Teachers responsible for a class in early American history often find themselves asking: When does American history begin? What does “America” include? Is this a story only of the English colonies, or is it the story of the settlement and displacement of many races, nationalities, and regions across two American continents, Europe and Africa?
This issue of History Now takes the broadest approach to such questions, examining what historians call “The Atlantic World,” the four continents linked by the Atlantic Ocean. In “Three Worlds Meet: Europe, Africa, and the Americas” our scholars look at conditions in England and the Americas before English colonization began; they create a context for understanding Indian and African enslavement; and they examine the perils of traveling the waters that connect peoples of each continent to one another. The stories they tell are more complex than the traditional tales of heroes and victims. What unfolds in these essays is an understanding of social practices and governmental policies, cultural differences and similarities, economic exploitation, and the risks involved as Europeans expanded their reach across the ocean. Taken together, these essays provide the classroom teacher with the historical context in which the early English settlements such as Jamestown and Plymouth were founded.
In "Change and Crisis: North America on the Eve of the European Invasion," Christopher Miller provides us with an in-depth portrait of Native American life on the eve of European settlement. From the rise of the Iroquois Confederation to the rise and fall of the urban centers of the Mississippi River region to the crises faced by the Anasazi and Mogollons of the Southwest, Miller effectively challenges older notions of a North American continent devoid of true civilization or populated by societies built exclusively on warfare. In “England on the Eve of Colonization,” Paul E.J. Hammer shows us the role that English politics and warfare played in the growth of England's empire. Hammer's essay helps us see why England was slow to join the European transatlantic expansion—and looks at the great rivalries between England and the other European powers. Alan Gallay returns our attention to the Americas in “Indian Slavery in the Americas.” He details the extent to which Spanish, French and English colonies employed Indian slave labor, and dispels the myth that slavery was always synonymous with Africans. His essay reminds us that the emergence of racial definitions of slavery – the association of the institution with Africans alone—was a slow historical process. In “Iberian Roots of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1640,” David Wheat focuses our attention on the African slave trade as it was practiced for almost two centuries before English settlement on mainland North America began. He argues that the foundations of the African slave trade were laid centuries before the tobacco and rice plantations of the English colonies turned to the large scale use of enslaved African laborers. Finally, Robert Ritchie reminds us of the “Perils of the Ocean in the Early Modern Era” -- the centuries before Google maps, sophisticated navigational technology, and engine powered ocean liners. The dangers that ship captains and their crews faced included not only storms and unpredictable waters, but pirates on the high seas. For passengers, the voyage was always uncomfortable—and all too often dangerous. And, for enslaved Africans, forced to endure their own “middle passage,” the voyage end was as great a nightmare as its beginning.
As always, History Now provides pedagogical support for its readers. The interactive feature in this issue provides visual reinforcement of our theme of transatlantic history through maps from the sixteenth century. Our master teachers, Bruce Lesh and Phil Nicolosi, offer suggestions for selecting the major themes of the five essays around which to build lessons for your classrooms. Sample lessons are provided by other master teachers. And, Mary-Jo Kline, our archivist, once again offers a wealth of online and print sources that will allow you to pursue the topics of all, or any, of the essays you have read. Taken together, the essays and the supporting materials will, we hope, give you fresh and exciting new topics as you introduce your students to the beginnings of their own society.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.