against the overwhelming strength of the African kingdoms and the deadly effects of tropical diseases. It cannot be said that the African coast belonged to any European nation during this period. The Dutch and the English successfully competed with the Portuguese as supremacy in the carrying trade changed hands several times. A similar strategy of access also applied to the third leg of the triangular trade, namely the plantation economies of the New World. As long as Europeans controlled the waterways, Caribbean islands' extensive coastline guaranteed them access while denying their African captives exit. The same thinking applied to places where white convict labor was imported. It is no wonder that some of the first permanent colonies, staffed with prisoners, were islands. The greater the proportion of coast to interior the better, for smaller islands like Barbados had no hinterlands to escape to. But even larger islands like Jamacia were preferable to the mainlands, and so began the long and tragic association of islands with both slavery and imprisonment.

        In the seventeenth century, when sugar was king, the Caribbean islands were the world's richest prizes, changing hands frequently as the European powers fought over them. Islands remained extraterrtorial to the sovereign powers, however. The idea of launching a war to protect their nationals, as the British did in the so-called Falklands War of the 1982, would have been unthinkable in an era before modern nationalism when access meant so much more than possession.47 But this competition should not hide the fact that island economies were multinational affairs. The fishing islands of the North Island were occupied by men of various origins, who in some instances elected an "admiral" from their own ranks to rule them.48 Ships under foreign flags were tolerated by local authorities as long as duties were properly paid and authority ritually acknowledged. Even when mercantile controls were tightened in the eighteenth century, the new rules were easily evaded. Smuggling was endemic on islands, where the abundance of coastline was an invitation to free trade. The same sea moats that made islands so attractive to plantation development, made them virtually free ports for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.49

        Merchant capitalists treated the plantations in the same way they dealt with their hinterland producers in Europe. They rarely invested directly in the production process, leaving its windfalls and risks to the plantation owners. They were no more eager to be in possession of these places than were the royal authorities, who left planters with an enormous amount of power, not only over the lives of their workers, but over themselves. Indeed, by the later eighteenth century many of the sugar islands had, like the mainland economies, developed separate identities, still recognizably European, but claiming liberties that even the most privileged subjects of the home country would not have dared to assert. In many ways, feudalism lingered much longer in the New World. The power of local authority, hierarchical ways of thinking, insularity, all these remained live and well there.50

        The settlers continued to operate under the assumptions of the empire of access longer than did their countrymen back home. When, in the second half of the eigtheenth century, monarchies became more absolutist in their territorial ambitions and more competitive with one another, they began to exercise a greater measure of control over Atlantic islands and littorals. This was first met with appeals to honor "ancient liberties" by those who held concessions there. Liberals like Adam Smith also supported American claims to independence on the basis that this was consistent with the existing empires of access.51 But the monarchs saw only the threat to their authority and ultimately the American settlers were forced into armed rebellion. By the early nineteenth century the continental elements of the empire of access lay in ruins.52


        The archipelagos of Atlantic Oceania did not feel small and remote to islanders themselves. Given considerable free rein, settlers came to regard the sea as belonging to them, drawing the world closer, expanding rather than shortening their horizons. During the early modern period it was land, not sea, that created the greater sense of remoteness and insularity. It was the continents that appeared on maps in narrowed or shrunken form, filled with blank spaces, while the oceans remained crowded with islands, large and small, and with images of ships plying the well known sea routes between them.

        The sea and its islands loomed large in the European imagination. Indeed, maps exaggerated not only the number but the size of islands. Just as the mythic island of Antilia and St. Brendan had once filled the ocean void, so now known islands were represented as "monstrously swollen, enlarged out of all proportion to the continental land masses." The Madeira archipelago, which is about the size of Long Island, was portrayed as the size of the present New York State. In the maps of the sixteenth century, observes T. Bentley Duncan, "the huge islands emphatically assert their presence in the mid-Atlantic and furnish graphic testimony to both the psychological and practical significance of islands to men of former times."53

        In an era before standard measurement, scale was much less precise than it is today. Yet this is not sufficient to explain why islands were to loom so large in the European and North American imagination during these three centuries. "Smallness is a state of mind," Hau'ofa Epile reminds us.54 Of course, the meaning of islandness varied enormously. For the African slave or the English convict the same shores that offered unlimited horizons to their masters were prison walls. But for a majority of European islanders it is perhaps safe to say that the sea was not a limit to but an extension of their possibilities. It has been said of the multiethnic and polyglot merchants of Funichal in the Madeiras that they were "men of true 'Atlantic' outlook, at home on two or three continents."55

        In the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, peoples of the African, European, and American littorals often had more in common with one another than they did with the residents of their hinterlands. Coastal Africans who had a long history of interaction with Europeans have been called for good reason "Atlantic creoles." Coastal Africans found themselves in Americas constituted a distinct group, quite different from inland Africans who were later imported to stock the plantation economies.  "Black life in mainland North America originated not in Africa or America but in the netherworld between the continents," writes Ira Berlin. Atlantic creoles were prominent in the New Netherlands but also in New Orleans and the Chesapeake region. Many were free people, who farmed, traded, and even owned  slaves.56 They often intermarried with Europeans and Native Americans living in the coastal regions. On Kent Island in the Chesapeake there existed a triracial community of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans who managed to hold their own until finally overwhelmed by the Maryland planter elites later in the seventeenth century.57

        It was not uncommon for the people of the European, African, and American littorals to identity more with sea than with the hinterlands. In the sixteenth century the English, having cut themselves off from their continental connections, began to think of themselves archipelagically. As Jeffery Knapp has argued, the sixteenth century English came to see themselves as a chosen people, whose insularity was proof of spiritual strength, and who would make of this a virtue and conquer the Atlantic "by means of littleness."58 Colonies in America allowed John Donne to think of "this Iland, which is but the Suburbs of the old world, a Bridge, or Gallery to the new."59 The small scale of many islands precluded selfsufficiency, made them dependent on other islands and mainlands, and thus precluded isolation. And the tendency to see the world as one vast archipelago persisted through the eighteenth century.60 The idea of continents, dating only from the sixteenth century, imposed itself itself on western geographical thought only very slowly. California continued to be shown as an island until the eighteenth century, and only then was America depicted as being separate from Asia.61

        "Europe's experiments in conquest, colonization, and commerce clung like a ship's barnacles to the littoral of the world ocean or sought out offshore islands surrounded by sea moats," writes Stephen Pyne.62 These coasts and islands came to constitute a distinctive world, with its own dynamics. To be sure, this Atlantic sea of islands was to have a much stronger continental flavor than its Pacific counterpart, but it would be wrong to think of it as either European or African as an extension of the American continents. As the leading historian of the eastern Atlantic islands has put it: "...the islands made signal contributions to the Atlantic world in general. If there had been no islands, seventeenth century maritime commerce would have been distinctly different, and navigation itself appreciably more difficult and more hazardous."63

        Islands were also crucial to the peopling of the New World.  The reluctance of Europeans to leave their homelands and settle the New World voluntarily meant that the process of the Europeanization of the Americas came much later.64 Outmigration from islands was to become a major factor in the Atlantic world.  Islands were particularly subject to overpopulation because, without hinterlands to absorb their surpluses, the only way to survive was to leave. Often this was young men, who would leave their wives and children behind to sign onto a passing vessel, especially the lucrative whaling ships. With the money earned at sea, they might then establish themselves on some other shore, later sending for their families. They might even return in old age, a pattern that still today prevails on many islands without the resources to support their younger populations.65

        It was not really until the nineteenth century that the newly discovered continents became what Alfred Crosby calls "Neo-Europes."66 Islands were the first Neo-Europes, but they did not remain so for long. The Azores, for example, became the nodes in the great flows of goods and peoples; and, as such they were "neither of Europe nor of the Americas."67 By 1700 the people of the Cape Verde islands had their own distinct identity. Mixtures of peoples characterized most Caribbean island populations; there, as elsewhere, island cultures were hybrids.68 William McNeill has noted that it was in this period that sea frontiers superceded steppe frontiers "as the critical meeting point of strangers."69 Islands were classic "middle grounds" beyond the lines of ordered territoriality, where all kinds of new identities were formed and reformed in the early modern period. Insularity, which was later to acquire the meaning of narrowness and stasis, was at that time associated with plenitude and mutability.

         The peopling of the Americas was as much an Atlantean as an African or European project. Many of the first settlers on isles and coasts of the Americas were themselves islanders.70 They preferred to face outward to the sea. "God performed no miracle on New England soil. He gave the sea," writes Samuel Eliot Morison.71 For most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries New England was as closely connected with the Caribbean, with Madeira and the Cape Verdes as with the British Isles. The Azores were particularly closely connected to New England through whaling,  a connection that never completely disappeared even when that economy collapsed.72

        Sharing a continent with a well developed multitude of Native American "nations" with whom they had managed to establish an ambivalent relationships, the European littoral settlers occupied a kind of borderland, acting as intermediaries between two worlds, agents for indigenous traders as well as European merchants. Movement inland was by no means assured or desired. Indeed, westward destiny was a myth which was created much later to legitimize a continental identity which had formed only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.73 Until then the thirteen mainland British colonies were more archipelagic than continental, connected more by sea rather than by land transport and belonging to a sea of islands and littoral enclaves that stretched from the Shetlands to the Falklands. In the course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it even seemed as if the colonists were being drawn ever more to the sea rather than into the interiors of the continent.74

        There was nothing at all insular about the islands or the islanders. Many, like the Cape Verdeans, learned by necessity to feel more at home on the South and North American continents than in their native isles. Ties of trade stretched from the salt islands of the south Atlantic to the fishing outports of Newfoundland. The Yankee cod fleet would sail first to the Cape Verdes to pick up salt before heading for the northern fishing banks.75 People from the Hebrides adapted easily to Cape Breton Island; and Nantucket was closer in many ways to the Azores than it was to Massachusetts.76 Islands were to islanders like oases are to desert nomads. For most of the early modern period islands were like ships, their populations more like passengers than permanent residents. Island populations were as polyglot as the crews of the vessels that paid them call, and they owed their loyalty and identity more to the sea of islands than any of the continents.77


        It was from its mastery of the seas, not lands, that Europe experienced its first great economic boom. The wealth accumulated through its archipelagic empires of access would find its way back to the continent, partly to be invested in land, partly to capitalize new industrial enterprises that would ultimately overturn the old order of things. By the late eighteenth century the boundary between land and sea became more definite and during the nineteenth century new nation states concentrated their energies on their own interiors. The rebellious North American settlers declared themselves to be "continentals," and Tom Paine used the argument that if God had meant them to remain British subjects he would have never placed an ocean in between. Edmund Burke thought that, short of draining the Atlantic, there was no way that the Americans could be denied independence.78 The sea, that thing which for three centuries had been perceived as tying the Atlantic world together, was no longer seen as doing so. In the nineteenth century the division between land and sea became absolute; and islands, which had once been understood as bridges, also lost their power of connectivity.

        It was not so much that commercial ties had weakened or that distances had gotten somehow greater, but the sea was now coming to be seen as a vast empty moat and the islands were taking on an aura of narrow insularity that has haunted them ever since. In the age of industrial capitalism and the nation state, history turned its back on Atlantic Oceania, forgetting that it had ever existed. The nineteenth century progressive imagination turned inward to focus on roads and bridges, ignoring water-borne forms of transporation. No longer stepping stones to the future, islands retreated into the mists of history, waiting, like castaways, to be rescued from oblivion.

March, 2003


1         Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterannean World in the Age of Philiip II, i (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 154.

2         Epile Hau'ofa, "Our Sea of Islands," The Contemporary Pacific: A Journal of Island Affairs, vi, nr. 1 (Spring, 1994), p. 152. See also Philip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge: Cambridge Unversity Press, 2001), pp. 54-58; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (New York: Free Press, 2001), Part VI; Greg Dening, "The Geographical Knowledge of the Polynesians and the Nature of Inter-Island Contact," Polynesian Navigation, ed. Jack Golson (Wellington: The Polynesian Society, 1963), pp. 102-131.

3         Quoted in Eric Leed, The Mind of the Traveller: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism (New York: Basic Books, 1991), p. 134.

4         Ian K. Steele, The English Atlantic, 1675-1740: An Exploration of Communications and Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. vi.

5         J.H. Parry, The Discovery of the Sea (New York: Dial Press, 1974), p. xii.

6         Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (New York: Random House, 1983), p. 154.

7         Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik, The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture and World Economy, 1400-Present (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1999), p. 43.

8         Steinberg, p. 109.

9         Charles Maier, "Consigning the Twentieth Century to History: Alternative Narratives for the Modern Era," American Historical Review,105, nr. 3 (June 2000), p.808.

10       J.G.A. Pocock, "The Atlantic Archipelago and the War of the Three Kingdoms," The British Problem, 1524-1707 eds. Brendan Bradshaw and John Morrill (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 174.

11       Edmundo O'Gorman, The Invention of America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 19610, p. 131.

12       Valery's description is from Henri Baudet, Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man, trans. Elizabeth Wentholt (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), p. 4.

13       Robert S. Lopez, "Epilogue," First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ii, ed. F. Chiapelli (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 888.

14       Ibid, p. 889; Carole Shammas, "English commercial development and American colonization, 1560-1620," The Westward Enterprise, eds. K.R. Andrews, N.P. Canny, P.E. Hair (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 1978), pp. 151-74.

15       Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "International at the Creation: Early Modern American History," Rethinking American History in a Global Age, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 103-122.

16       David Quinn, North America from Earliest Discovery to First Settlement (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 472-3.

17       Ibid, chapter xviii.

18       David R. Ringrose, Expansion and Global Interaction, 1200-1700 (New York: Longman, 2001), chapter iii.

19       Braudel, p. 103.

20       David Abulafia, A Mediterranean Emporium: The Catalan Kingdom of Majorca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229-1492 (London: Mamillan, 1987), p. 137.

21       Charles Verlinden, "The Transfer of Colonial Techniques from the Mediterraean  to the Atlantic," The European Opportunity, ed. F. Fernandez-Armesto (Aldershot: Variorum, 1995), pp. 225-248.

22       Fernandez-Armesto, chapters iv-ix.

23       Quinn, pp. 64-66

24       William D. Phllips, Medieval Origins of European Expansion (Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press, 1996); Valerie Flint, The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

25       Loren Baritz, "The Idea of the West," The American Historical Review, lxvi nr 3 (April, 1961), p. 635.

26       Roland Greene, "Island Logic," 'The Tempest' and Its Travels, ed. Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2000), p. 138.

27       On the context of the isolario, see Tom Conley, The Self-Made Map: Cartographic Writing in Early Modern France (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), chapter v.

28       I will pursue these themes in my forthcoming Islands of the Mind: The Shaping of the Atlantic World

29       Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens, and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 32.

30       Quoted in Anthony Pagden, Peoples and Empires: Europeans and the Rest of the World from Antiquity to the Present (London: Weidenfeld and Nicoloson, 2001), p. 94.

31       C.R. Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800 (London: Penguin, 1973).

32       J. H. Parry, The Discovery of the Sea (New York: Dial Press, 1974), p. xiii.

33       Parry, p. vi; Quinn, p. 472; Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, ad 500-1600 (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 481.

34       Parry, p. xii.

35       Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), chapter iv.

36       Elizabeth Mancke, "Early Modern Expansion and the Politicization of Oceanic Space," The Geographical Review 89, nr. 2 (April 1999), p. 227.

37       Basil Davidson, The Fortunate Isles: A Study of African Transformation (Trenton: African World Press, 1989), p. 15; Quinn, chapter xix; Geoffrey W. Symcox, "The Battle of the Atlantic, 1500-1700," First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, ed. F. Chiapelli, i (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 265-277; also Kupperman.

38        Anthony Pagden and Nicholas Canny, "Afterword: From Identity to Independence," in Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800, eds. Pagden and Canny (Princeton: Princeton University Pres, 1987), p. 273; Carla Rahn Phillips, "The Organization of Oceanic Empires: The Iberian World in the Hapsburg Period," paper delivered at "Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges," Library of Congress, Feb. 12-15, 2003.

39       Pagden, Peoples and Empires, p. 56.

40       Parry, p. 108.

41       Ibid, p. 216.

42       Steinberg, p. 69; for further explorations of the law of the sea, see Lauren Benton, "Oceans of Law: The Legal Geography of the Seventeenth Century Seas," Eliga Gould, "Lines of Plunder or Crucible of Modernity? Toward a Legal History of the English-Speaking Atlantic, 1660-1825," and Alan Karras, "Trangressive Exchange: Rewriting Atlatnic Law in the Eighteenth Century," given at Seacapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges, Library of Congress, Feburary, 2003.

43       Stephen A. Royle, A Geography of Islands: Small Island Insularity (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 74-77: on the trade of Run for Manhattan, see Tim Severin, The Spice Islands Voyage (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1977), p. 117; in this respect islands were like ships. See Hans Konrad van Tilburg, "Vessels of Exchange: The Global Shipwright of the Pacific," paper delivered at Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic Exchanges, Library of Congress, February, 2003.

44       Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

45       Jack Greene, "Changing Identity in the British Caribbean: Barbadoes as a Case Study," in Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, pp. 213-65. 

46       The parallels between this and the contemporary global economy are striking. See Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Access (New York: Tarcher/Putnam 2000).

47       On the Malvinas/Falklands islands, see Royle, pp. 135-7.

48        Kupperman, pp. 109-110.

49       Pagden, Peoples and Empires, pp. 67-68.

50       Pagden and Canny, p. 273, Michael Zuckerman, "Identity in British America: Unease in Eden," in Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, p. 136.

51       Pagden, Peoples and Empires, p. 95.

52       Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, "World History in a Global Age," American Historical Review, 106, nr. 4      (October,    1995), pp. 1034-60.

53       T. Bentley Duncan, Atlantic Islands: Madeira, the Azores and the Cape Verdes in Seventeenth-Century Commerce and Navigation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, p. 3.

54       Hau'ofa, p. 152.

55       Duncan, p. 59.

56       Ira Berlin, "From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Identity," William and Mary Quarterly, lii, nr.2 (April 1996), pp. 251-288.

57       Kupperman, pp. 107-108.

58       Jeffery Knapp, An Empire Nowhere: England, America, and Literature from Utopia to the Tempest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992),pp. 4-13.

59       Bernhard Klein, Maps and the Writing of Space in Early Modern England and Ireland (Houndmills, 2001), p. 135.

60       Pocock, p. 174.

61       Karen Wigan and Martin Lewis, The Myth of Continents: a critique of metageography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Eviatar Zerubavel, Terra Cognita: The Mental Discovery of America (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1992), chapter ii; Dora Beale Polk, The Island of California: A History of the Myth (Spokane: Arthur H. Clarke, 1991).

62       Stephen J. Pyne, How The Canyon Became Grand: A Short History (New York: Viking, 1998), p. 5.

63       Duncan, 247.

64       K.G. Davies, The North Atlantic World in the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press, 1974) pp. 86ff.

65       Duncan, p. 145, 250-51.

66       Crosby, p. 2.

67       Allan Williams and Monica Lucinda Fonseca, "The Azores: Between Europe and North America," Small Worlds. Global Lives, eds. Russell King and John Connell (London: Pinter, 1999), p. 57.

68       Duncan, chapter ix.

69       William H. McNeill, "World History and the Rise and Fall of the West," Journal of World History, ix, nr. 2 (Fall, 1998), p. 281.

70       For example, Barbadoes was the jumping off spot for the peopling of other Caribbean islands. Davies, p. 138.

71       Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts,1783-1860 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921), p. 11.

72       Duncan, pp. 24, 155.

73       Kupperman, pp. 103-104.

74       Steele, passim.

75       Duncan, p. 188.

76       Ibid, pp. 24, 155.

77       Davies, p. 140; Duncan, pp. 248, 251; Steele, p. 272.

78       Pagden, Peoples and Empires, p. 97.


Copyright Statement

Copyright: 2003 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle and Brandon Schneider. Format by Chris Hale.

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