The Atlantic migration of Europeans and Africans to America and the commercial activities associated with it created an economy that for the first time in history could be called global. For many years, historians have relied upon the word mercantilism to capture this international world. Over the last decade, as research has focused more intently on ties between early modern consumers, producers, and distributors in America, Europe, and Africa, the concept of an Atlantic world economic community has eclipsed the mercantilism paradigm. More recently, scholarly voices have cautioned against portraying the commerce of the Atlantic as a separate economic world unto itself and ignoring the true globalism of trade in the period. In discussing the evolving conceptualization of the early modern economy, it is important not only to recognize the commercial growth that occurred during the period, but also to take into account the demographic and environmental changes that were consequences of that growth.
The mercantilist explanation for what kept the early modern economy running is quite straightforward. The kingdoms of Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and France as well as the Dutch Republic each sought to accumulate wealth through advantageous overseas trading arrangements and colonies, while thwarting the ambitions of their rivals to do the same. America played the role of colony. When I use the term America here, I do not just mean the thirteen colonies that bolted from the British Empire in 1776, but rather the entire Western hemisphere. For nearly all of the period under consideration, the area that became the U.S. had no separate identity. The thirteen colonies were neither the only colonies nor the only British colonies, and in the view of the rest of the world, none of the thirteen were considered as the most important in the New World. That honor would probably go to the sugar islands of the West Indies or, depending on the century, either the viceroyalty of Peru or New Spain, the main sites of silver mines. The scrappy, slave-trading, rum-running, smuggling-prone merchant communities that sprang up in towns like Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston might command center stage from the perspective of the national history of the U.S., but they contained just a small proportion of the cast of thousands who developed new markets in America.
Though the mercantilist paradigm was a global one, the most common visualization of it in U.S. history textbooks featured a map of Atlantic commerce. This map [for an example see Figure 1] illustrated the "Triangular Trade" whereby eastern American colonies furnished raw materials, western Africa provided the labor force to produce the raw materials, and the imperial center, often referred to as the Mother Country, shipped manufactured goods to both. Historians pointed to inequities in this system as an important cause of the American Revolution.
Today, this schema has not so much been repudiated as re-interpreted. The most salient economic characteristic of the period remains the growth in overseas commerce, but the term mercantilism is now used infrequently and the marketplace desires of individuals -- especially on the consumption side -- receive much greater credit for effecting change. Students are encouraged to think less about European empires struggling for control of the major sea lanes and colonial bases to achieve favorable trading balances and more about the Atlantic as a meaningful economic entity where coastal inhabitants from all continents exchanged people and goods without always honoring imperial boundaries (1).
To Atlantic scholars, it is not just a European or European transplant story. Transatlantic migrants were three times more likely to be from Africa than Europe during the period (2), and as a result historians now have to take account of the strategies of African kingdoms and institutions in the making of the slave trade (3). Indian...
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