1 BY THE MID-17TH CENTURY THE Atlantic Ocean had become a European mediterranean sea, which was much more familiar to the Europeans than the real Mediterranean Sea.1 Europeans were on both sides. Religion was the same, or at least the variety of Christian denomitations were all well recognizable. Societal organizations, languages and even food were comparable. North American Aboriginal peoples were indeed "different" but, though far from displaced from the coastal regions and often living in constant relationship with the Europeans, they were not and had never been a significant factor in oceanic navigations. Compare this sense of familiarity with the profound differences that Europeans felt whenever they met with the peoples that lived on the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, Arabs as well as non-Arabs. During the long time span known as the Crusades (1096-1270), Christians – as the Europeans of the time should more appropriately be called – had succeeded, at least for a time, in conquering Jerusalem and other Muslim towns in the Middle East and in establishing feudal states in their midst. None of these achievements had lasted, however, and Christians had to wait until well into the 19th century to regain a foothold on the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Foreign these shores did remain, in spite of the fact that some European nations, such as the Genoese, had always been in constant relationship with their inhabitants.2 The two shores had little in common except their reciprocal hostility. Societal organization, languages, food, down to the colour of the skin – everything was different.3 The same cultural gap applied to the commercial posts established by the Portuguese along the western African coast since the 15th century. No conquests were ever made nor was there any form of cultural integration. In fact, these posts were mainly used by the Europeans to deter other Europeans and, just as in Asia, they were tolerated by the Africans as long as they suited their needs.4
2 This notion of the Atlantic Ocean as a European mediterranean sea is at the root of the new Atlantic history school – a school that does not seem to have made any inroad outside of French Canada and the English-speaking world except for Henry Kamen’s bold new interpretation of the Spanish empire.5 One of the issues examined by this school relates to the width of the Atlantic Ocean. To be sure, the physical and psychological extent of the gap between the two shores has been a matter of contention ever since Genoese-Spanish navigator Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) set foot in America. As for the physical distance, once this was determined there was little historians could contribute.6 With regard to the psychological distance, however, interpretations swung from utter discontinuity (i.e., American exceptionalism) to cultural transfers and subsequent modifications. Atlantic history practitioners now seem to have abandoned this either/or attitude in favour of the notion of a continuing correlation between Europe and the Americas.7 For example, two recent books on early Newfoundland and the northern fisheries confirm that the psychological break with the mother country, so customarily emphasized with regard to New England, was rather exceptional. According to these books, many colonists experienced a "dual identity" that placed England and their newly adopted country "as part of a single cultural continuum".8 One should recall that Newfoundland was not an isolated outpost. The island was, on the contrary, at the centre of a network of transatlantic communication. The "two-way impact of colonies and metropolis" is also at the core of U.S. historian Carla Gardina Pestana’s comprehensive study of the interrelations between England and its continental and island colonies in the crucial two decades of the English Civil War. In refusing to consider 1660 as historical watershed, she convincingly argues that the new English world in some respects "departed radically from European practices" whereas in others "it . . . participated in trends that were also shaping England at this time".9 In spite of this continuing correlation, however, the width of the Atlantic Ocean, far from shrinking with time as one might logically surmise, grew larger and larger with the passing of time.
3 One element remained constant. This was travel time, which did not change much before the steamship era in the 19th century. It took Columbus 33 days to cross over from Palos to San Salvador in 1492, and it might take as little as three weeks for a fishing boat to go from Ireland to Newfoundland, the closest distance between the two shores.10 If that may seem a lot compared to the week or so it took a steamship in the 19th century, we should not forget that other routes were much, much longer. The 1497 voyage of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama (c.1460-1524) from the Cape Verde Islands to St. Helena Bay required an open-sea crossing of 96 consecutive days. From there he still had 200 kilometers to go in order to simply reach the Cape of Good Hope – before being able to start the second and longer leg of his voyage towards India.11 Indeed, in the early modern age a return voyage to the Spice Islands would normally take three years. A recent comprehensive database on the African slave trade from the 15th to the 19th century shows that there was little variation in the tonnage of slave ships, the average number of slaves carried, the feeding and handling of the slaves, or their mortality figures.12
4 In spite of some technical improvements, then, the structures of oceanic travel evolved so slowly over the four centuries of European expansion that passengers did not really notice any difference. On the top of all this, voyagers could not discount the possibility of being captured in time of war let alone being subject to the vagaries of oceanic weather. Trans-atlantic communication was highly seasonal. Hurricanes in the south and ice in the north made it impossible, or at least very risky, to travel during many months each year. One could leave Nantes bound for Montréal and end up in the West Indies. In Napoleonic times, the Franciscan Observant James Louis O’Donel (1737-1811) left St. John’s in Newfoundland to be consecrated bishop (1796) only to return home over a year later after a voyage that had to make unplanned stops in Québec, Halifax, Guernsey and Ireland.13 This uncertainty involved mail as well as people so much so that anybody who wanted to be certain that their papers reached their addressees, such as merchants, Crown bureaucrats and church leaders, took care to send them via different routes in duplicate or even triplicate. Finally, migrants, soldiers and slaves, who normally had little familiarity with the sea, continued to be terrorized by the Atlantic crossing. All this changed little throughout the early modern age.14
5 If travel time remained constant, familiarity with the Atlantic Ocean and its two shores did not. To be sure, this discussion does not apply to the African slave community, the only group that experienced immediate severance with their original communities. We often forget that it was not until the 1830s that the numbers of free European migrants to America finally surpassed the annual arrival of African slaves. We are speaking of some 12 million slaves, mostly brought over in the 18th and the 19th centuries, versus some one and a half million Europeans who came over in the period known as "early American history".15 If any subfield has greatly profited from the new Atlantic history trend, it is scholarly work on the slave trade. Witness the pioneer works of Philip D. Curtin, Herbert S. Klein and, more recently, of Paul E. Lovejoy, John K. Thornton and David Eltis.16 In fact these historians have practiced Atlantic history well before the new trend had become an acknowledged field of enquiry. For the African slaves the Atlantic Ocean – the distance between the two shores – could not have been larger. It is a well-known fact that they managed to reconstitute or to re-invent their culture in the New World. Transatlantic communication, however, was never an option for them.
6 With regard to those of European origin, fishermen and traders as well as ship captains and crew travelled along very familiar routes during the 16th and 17th centuries. In spite of the vastness of the ocean and the length of the American coastlines, they seemed not only to know where to go, but they also seemed to be well acquainted with each other and to know whom to trust and whom to fear. They often came from the same region, spoke the same language and spread information about landing places or fishing spots by word of mouth. Trade competition went along with a certain measure of human co-operation. Unwritten customs seemed to be respected by all, like those that English entrepreneur Humphrey Gilbert (1539?-1583) tried to change in his favour in Newfoundland in 1583. He called himself Lord Paramount, formally annexed the island to the Crown’s domains, then appropriated all existing fishing and drying gear nearby – at the same time leasing them in perpetuity to their holders – to no avail. His visionary colonization plan, impossible to implement, died with him a few weeks later.17 The best spots in the fisheries, which by the mid-16th century were used by thousands of Europeans, were customarily handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. The master of the first English ship to arrive in a given harbour after 25 March was acknowledged by all as the local authority for the following fishing season. This system applied to the British fishing fleet until well into the 18th century.18 In the words of historian Peter E. Pope, the 17th-century North Atlantic was indeed "a small place". North Americans "were dispersed but not disconnected, either from one another or from their kin and creditors in the Old World".19
7 For those who did not limit their activities to water but included the land in their itineraries, the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas became very much part of this familiar network. Convenient locations along the coasts and the rivers were set up as seasonal meeting places where both parties expected to renew acquaintances and conduct trade according to established routines. Chains of trust were established that required the presence of familiar faces, the participation in certain ceremonies, the development of elementary contact languages as well as the greetings of former acquaintances who could not be present but had been expected to be.20 Right from Columbus’s first voyage, Aboriginal children were taken to Europe, often forcibly, to learn the language and to be used as interpreters. Similarly, European children, boys and girls, were brought to and abandoned in America for the same purpose.21 The assumption was that the two parties would meet at the same location one year later. Most of what we know, of course, comes from European sources, and we know very little, if anything, of how Aboriginal peoples viewed the Atlantic Ocean. Only one book comes to my mind, Québec historian’s Charles A. Martijn’s 1986 collection on the Mi’kmaq.22 Not that the Aboriginal peoples ever attempted – as far as we know – to get to the other side of the Atlantic, but many of them were brought over to Europe as prisoners, presents, living evidence of new found lands and new Christians to be baptized with pomp and circumstance. Most of them died during the voyage or soon thereafter. British historian David B. Quinn’s touching account of the earliest Inuit brought over to England in the late-15th century by the English navigator Martin Frobisher (c.1535-94) speaks volumes of what the experience must have been for those people who, at home, had mastered the perils of the sea so well.23
8 With time, the improvement in the overall knowledge of the New World by the Europeans made the pychological distance between the two shores larger and larger. That distance grew in proportion to the growth of the European population of the New World and the differentiation of transatlantic networks. Towns grew in number and in size, and it became more and more difficult for any arriving European to recognize a face or to hear a familiar voice or accent. From the last quarter of the 18th century onwards, a typical feature of any United States town, and especially of the major urban centres of the northeast coast, was the ethnic variety of their population. Philadelphia, New York and even Boston hosted representatives from most countries in Europe. For example, in 1785 the Irish Capuchin Charles Maurice Whelan (1741-1806) remarked that it was useless to send a missionary to New York, unless he was able to speak Irish (i.e., Gaelic), English, French and Dutch, and that some Portuguese and Spanish would also help.24
9 This combination of growth in numbers and ethnic mixing was somewhat less evident in British North America where a much smaller overall population, together with the absence of the common ideological bonds born out of the American Revolution, allowed for each province to proceed along separate routes long after Confederation in 1867. It also allowed most major ethnic communities – French, Scots, Irish and even Aboriginal peoples – to continue to keep their separate identities for much longer.25 Familiarity between newcomers and the welcoming community in British North America was also helped, for a longer time than in the United States, by the fact that until the mid-1840s migration from the British Isles into British North America was mainly chain migration – a cousin inviting a cousin, a friend calling a friend and a trader sending his junior partner. This migration was regional in origin and emigrants retained many characteristics of their lives from the Old World, including language, upon arrival. Again Newfoundland is a most typical case in point. The island received mostly Englishmen until the 1760s, specifically from Devon. Then the Irish began to replace them, arriving in droves in the 1840s and completely changing the ethnic balance of Newfoundland.26 Not only did the Irish come from particular regions of their country, but they tended to stay with their own kind even in the New World – Munster men would not mingle with Leinster men and Waterford settlers would look down on people from Sligo.27 The Catholic Church, for one, had its share of problems in this regard. Each ethnic community insisted on being served by a priest of their own kind who could speak their language. In the end the Catholic Church recognized, in the whole of North America, the right of each ethnic community to organize its own ethnic parish. This came late in the 19th century.28
10 In conclusion, I believe that in the early days of contact the gap between the Old World and the New World was physically large but well bridged by rather small networks of people. These people, for a variety of reasons, travelled the Atlantic Ocean along familiar routes and tended to know each other or of each other, and this network very much included Aboriginal peoples when Europeans were in the New World. Later, the larger the population of European origin in the New World became, the less likely people were to keep in constant touch with their community of origin. Newcomers, then, travelled routes that were less and less familiar to them and, once they arrived, found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings. In some areas, however, smaller ethnic networks did persist for much longer. Indeed, these networks grew with time. They made it possible for people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to keep in touch, to hear news about family and friends, to send money home or to receive help from there, to visit and even to return home periodically or permanently. For people who participated in these smaller networks, the Atlantic Ocean never became too wide as it did for those who, for a variety of reasons, were left to their own individual resources and means.