Review of The Rise of the Atlantic Economies by Ralph Davis Cornell University Press

The Rise of the Atlantic Economies. Ralph Davis. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973. ISBN: 9780801491436

Before the rise of Atlantic history, there was The Rise of the Atlantic Economies. Forty years ago, long before historians had come together to champion the transatlantic perspective as a way to concurrently analyze the early modern periods in Europe and the Americas, Ralph Davis published this sweeping synthesis of four centuries of transatlantic economic development.  This book owes more to Fernand Braudel’s treatment of the Mediterranean Sea as a single unit of analysis, in his La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen a ‘époque de Philippe II (1949; trans. 1972), through its comparative use of a wealth of secondary literature in a variety of languages, than any sophisticated Atlantic approach that today’s historians would recognize. Nevertheless, it remains an important early example of the advantages that taking a transoceanic, inter-imperial perspective can provide and ought to be accorded more influence amongst Atlantic historians than it has hitherto received. Bernard Bailyn, for example, does not discuss it in his 2005 work Atlantic History.

The author’s impressively readable analysis of the transatlantic empires of Spain, France, the Netherlands, England and – to a lesser extent – Portugal, as overlapping and subject to the same geographic and economic influences, remains valuable and deserves to be read in classes on economic, Atlantic, or global history. That said, the forty years of scholarship that have followed The Rise of the Atlantic Economies mean that professors and teachers who assign it ought to properly contextualize its arguments and conclusions in order to highlight what Davis glosses over, gets wrong, or leaves out the discussion entirely. The book’s frustrating lack of citations, except for a brief survey of chapter-by-chapter further reading offered at the end of the volume, also somewhat compromises its value as a text for graduate classes.

Davis’ key objective is to explain how the interrelated economies of Western Europe and the Americas developed from around 1400, when the Portuguese began to sail along the African coast, until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800. Laudably, he does not seek to root the latter in the former, preferring “to show that this was by no means an inevitable outcome of the long history that had left Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands so far behind England and France” (preface, xiii) in economic terms by the late eighteenth century.

The chapters are essentially self-contained essays ordered chronologically but somewhat counter-intuitively, so that discussion of the imperial economy often comes before that of the European métropole. Throughout them, Davis’ key argument crops up consistently: that the agricultural economy was central to a region’s growth and economic development. Thus, Davis presents the sixteenth-century Spanish economy as inflated due to the influx of colonial silver but insufficiently developed agriculturally to sustain Habsburg ambitions on the global stage and forced to rely on produce from its American empire (56-72). The Netherlands, on the other hand, possessed more advanced agricultural technology and were able to support sophisticated joint-stock and banking institutions that helped create their genuinely global seventeenth-century commercial empire (157-193). In the eighteenth-century, England and France owed their steady mutual rise to economic hegemony to the balance struck between agricultural output and population growth in both countries (288-300), but ultimately their economies diverged when the former’s more productive landholding patterns allowed it to sustain manufacturing industries held back by the latter’s inability to overcome peasant poverty (301-316). The best essay in the book is an agricultural survey of how sugar came to dominate the Caribbean economy – by flourishing particularly on colonies such as Jamaica, Saint Domingue, and Cuba where there was enough land to allow planters to allow exhausted soil to recover every few years (250-263) – because it demonstrates the importance that agriculture had to the success or failure of early modern economies and empires, a point oft-overlooked in the more trade-centered economic histories popular among scholars today.

If Davis sees clearer than most that agricultural history has much to say about transatlantic economics, state formation and empire, he is also at times blind to other influences on these subjects. This is nowhere more apparent than in his treatment of Native American history. We hear early on how the Spanish “conquered” Native societies structured as “a small close-knit nobility resting on the exploitation of a peasant mass” that were as a result “precarious and vulnerable to attack from without” (38-39) by an occupying force. Davis does not compare these Native societies with Spanish society in the sixteenth century, despite the fact that contemporary works such as J. H. Elliot’s The Old World and the New (1970) would scarcely characterize the latter differently. Thereafter in Davis’ work, Indians manifest chiefly as an absence, with their sparse numbers permitting English and French settlement in North America and stimulating the rise of African slavery in response to a lack of indigenous labor (125-142). Only in his discussion of New France do Natives appear as economic actors, with their dominance of the fur trade explained only with reference to the sparse French population that settled that region (73-87).

As a result, Davis overlooked an early opportunity to assert the importance to European colonies of the inland Native economy as well as the Atlantic coastal one, as April Hatfield has argued was common in her work Atlantic Virginia: Intercolonial Relations in the Seventeenth Century (2004). More seriously, leaving Native Americans out of his explanation as to why the British mainland colonies revolted in 1776 undermines his thesis that colonists who had long accepted British restrictions on their trade in return for imperial protection ceased to do so after Britain captured New France in 1763 (264-287). Scholars such as Richard White, in his celebrated The Middle Ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991), have stressed that even after France lost its colonies, Native Americans on the British colonial frontier remained a significant threat with which colonial officials were forced to reckon with right up until the eve of Revolution.

As with any work of a similar vintage, Davis’ The Rise of the Atlantic Economies needs to be set in the context of when it was produced and what has been produced subsequently. Historians committed to the Atlantic World paradigm that drives so much teaching and scholarship today, for example, are explicitly concerned with including African slaves and Native Americans as key components in the overall story, as the social historians of Davis’ era had just begun to do with women, African Americans and the laboring poor more broadly. Readers of this journal therefore ought to consider Davis’ book an ideal introduction to a course concerned with how Atlantic history has developed since the 1970s. Courses on economic history will be enlightened by its clear explanations of early modern financial transactions – see, for example, his articulate description of how a bill of exchange worked in seventeenth century Europe (242-245) – but teachers may be disappointed by the lack of statistical data provided to supplement such discussions. Above all, those interested in teaching world history ought to reflect on Davis’ relentless presentation of the Atlantic as an arena in which European economic exploitation helped to grow – at first artificially, later substantially – the Western European economy as a whole. It would be fertile ground for scholars and teachers alike to consider how Europeans concurrently failed to exert the same exploitative influence or to possess enough land to give over to large-scale agricultural production in Africa or Asia in the three centuries with which the author deals.

Reviewed by Craig Gallagher, Boston College
Edited by Andrae M. Marak

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]