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Atlantic History

by Marcus Rediker at the University of Pittsburgh

History has long been the captive of the nation-state. As J.G.A Pocock has written, "historiography originates as the memory of the state and develops as the critical study of the processes that have brought the state into being." Historians have thus until quite recently focused most of their attention on the activities of the state: war, diplomacy, politics, administration, and government. Even today, when the subject matter of history has expanded far beyond this original conception, the vast majority of historians and scholars in other disciplines still make the nation-state the essential, often unquestioned framework of analysis.

This course is organized as a challenge to nationalist histories. Taking the north Atlantic as its point of reference, it seeks to connect and combine the various and hitherto artificially separated histories of Europe, Africa, North America, and the Caribbean, and to demonstrate how the most important processes of change can be understood only through an international frame of reference.

The course is designed to introduce students to work in Atlantic history both old and new, ranging from R.R. Palmer's The Age of the Democratic Revolution, which provided some of the intellectual underpinnings of NATO and the alliance of the west during the Cold War, to newer scholarship that approaches the Atlantic world "from the bottom up," from the perspectives of social and cultural history. We shall link the four corners of the north Atlantic in order to study the movement of peoples, cultures, politics, and ideas in a broader, more illuminating context. Our emphasis will be on the popular classes - on craftsmen and women, apprentices, wage laborers, sailors, indentured servants, slaves, farmers, peasants, cottagers, villagers, domestics, and vagabonds, of both genders and of many races, ethnicities, and nationalities. We shall study how the activation of these masses of people during the Atlantic's age of revolution changed global politics in decisive, irreversible ways. We shall seek to discover connections within the multicultural experiences and histories of working people, most of which have been either denied or ignored by historians. We shall explore the various conceptions and paradigms of Atlantic history. In doing all this and more, we shall try to build upon and extend the specializations and interests of the members of the class.

The following books are available at the University of Pittsburgh Bookstore and on reserve at Hillman Library:

  • Bernard Bailyn, Atlantic History: Concept and Contours (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005).
  • Seymour Drescher and Pieter C. Emmer, eds., Who Abolished Slavery? Slave Revolts and Abolitionism, A Debate with João Pedro Marques (Oxford: Berghahn, 2010).
  • Jack Greene and Philip Morgan, eds., Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1938; second edition, 1989).
  • Wim Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History (New York: New York Univeristy Press, 2009).
  • Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
  • Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985).
  • Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004). R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), volume I.
  • Pablo E. Pérez-Mallaina, Spain’s Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005).
  • Julius Sherrard Scott III, “The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University, 1986.
  • John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992; 2nd edition, 1998).
  • Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).
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