The Ocean in the Atlantic: British Experience and Imagination in an Imperial Sea, ca. 1600-1800

Weidner, Heather, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Halliday, Paul, Department of History, University of Virginia

For Britons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “the Atlantic” was not a field of study -- it was an ocean. In this dissertation I argue for an environmentally minded Atlantic history, one that is conscious of the ocean as both a cultural and a physical presence. The ocean shaped an early modern Atlantic vernacular that was at its essence maritime, godly, anxious and sociable. The ocean was a conduit to empire, so anything Britons imagined about the oceans, they imagined about their empire as well. Britons could never fully master their empire because they could never master the ocean; it was source of anxiety for even the wealthiest merchants. The fear of extremity – of wreck and ruin – kept those who crossed the ocean focused on the three most valuable Atlantic commodities: a sound reputation, accurate information, and the mercy of God.

To explore this four-fold Atlantic culture I examine a variety of sources, from popular songs and sermons to merchants’ letters. These sources expose the connection between the physical experiences that shaped British bodies and the fears and images that shaped British minds. Songs told people that the life of a sailor was one of danger, scripture told them the seas were the mouthpiece for an often angry God, and those who ventured out onto the waters came home to tell stories of overwhelming hardships. By restoring the place of the ocean in the empire, I argue for an eighteenth century that was communal rather than individualistic, religious rather than secular, shipwrecked and nerve-wracked rather than proudly imperial.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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