Our research covered three sequential yet distinct periods in the history of the Atlantic world: the sixteenth century, or what we judged to be the “age of conquest,” a period dominated by Spanish and Portuguese explorers; the long seventeenth century (covering from the 1590s to 1740s), during which other European powers decisively cut into the Iberian monopoly of the Americas and established long-lasting colonies in North America and the Caribbean; and the Age of Revolutions, between the 1770s and the 1820s, a time of dramatic and traumatic transformations that resulted in the creation of more than a dozen republics in the Americas and upended the lives of millions of Atlantic dwellers. Throughout the more than three hundred years covered in this exhibit, travelers crossed the Atlantic aboard sailing vessels. The multiple Atlantic crossings of our fourteen travelers were sometimes tedious and monotonous and other times eventful and traumatic. The Atlantic crossing, however, was always laden with danger and a catastrophic outcome could never be discarded. The Atlantic that our travelers inhabited and traversed was also socially and politically malleable, and therefore predictable only in its unpredictability.
The travelers of this exhibit represent a heterogeneity of backgrounds, professions, and destinations. Some hailed from one or the other side of the Atlantic and some came from far beyond. Each traveled for a distinct reason: some sought military glory, some were adventurers, some used the Atlantic to make a living, and some were conscripted into their voyages against their will. Even within the travelers’ own stories, they could fill multiple roles, and many wore different masks at different times to accomplish different goals. Their voyages demonstrate the diversity of those who most epitomized the “Age of Sail” and show how the Atlantic was a connecting path rather than a dividing moat. Over time, Atlantic travel produced its own unique identities, endowing those who traveled it most frequently with a distinct culture that combined the disparate experiences with which the travelers originally entered to create an Atlantic-wide cosmopolitan structure of feeling and way of being in the world.
Portuguese and Spanish explorers dominated Atlantic waters during this early period.
French, English and Dutch navigators entered the Atlantic theater with much energy during the seventeenth century.
Warfare curtailed mobility for many but the revolutionary changes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century also put many people on themove.