How Wide Is the Atlantic Ocean?
Larger and Larger

Luca Codignola
Saint Mary’s University

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.



1 On the North Atlantic in the 17th century, see the magisterial book by Kenneth Gordon Davies, The North Atlantic World in the Seventeenth Century (Minneapolis and London, 1974), which is still the best one-volume synthesis. Davies’ early work on Africa makes him an Atlanticist ante litteram. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a workship entitled "How Wide is the Atlantic Ocean?" at Presence of the Past: A National Conference on the Teaching, Learning and Communicating the History of Canada, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, 24 October 2003.

2 See Gabriella Airaldi, Genova e la Liguria nel Medioevo (Turin, 1986) and Steven A. Epstein, Genoa & the Genoese 958-1528 (Chapel Hill, NC and London, 1996).

3 For an interpretation, see Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe (New York and London, 1982); Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West (New York, 1993) and Bernard Lewis, Cultures in Conflict: Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Age of Discovery (New York and Oxford, 1995). For the last outpour of Western anti-Islamic sentiments before the 21st century, see Michael L.S. Kitzen, Tripoli and the United States at War: A History of American Relations with the Barbary States, 1785-1805 (Jefferson, NC and London, 1993).

4 John W. Blake, European Beginnings in West Africa 1454-1578: A Survey of the First Century of White Enterprise in West Africa, with Special Emphasis upon the Rivalry of the Great Powers (London, New York and Toronto, 1937), also published with a new preface as West Africa: Quest for God and Gold 1454-1578: A Survey . . . (London, Dublin and Totowa, NJ, 1977); John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (Cambridge, 1992); George E. Brooks, Eurafricans in Western Africa: Commerce, Social Status, Gender, and Religious Observance from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Athens and Oxford, 2003).

5 Whether such a school as such really exists in terms of methodology and aims is a matter of contention; there is, however, a new awareness of the fact that there was more that crossed the Atlantic than English colonists or French enlightened ideas going to the British continental colonies and that the whole interaction between the several ethnic communities present on both shores, including the Aboriginal peoples, must be taken into account. For the "old" Atlantic history school, see Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1959-64); Jacques Godechot, Les Révolutions (1770- 1799) (Paris, 1963) and Charles Verlinden, Les origines de la civilisation atlantique: De la Renaissance à l’Âge des Lumières (Neuchâtel and Paris, 1966). For an extremely perceptive discussion of the new Atlantic historiography, see Nicholas P. Canny, "Writing Atlantic History; or, Reconfiguring the History of Colonial British America", The Journal of American History, LXXXVI, 3 (December 1999), pp. 1093-114. For the new school’s cultural manifesto, see David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Basingstoke and New York, 2002), which includes Armitage’s "Three Concepts of Atlantic History", pp. 11-27, 250-4. In terms of this school’s impact outside of French Canada and the English-speaking world, see Henry Kamen, Spain’s Road to Empire: The Making of a World Power, 1492-1763 (London, 2002), published in the United States as Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 (New York, 2003). It is worth noting that Kamen now teaches in Spain after a long career in England. The French have not yet succeeded in transforming what used to be straight colonial history into something more appealing to a new generation of historians, as is evident in Gilles de Gantes, "De l’histoire coloniale à l’étude des aires culturelles: la disparition d’une spécialité du champ universitaire français", Outre-mers. Revue d’histoire, XC, 338-9 (1er semestre 2003), pp. 7-20. Colonial history is apparently dead, and the new political correctness has simply consigned the history of French and European expansion in the hands of literary critics and trendy cultural historians. The Portuguese and the Dutch, for their part, still devote more attention to their former African and Asian empires. Aside from the language used, Canadian historiography in French is fully part of the English-speaking world. See traces of this debate in Nicholas P. Canny and Anthony Pagden, eds., Colonial Identity in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800 (Princeton, 1987); Leslie P. Choquette, Frenchmen into Peasants: Modernity and Tradition in the Peopling of French Canada (Cambridge, MA and London, 1997); Peter N. Moogk, La Nouvelle France: The Making of French Canada – A Cultural History (East Lansing, MI, 2000) and James S. Pritchard, In Search of Empire: The French in the Americas, 1670-1730 (Cambridge, MA and London, 2004).

6 In a similar vein, the discussion on the depth of the Atlantic Ocean that was presented in a 1997 book was not on physical measurement but rather on the historical development of the fishery over some centuries. See James E. Candow and Carol Corbin, eds., How Deep is the Ocean? Historical Essays on Canada’s Atlantic Fishery (Sydney, NS, 1997).

7 Ian K. Steele’s The English Atlantic 1675-1740: An Exploration of Communication and Community (New York and Oxford, 1986) demonstrates well the extent of this Atlantic web.

8 Peter Gerald (Jerry) Bannister, The Rule of the Admirals: Law, Custom, and Naval Government in Newfoundland, 1699-1832 (Toronto, Buffalo and London, 2003), p.158. Peter E. Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill, NC and London, 2004), makes a similar point throughout his book, but explicitly on p. 79. In the matter of cultural continuity, see also H.V. Bowen, Elites, Enterprise and the Making of the British Overseas Empire 1688-1775 (Basingstoke, London and New York, 1996), pp. 125-30 and the William and Mary Quarterly issue devoted to a discussion of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York and Oxford, 1989) – 3rd ser., XLVIII, 2 (April 1991), pp. 222-308 (articles by Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Jack P. Greene, James P.P. Horn, Ned C. Landsman and Barry Levy, with Fischer’s response).

9 Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661 (Cambridge, MA and London, 2004), pp. 4, 212, 328 n. 48.

10 For Columbus, see Oliver Charles Dunn and James Edward Kelley, Jr., eds., The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America 1492-1943 Abstracted by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (Norman and London, 1989) and Luca Codignola, "Préface", in Christophe Colomb, Les journaux du premier voyage (Montréal, 2005). For Newfoundland, see Codignola, The Coldest Harbour of the Land: Simon Stock and Lord Baltimore’s Colony in Newfoundland, 1621-1649 (Kingston and Montréal, 1988), p. 176 and Pope, Fish into Wine, p. 21.

11 Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama (New York, 1997).

12 Herbert S. Klein, "The Structure of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the 19th Century: An Assessment", Outre-Mers. Revue d’histoire, LXXXIX, 336-7 (2e trimestre 2002), pp. 63-77.

13 James Louis O’Donel to [Giacinto Sigismondo Gerdil], Waterford, 29 January 1797, Congressi, America Antille, vol. 3, ff136rv-137rv, Archives of the Sacred Congregation "de Propaganda Fide" (Rome), now printed in Cyril J. Byrne, ed., Gentlemen-Bishops and Faction Fighters: The Letters of Bishops O’Donel, Lambert, Scallan and Other Irish Missionaries (St. John’s, 1984), pp. 149-50.

14 Steele, The English Atlantic; William J. Eccles, "Quelques réflexions sur la correspondance entre la Nouvelle-France et le ministère de la Marine", in Georges Bérubé and Marie-France Silver, La lettre au XVIIIe siècle et ses avatars: Actes du Colloque international tenu au Collège universitaire Glendon Université York Toronto (Ontario) Canada 29 avril-1er mai 1993 (Toronto, 1996), pp. 209-15; Jane E. Harrison, Until Next Year: Letter Writing and the Mails in the Canadas, 1640-1830 (Waterloo, 1997), also published as Adieu pour cette année: La correspondance au Canada, 1640-1830 (Hull, 1997); Kenneth J. Banks, Chasing Empire across the Sea: Communications and the State in the French Atlantic, 1713-1763 (Montréal, Kingston, London and Ithaca, 2002).

15 Ida Altman and James P.P. Horn, eds., "To Make America": European Emigration in the Early Modern Period (Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford, 1991), p. 3.

16 Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, 1969); Herbert S. Klein, The Middle Passage: Comparative Studies in the Atlantic Slave Trade (Princeton, 1978); Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge and New York, 1983); Thornton, Africa and Africans; David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne and Madrid, 2000).

17 David Beers Quinn, "Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Newfoundland", in Quinn, Explorers and Colonies: America, 1500-1625 (London and Ronceverte, WV, 1990), pp. 207-23; Shannon Miller, "Producing the New World, or Reproducing the Old? Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 Newfoundland Project", in Germaine Warkentin, ed., "De-Centring the Renaissance: Canada and Europe in Multi-Disciplinary Perspective, 1350-1700" (working paper, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 7-10 March 1996), pp. 132-40. This article was not published in the final proceedings of the conference: Warkentin and Carolyn Podruchny, eds., Decentring the Renaissance: Canada and Europe in Multidisciplinary Perspective, 1500-1700 (Toronto, Buffalo and London, 2001).

18 Bannister, Rule of the Admirals.

19 Pope, Fish into Wine, p. 79.

20 Olive Patricia Dickason, The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas (Edmonton, 1984), pp. 164-5; Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (Oxford, New York and Melbourne, 1995); Edward G. Gray, New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America (Princeton, NJ, 1999), especially p. 14; Edward G. Gray and Norman S. Fiering, eds., The Language Encounter in the Americas, 1492-1800: A Collection of Essays (New York and Oxford, 2000).

21 Jean de Léry (1534-1611), History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America . . ., ed. Janet Whatley (Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford, 1990), pp. 7, 170. Léry’s book, Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, autrement dite Amérique, was originally published in 1578. See also Dickason, Myth of the Savage, p. 190.

22 Charles A. Martijn, ed., Les Micmacs et la mer (Montréal, 1986).

23 David B. Quinn, Neil M. Cheshire, Tony Waldron and Alison Moffat Quinn, "Frobisher’s Eskimos in England", Archivaria, 10 (Summer 1980), pp. 23-50.

24 Charles Maurice Whelan to [Giuseppe Maria Doria Pamphili], [New York], 28 January 1785, Congressi, America Centrale, vol. 2, ff 442-3rv, Archives of the Sacred Congregation "de Propaganda Fide" (Rome).

25 The psychological severance of the United States from Great Britain which followed 1776 is, however, very similar to French Canada’s psychological abandonment of France which followed the French Revolution. See Luca Codignola, "The Rome-Paris-Quebec Connection in an Age of Revolutions, 1760-1820", in Pierre H. Boulle and Richard A. Lebrun, eds., Le Canada et la Révolution française: Actes du 6e colloque du CIEC. 29, 30, 31 octobre 1987 (Montréal, 1989), pp. 115-32.

26 Pope, Fish into Wine, p. 236.

27 There is an interesting attempt by a human geographer to give some coherence to apparent ethnic confusion in David William Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geogrpahical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol. 1, Atlantic America, 1492-1800 (New Haven and London, 1986), pp. 213-26. If I were to employ Meinig’s terminology, I would broadly describe British North America as a "segmented" society and the United States as a "pluralistic"society.

28 See Joseph E. Ciesluk, National Parishes in the United States (Washington, DC, 1944) and Matteo Sanfilippo, L’affermazione del Cattolicesimo nel Nord America: Élite, emigranti e chiesa cattolica negli Stati Uniti e in Canada, 1750-1920 (Viterbo, 2003), especially pp. 51, 76, 158.