Teaching About the Atlantic World

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Changes in College-Level History Courses

The 2006, 2007 AP ® United States History Course Description presented a series of modifications to the course and exam in 2006 and beyond. Reflecting the findings of a 2003 survey of more than 800 college faculty members (including 477 United States history teachers), the 2006, 2007 Course Description analyzed changes taking place in the scope and content of college-level U.S. history survey courses. Although the college instructors indicated a "remarkable stability and uniformity in the design and structure of the U.S. and European history introductory courses,"1 they did report modifications in the scope of their curricula. In particular, the U.S. history teachers said they increased their coverage of the pre-Columbian to 1789 period by 6 percent over the last ETS survey in 1998. Moreover, 71 percent of the U.S. history instructors indicated they began their course with the pre-Columbian era.2

The changes raise concerns for many AP U.S. History teachers. The 2006, 2007 Course Description indicates a 4 percent increase in the number of AP Exam multiple-choice questions on the pre-Columbian to 1789 period compared with the exams of previous years. In addition, the Course Description now identifies 12 historical themes meant to encourage students' ability to master historical concepts. Finally, the Course Description includes an expanded Topic Outline with a unit on pre-Columbian societies.

With the specter of more to teach in an already crowded curriculum, teachers wonder how they can include additional topics from the age of exploration and still reach the 1970s and beyond by AP Exam time in early May. This is a challenge for many high school instructors, who are already pressed for class time in dealing with the major events and benchmarks of the U.S. history survey.

A New Teaching Strategy

A solution for this coverage conundrum is to reorganize the early part of the course from 1450 to about 1750 around the concept of the Atlantic world. Rather than trying to examine the age of exploration, colonial settlement, and development through the lenses of nationality and national experiences, teachers might approach this epoch with a broader, transnational view.

"The Atlantic world" is an emerging formulation within the profession supported by a growing body of literature and acceptance among historians.3 While the construct has instructional utility for the curriculum in both European and world history, it also can be very useful in the newly restructured AP U.S. History course. The concept is not limited by a single definition or chronological framework. Many historians view it as the exchange, circulation, and transmission of people, goods, and culture of the continents that bordered the Atlantic Ocean (Africa, Western Europe, and North and South America) from the age of Columbus to the age of Revolution.4 Further, the historical construct examines "the creation, destruction and re-creation of communities as a result of the movement across and around the Atlantic basin."5 Thus a study of the Atlantic world treats the ocean as a bridge, not a barrier, to international colonial development.6

A unit on the Atlantic world can offer students an international perspective on:

  • The interaction of the four oceanic regions from 1450 to the late 1740s
  • The commonalities and differences among the various colonial powers struggling to gain influence and control in Africa and the Americas
  • The cultural and political consequences of the actions between the colonized and colonizers

By looking at these transnational developments, students and teachers can address the modifications and additions in the AP U.S. History curriculum without devoting additional classroom time to the pre-Columbian and colonial period. In short, the Atlantic world paradigm offers a history-without-borders approach and reorganization rather than an expansion of the early part of the survey.7

Opportunities for Conceptual Thinking

While many historians see the years from 1450 to 1830 as benchmarks for studying the Atlantic world, its chronology is fluid.8 In the AP U.S. History curriculum, the years from 1450 to around 1750 probably provide the greatest utility as a chronological framework. This configuration allows classes to examine the pre-Columbian era and the age of exploration and settlement. Further, this chronology gradually narrows the focus of the Atlantic world to include the English colonial experiences in North America as well as Great Britain's growing imperial crisis of the late 1740s.

An introductory unit on the Atlantic world from 1450 to 1750 could consist of three major topics: exchanges within the Atlantic world, development of colonial systems, and the consequences of colonization. (See below for a detailed outline of these three topics.) With the first topic, students could examine the movements of people, commodities, and cultures within the Atlantic world. They could focus on how migrations of people between Europe, Africa, and the Americas created a "web of interdependence among the various nationalities highlighted by the establishment of networks of economic dependencies and cultural exchange."9

Further, by examining international trade patterns, students could move beyond the paradigm of mercantilism and toward an analysis of economic globalism; in the process, they would develop an understanding of how the Atlantic trade system enabled inhabitants of bordering continents to exchange people and goods across boundaries.10 Students can then examine African participation in this economic development beyond the slave trade.11 This curricular approach allows consideration of the transfer of plants, animal life, and microbes of the Columbian Exchange12 and how all these economic and cultural interactions "spawned tensions and conflicts that could not be contained within single colony, sector of trade or empire."13

Within the second topic, students could make comparisons and contrasts among early colonial practices and goals. Rather than examine individual national imperial designs, students might evaluate the sweep of colonization by looking at the interplay and exchanges among the major powers struggling for control in the Americas. In analyzing developments in the context of the Atlantic community, classes could compare the cultural and economic forces that interacted in the Americas, including the role of early Mesoamerican peoples in this exchange.

A central theme in this topic would be placing slavery "within the socio-economic context of the greater Atlantic World."14 Students could compare and contrast the origins, development, and impact of slavery throughout the Atlantic world. Students could conclude this topic by focusing on the creation and development of the British colonies in the seventeenth century and tracing how English imperial attitudes and philosophy laid the foundation for the coming imperial crisis in the 1760s and 1770s.

The last topic in the unit could assess the consequences of colonialism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Students could compare and contrast the political, cultural, and economic changes wrought by European colonization in the Americas and the resistance to these transformations. Topics could include relations and conflicts among Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, and colonists, especially in the backcountry regions of North America. Moreover, students could evaluate the impact of the Enlightenment and Great Awakening on colonial ideology in the mid-eighteenth century.

In summary, a study of the Atlantic world allows students and teachers to make international comparisons and contrasts about the pre-Columbian and colonial eras from 1450 to 1750. This comparative, transatlantic approach with its sweep of history provides a conceptual framework that structures the epoch into broad, coherent themes yet provides an efficient treatment of the specific information necessary for student success on the AP U.S. History Examination.

The Atlantic World: Sample Unit Outline

  1. Exchanges within the Atlantic world: People, commodities, and cultures
    1. Setting the stage: African, European, and Mesoamerican societies in 1450
    2. Population migration and its consequences
    3. Transatlantic trade patterns
    4. Cultural interactions and transformations
    5. The slave trade and its impact
  2. Development of colonial systems within the Atlantic world
    1. Early Mesoamerican empires
    2. Comparison of Spanish, French, and British colonial, economic, and religious practices
    3. Slavery in Africa and in the Americas
    4. English colonial development 1600-1700
  3. Consequences of colonization
    1. Impact of colonization on European and African homelands
    2. Resistance to colonial authority: Native American conflicts, rebellions, revolts, and backcountry unrest
    3. The impact of the Enlightenment and the Great Awakening on the colonial mind
    4. British eighteenth-century imperial policy and colonial reaction

The Atlantic World: Two-Day Lesson Plan on Slavery

As slavery in the Atlantic world cannot be easily addressed using a single textbook, teachers might consider the following two-day lesson, which involves assigning students a series of primary and secondary readings about slavery's development in various regions. This approach provides an opportunity to expand classroom resources by introducing students to a rich variety of academic materials.

The lesson takes about 100 minutes (two class sessions). For homework, assign the entire class to read Philip D. Morgan's article, "The Origins of American Slavery," which can be found here on AP Central (see "Suggestions for Further Reading" for a direct link) or in the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Magazine of History (July 2005). Divide the class into five groups, giving each group an additional set of reading materials that examine slavery in a specific geographic region of the Atlantic world. For example:



British North America:

  • Lorena S. Walsh, "The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Colonial Chesapeake Slavery," Magazine of History (April 2003)

Spanish possessions:

  • F. R. Augier et al., The Making of the West Indies, London: Longman, 1960, 43-46
  • Jane Landers, "Slavery in the Lower South," Magazine of History (April 2003)

Native American slavery:

  • A selection from "Indian Slavery and Slaves" from the Access Genealogy Web site:

French Canada:

  • Kevin Arlyck, "The Code Noir: Construction of Slavery in French Colonial Louisiana," Magazine of History (April 2003)

At the next class meeting, the entire class should discuss Morgan's article on the origins of slavery with a focus on how:

  • Slavery in antiquity and the Middle East influenced slavery in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries in the Atlantic world
  • Various agricultural products affected the development of slavery throughout the Atlantic world
  • Slavery differed in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe
  • The interaction among the peoples of Africa, Europe, and the Americas impacted the course of slavery
  • The slave trade was part of a larger economic exchange within the Atlantic world
  • Slavery in the Western Hemisphere had a distinct development when compared with the other regions of the Atlantic world
  • North American slavery developed into unique pieces and variations within the Western Hemisphere
  • Slavery was, in Morgan's words, a "grim and irrepressible theme governing the development of the Western Hemisphere"

This discussion places the development of slavery in a broad, international context and highlights the ways slavery connected regions to each other within the Atlantic world.

After the general discussion, each group should report on the articles they read about their specific region in the Atlantic world. The groups should address some or all of the following issues in their presentations:

  • In each area, how did the master class justify enslavement?
  • What was the status of the slaves within each region's social order?
  • What type of work did the slaves perform?
  • What were slaves' living conditions?
  • Was there a racial aspect to enslavement in the region?
  • What cultural exchanges took place between masters and slaves?

The lesson concludes by evaluating the similarities and differences among the various parts of the Atlantic world around the institution of slavery. As a final activity, the entire class could complete a summary chart organized like this:

Compare and Contrast Slavery in the Atlantic World

Slavery In: Justification for Enslavement Status in Society Work Performed Living Conditions Racial Issues Cultural Exchange
British North America            
French Canada            
North America (Native Americans)            
Spanish North America/Caribbean            

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction. New York: Knopf, 1986.
  • Breen, T. H., and Timothy Hall. Colonial America in an Atlantic World. New York: Longman, 2004.
  • Cook, Noble David. Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Curtin, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. 2nd ed. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Games, Alison, ed. "Atlantic World." Magazine of History 18, no. 3 (April 2004).
  • Games, Alison. "History Without Borders: Teaching American History in an Atlantic Context." Indiana Magazine of History 91 (1995): 159-78.
  • Games, Alison. Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Morgan, Philip. "The Origins of American Slavery."
  • Shannon, Timothy. Atlantic Lives: A Comparative Approach to Early America. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.
  • Thornton, John Kelly. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


  1. Robert B. Townsend, "College Board Examines Survey Course," OAH Newsletter 33, no. 3 (August 2005): 12.
  2. Townsend, "College Board Examines Survey Course," 1, 8.
  3. Bernard Bailyn, "Preface," in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), xix.
  4. Alison Games, "Introduction, Definitions, and Historiography: What Is Atlantic History?" Magazine of History 18 (April 2004): 3; Timothy Shannon, Atlantic Lives: A Comparative Approach to Early America (New York: Pearson Longman, 2004), xi; David Armitage, "Three Concepts of Atlantic History," in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 16.
  5. J. H. Elliott, "Afterword—Atlantic History: A Circumnavigation," in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 239.
  6. Games, "Introduction, Definitions, and Historiography: What Is Atlantic History?" 3-4; and Games, "History Without Borders: Teaching American History in an Atlantic Context," Indiana Magazine of History 91 (1995): 177.
  7. Games, "Introduction, Definitions, and Historiography: What Is Atlantic History?" 4.
  8. Armitage, "Three Concepts of Atlantic History," 11-12.
  9. Shannon, Atlantic Lives: A Comparative Approach to Early America, 167.
  10. Carole Shammas, "America, the Atlantic, and Global Consumer Demand, 1500-1800,"
  11. John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 6.
  12. Shannon, Atlantic Lives: A Comparative Approach to Early America, 27.
  13. Elizabeth Mancke, "Empire and State," in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 191.
  14. Joyce E. Chaplin, "Race," in The British Atlantic World 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 165.

Mike Henry is a lecturer in United States history at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Maryland. From 1977 to 1998, he taught AP United States History in Prince George's County, Maryland. In addition, he serves as a National Leader for the College Board. Henry is currently an Exam Leader at the annual AP Reading in San Antonio and has written two books and seven articles on the AP U.S. History program. He is also a member of the Organization of American Historians.

Authored by

  • Mike Henry
    Prince George's Community College
    Largo, Maryland