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Nuevo Mundo Mundos

Coloquios, 2008


Pieter Emmer

The Myth of Early Globalisation: The

Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800

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Referencia electrnica
Pieter Emmer, The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800, Nuevo Mundo Mundos
Nuevos [En lnea],Coloquios, 2008, Puesto en lnea el 19 septembre 2008. URL : http://nuevomundo.revues.org/
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Document gnr automatiquement le 29 septembre 2009.
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The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800

Pieter Emmer

The Myth of Early Globalisation: The

Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800

What is a system and how does it differ from a circuit, a region or a space? In the historical
literature precise definitions are hard to come by, so there is no way of finding out whether
the Atlantic System is unique. It is true that we do not use the word system to describe
the trade in goods and the migration of people within the Mediterranean of the 14th and 15th
centuries nor do we talk about an Asian System when discussing the European expansion
in Asia during the same period in which the so called Atlantic System came about1.
In this contribution I would like to look at the trade in and the production of goods as well as
at the movement of people within the Atlantic area. Do these maritime exchanges constitute
sufficient building stones to speak of a system? My conclusion will be that indeed the Atlantic
World was unique before 1800 in comparison with other geo-political areas, but that an
Atlantic System was not an economic phenomenon, but a cultural one. In the Atlantic the
economies of Europe, Africa and the New World largely remained independent from one
another. Only the European trading forts along the coast of West Africa, the plantations in
the New World and certain Atlantic port cities in Western Europe were so interconnected that
we can speak of a slave trade cum plantation system in which one section could not survive
without the other. The economic impact of this system, however, was too small to affect the
economies of the three Atlantic continents at large with the possible exception of Great Britain
during the second half of the 18th century2.
Allow me to argue my case by discussing the two main economic activities in the Atlantic
area during the period under review: the trade in goods and human migration.I will not belittle
their volume and impact, but I will argue that the trade and migration of the Atlantic were only
marginal additions to the trade and migration with no Atlantic connection.


Regarding the trade in goods, I can be very brief. In none of the continents around the
Atlantic Ocean was more than 2 percent of their Gross National Product (GNP) generated
by intercontinental trade. We should realise that all shipping tonnage in Europe around 1500
could fit into only two present-day super tankers and that we would need five such tankers
to arrive at the tonnage available around 1800. Everywhere in the world both production and
consumption took place locally and if goods moved, they moved mainly within a region and
hardly beyond the borders of a continent3.
I now could turn to my second topic, human migration, if it were not for the fact that you
might feel short-changed about this apodictic statement regarding inter-Atlantic trade. Almost
every economic activity seems marginal compared to the GNP of a continent. In view of that
and in order to prove my point I will discuss the impact of Atlantic trade on West Africa and
Western Europe.
The earlier historiography always stressed the fact that the African economy had experienced
reduced growth or even decline because of Africa's detrimental involvement in the
international trade in goods and the slave trade. Europe, on the other hand, was supposed to
have strongly profited from its Atlantic trade even to the extent that the Industrial Revolution
would not have come about without it4.
In fact, there is no evidence that the volume of Atlantic imports could have been of great
importance to the population of West Africa at large. Just two estimates will suffice to prove
this. The first one enables us to measure the value per year of all imports and exports per head
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The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800


of the population. In West Africa per head of population that value was only 1/40th of that of a
British citizen and 1/20th of a US citizen. The second estimate concerns the percentage of the
import value in relation to internal production. The value of the European imports into West
Africa could not have been more than 5 percent of the value of Africa's internal production
and that is assuming that the Africans produced no more than their subsistence5.
Against this line of reasoning there are usually protests from Africanists who are quick to
point out that the quantity of the Atlantic imports into Africa does not explain sufficiently
what damage these imported goods did to the growth of the African economy. It was the
specific character of those imports from Europe and not their volume that supposedly was
responsible for their negative impact. As Africa imported mainly textiles, those imports are
reputed to have reduced the demand for textiles produced in Africa. At the same time the
reduced demand for home made textiles prevented the African textile producers to expand and
to look for ways in which the manufacturing process could be industrialised. As the textile
industry was one of the leading sectors in the early industrialisation in Europe it stands to
reason to assume that the large-scale imports of foreign textiles were one of the reasons why
an Industrial Revolution did not take place in Africa. In addition, Africa's Atlantic imports
consisted of a disproportionately large number of guns and it seems obvious that those imports
resulted in far more wars and bloodshed than the importation of normal trade goods would
have done. In addition to textiles and guns, Africa also imported expensive alcoholic beverages
and finished household items such as glassware and cutlery, again products not demanding
any further processing and therefore not inductive to industrialising the African economy 6.
However, all these arguments make little sense when put into the comparative framework of
intercontinental trade during the early modern period. Why should the economy of Africa
react differently to international trade than the economies of other continents at the time? The
assortment of goods in the long distance trade to other areas in the world was similar to the
range of trade goods imported into Africa. In fact, the volume of the imported goods into West
Africa was relatively small: only one gun to 118 Africans, while in colonial North America
the number of guns per head of the population was twice as high. The percentage of textiles in
the trade to Africa was indeed relatively large, but the yearly volume was still barely enough
to let every African have one handkerchief. This is proof of the fact that in West Africa the
demand for textiles could only be satisfied marginally by importing textiles from abroad and
the same applies to the demand for metal. In sum, there is no evidence to show that between
1500 and 1800 either quantitatively or qualitatively the Atlantic trade in goods could have
made much of a difference to the economy of West Africa7.
As far as Western Europe was concerned, the same conclusion applies. The volume and value
of the trade in the non-European part of the Atlantic were relatively small. Regionally, of
course, there were large differences and there were indeed two countries where foreign trade
accounted for more than 10 percent of their respective National Incomes: Portugal and the
Dutch Republic. The economic histories of these two countries, however, are killing fields for
those assuming that early Atlantic trade was a vital ingredient for industrialisation. It is true
that the imports of precious metals from the gold and silver mines of Spanish America and
Brazil were important to the economy of early modern Europe because American gold and
silver served to pay for the imports from Asia. However, without the precious metals from the
New World Europe's bankers would have developed other means of payment (i.e. more paper
money) while the history of Spain shows that the large-scale importation of precious metal
does not automatically provide for a booming economy, let alone for an industrial revolution.
In addition to precious metals the main Atlantic imports into Europe between 1500 and 1800
were coffee and sugar, but there is no evidence that without these products Europe's economic
and social development during the period under review would have been any different. Cotton,

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The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800


the other major New World export article did indeed contribute significantly to the economic
growth of Britain, but not until after its industrial take-off 8.
I will rest my case here. I realise that these figures will meet with some scepticism. It was
Western Europe that dominated the trade in the Atlantic World and it seems more than a
coincidence that the economy of Western Europe was the first to industrialise. The economic
prominence of the Atlantic System seems even more important when we take into account
that during the second half of the 18th century Great Britain had the greatest stake in the Atlantic
economy and at the same time became the Atlantic's first industrial nation. However, on the
other hand there are several nations with an Atlantic past that did not industrialise until very
late in the 19th century such as Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. I realise that there remains
something elusive in the relationship between the growth of the Atlantic economy and of the
economies of the constituent regions in spite of the fact that all the figures point at a marginal
impact at best.

Atlantic Migrations



When we for the moment accept the position that the trade in goods did not make the Atlantic
economy unique, we should turn to human migration. There is no doubt that migration
has given the Atlantic its distinct character. However, before 1800 on a yearly count the
number of migrants was not impressive: during the 300 years after Columbus about 2 to 3
million Europeans moved across the Atlantic and 7 to 9 million Africans. Thus, the loss to
Europe amounted to 6,500 migrants on average per year and to Africa to roughly 30,000
slaves per year. When we assume that the coastal regions of both Western Europe, and West
Africa housed populations of about 20 million each, Europe lost only 0.3 per thousand of its
population per year and Africa 1.2. Do these emigration figures indicate that Europe or Africa
suffered from depopulation? The answer must be negative. Between 1500 and 1800 the demographic growth in Europe and Africa has been estimated to be 40 per 1000 per year showing
that the migration into the Atlantic constituted only a very minor factor in reducing European
and African population growth9.
Did Africa suffer more than Europe in view of the fact that Africa contributed more migrants
to the Atlantic economy both during the 17th and the 18th centuries? In answering this question
we must not forget that to Africa the Atlantic was just one of the areas of the trade in slaves.
During the height of the slave trade between 1700 and 1850, it has been estimated that more
than 21 million slaves have been traded in the whole of Africa of whom 4 million had died, 7
million had been sold to slave owners within Africa, 7 million had been exported to the New
World and 3 million had been sent to the Middle East. Of course, I am quite ready to admit
that the slave trade had more effects on some areas of West Africa than on others, but when
we take the total volume of transatlantic migration between 1500 and 1900 into consideration
both Portugal and Great Britain lost a larger percentage of their populations to trans-Atlantic
destinations than did any area in West Africa10.
This leads to the conclusion that although the volume of the trans-Atlantic migrations was
unique, the demographic effects were limited for both the sending and the receiving countries.
As far as the receiving areas are concerned, the high death rate among the immigrants explains
the modest demographic impact of the immigration of 9 million slaves from Africa between
1500 and 1800. In contrast, the rapid increase of the European immigrants in the settlement
colonies of both North and South America was impressive, but the Atlantic System had
little to do with that. Most of the increase in the number of ex-Europeans was caused by
autochthonous demographic growth in the New World and this growth would have taken place
irregardless of any transatlantic links as shown by a similar demographic development among
the European immigrants in the Cape of Good Hope colony, the only settlement colony outside
the Atlantic orbit.
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The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800

The integration of the Atlantic System




How should we measure economic integration? Usually, historians and economists point to
the volume of trade in relation to the GNP of a country or to the trends in trade or to the ratio
of trade to output. Few pay attention to prices of commodities in the various markets in the
Atlantic. Commodity market integration implies that these prices should be converging over
time; such price convergence will, other things being equal, drive up the volume of trade.
However, the volume of trade could also increase for reasons unconnected with integration,
or decline for reasons unconnected with disintegration: shifts in supply and demand will also
lead to changes in trade flows, and these have no necessary connection with
globalisation 11.
Recent calculations by ORourke and Williamson show that in the Atlantic before 1800 there
was no tendency for prices to converge and that changes in the volume, composition, and
direction of intercontinental trade were caused by local or regional changes in demand and
supply, and that these changes were not connected with the growing integration of the Atlantic
A similar observation can be made about the markets for migrants. The secular decline in living
standards in 17th century Spain and the devastation during the Thirty Years War in Central
Europe did not result in an increase of the number of trans-Atlantic migrants. Migration from
Spain to the New World peaked in the 16th century and from Germany during the 18th century.

The location of the Atlantic System




If there was such a thing as an Atlantic System, where was it located? In discussing the
economy and demography of early modern Europe, tropical Africa and the New World we do
not seem to make much progress. The average European, Amerindian and African was very
much part of the economy of his own village, city or region and not a participant in a larger,
integrated Atlantic society. Being part of the Atlantic economy was the exception, not the rule
for products as well as for people.
In contradiction to this observation there exists a large body of traditional historiography
saying that before 1800 the Atlantic System allowed Europe to profit from the vast,
unexploited resources of the Americas and the abundant reserves of labour of Africa.
Supposedly Europe was able to get a head start in the process of industrialisation by exploiting
the non-European parts of the Atlantic System. That picture is incorrect. It is true that only
the Europeans had the ships, the technological know-how and the equipment (some would
say machinery) to set up plantation and settlement colonies. But technology in Europe was
only marginally more advanced than the technology elsewhere. As a consequence the new,
Atlantic additions to the existing range of products and services were limited. Coffee, sugar,
and tobacco made up the lion's share and cotton became an important Atlantic commodity
only towards the very end of the period under review, thus decades after the beginning of
the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. In sum, there was nothing vital in the contribution
of the specific products of the Atlantic System to the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The
same conclusion applies to services. Certain shipping firms, banks, merchants, and brokers
specialised in handling transatlantic trade and migration, but most of these doubled in a nonAtlantic capacity.
In looking for the economic foundations of the Atlantic System we are left with very little.
No doubt the economies most dependent upon the Atlantic trade and migration were to be
found in the plantation belt and in the mining regions of the New World. These were enclaves
of economic growth based on the application of new technologies, but above all on the use
of existing organisational, trading and financing skills from Europe and on the importation of
African slaves across the Atlantic. In the colonies of European settlement in North and South
America there was little innovation in the agricultural techniques in producing food crops
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The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800


and the Atlantic element was relatively small and not vital for the economic survival of these
colonies, perhaps with the exception of New England. For British North America transatlantic
trade was relatively important, but accounted for not more than 15 percent of total income.
Regional differences were large, however, and that must have applied also to most of the South
American colonies13. It was only in the plantation colonies that most of the economic activities
were generated by transatlantic connections.
Over time the economy of the Atlantic System became less, not more important. Today,
after five centuries of transatlantic trade, between eighty and ninety-five percent of the international trade of any nation which borders the Atlantic is with its immediate neighbours, not
with transatlantic partners. As David Eltis put it:
Indeed, for most of Africa and the Americas (especially the Caribbean), in the last five centuries,
has experienced diminishing, not increasing, dependence on transatlantic markets for goods,
capital and labour over time. After a massive switch to transatlantic trade in the century or so
after transatlantic contact was first established, the normal trend thereafter for most societies was
a long secular shift back toward intra-African or intra-American trade, and perhaps above all, a
return to a focus on domestic sources of demand for goods and supplies of factors of production.
In the sense that most economies around the Atlantic have become more developed over time
and the more developed the economy, the more important are its domestic relative to its external
markets, globalisation and Atlantic history are myths14.

The Institutions of the Atlantic





When we talk about the Atlantic System what we really mean is a system of economic,
social and cultural values and institutions leading to the modern world. It should be stressed,
however, that the modernising tendencies of the Atlantic System did not become apparent
right away. Let me mention some examples.
Free labour. It is surprising to note that the modern institution of free mobile labour in the early
modern world only existed in Western Europe. In all other parts of the world slavery and other
forms of unfree labour reigned supreme. Yet, when colonising the New World the Europeans
used a modified form of the African institution of slavery to satisfy their demand for labour.
It took more than three centuries before the modernising tendencies of the Atlantic System
became apparent and before the Europeans abolished their slave trade and the institution of
slavery in their colonies.
Individual property. In the Atlantic the right to own property and to have that property
protected by the state was uniquely European. Time and again European travellers remarked
about the lack of private landownership in Africa and Amerindian America. The Atlantic
System did lay the seeds of change, and in the areas of contact the European notion of private
property became the norm. However, around 1800 Europeans, Africans and Amerindians still
had widely diverging views on this matter.
Insider/Outsider divisions. All peoples around the Atlantic practised this division. It explains
what is wrong with the question as to why Africans were selling Africans. Africans did not feel
that they belonged to one group and neither did the Europeans and Amerindians. However,
over time the Atlantic experience changed these divisions. In the Atlantic System outsider
groups such as Jews, Huguenots and Irishmen were included in the insider group much more
easily than was the case in Europe itself. In the slave trade and among the slaves in the New
World the same applies. The effects of the Atlantic System were slow to appear. It was not
until the end of the 18th century when the System brought about a most dramatic change in
the existing social and racial values, when increasing numbers of Europeans started to consider
Africans and, indeed all other ethnic groups in the world as insiders, albeit not as equals. Over
time that change had a dramatic impact and in a dialectical way destroyed the very heart of
the Atlantic System, i.e. the slave trade cum plantation economy.

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The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800



The economic role of women and children. In Europe women and children were more and
more banned from the centre of economic life. No wonder, Europeans were surprised to see
African and Amerindian women perform a wide range of activities unheard of at home. The
Atlantic System brought no unity in this respect. Overseas, the Europeans used African
and Amerindian women and children for heavy fieldwork. It was only towards the end of
the 18th century that protests were heard in Europe. It is a mistake to assume that economic
rationale dictated the limited role of women and children in the economy of Europe. The
choice to ban women and children from a wide range of activities in Europe was a cultural
one not an economic imperative. Had women and children been used as was done in Africa
and Amerindian America, Europe would have experienced more economic growth than it did
in actual reality.
Monogamy and the nuclear family. Again, the Atlantic System was not successful in
harmonising European, Amerindian and African family and kinship ties. Amerindian and
African family structures remained different from those in Europe. Attempts at imposing the
European family values were strongest among the slave communities in the New World.
Around 1800, however, the cultural differences in this domain were almost as large as they
had been before the creation of the Atlantic System.






Economically speaking, before 1800 the Atlantic System incorporated only a limited
number of activities in Europe, Africa and the New World. The heart of the System consisted
of the New World plantation agriculture, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the trade in cash
crops, and the voluntary trans-Atlantic migratory and labour movements.
Some of the Atlantic economic activities required a new technology. Europe developed ways
to invest money in other continents, to transport and insure bulk products over long distances,
and to devise new management methods in order to arrive at an industry-like labour regime.
In Africa and Amerindian America the Atlantic System introduced new crops and animals
that might have helped to reduce the negative demographic impact of the System.
Yet, without the Atlantic System the economies of Western Europe, West Africa and
the New World would not have been much different. Without the Atlantic Europe might
have spent more of its resources on trade within Europe and with Asia. Virtually all factors
of production used in the Atlantic System could easily be used elsewhere. Europe's
consumption pattern would have changed, but not dramatically so as sugar and coffee were
luxury items and not vital to the physical survival of Europe's population. Without the
Atlantic System Africa might have increased its internal slave trade and the trade to the
Middle East. Without the Atlantic contacts Amerindian America would have had no reason
to export as many beaver skins.
The only areas that would have suffered badly without the Atlantic System would have been
the slave trading forts in Africa and the plantation colonies in the New World. The absence
of the American consumer markets might have delayed the Industrial Revolution in Great
Britain, but it could not have prevented it. Perhaps Eastern Europe would have taken the place
as the market for England's manufactured goods.
However, it is no use denying that in spite of the low opportunity costs of the Atlantic
System, the Atlantic world in 1800 was radically different from the Asian world at that time.
From 1500 onward a clash of cultures had begun in the Atlantic and that clash would not
come to Asia until the end of the 19th century. That explains why the Atlantic System should
not be seen as the beginnings of a global economy, but rather as cultural concept about values
and norms such as the existence and protection of private property, monogamy and the nuclear
family, the place of women and children in the economy and the society, and the superiority of
free labour. The Atlantic System was not the victory of economic rationality. The Atlantic
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The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800

System was about the merging and transference of values and cultures, not about the resources
of Africa and of the New World or about the transfer of capital and labour.
1 Horst Pietschmann, Geschichte des atlantischen Systems, 1580-1830. Ein historischer Versuch
zur Erklrung der 'Globalisierung' jenseits nationalgeschichtlicher Perspektiven, Berichte aus den
Sitzungen der Joachim Jungius-Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften E.V., Hamburg, vol. 16, n. 2, 1997.
2 David Richardson, The Slave Trade, Sugar, and British Economic Growth, 1748-1776, in Barbara
Solow and Stanley Engerman, dir., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery. The Legacy of Eric
Williams, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 79-102; Joseph E. Inikori, Slavery and
the Development of Industrial Capitalism in England, in Barbara Solow and Stanley Engerman, dir.,
British Capitalism, pp. 103-134.
3 Patrick K. O'Brien, European Economic Development: The Contribution of the Periphery, Economic
History Review, vol. 35, n. 1, 1982, pp. 1-18.
4 Walter A. Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, London/Dar es Salaam, Bogle-LOuverture
Publications/Tanzania publ. House, 1972.
5 David Eltis and Lawrence C. Jennings, Trade between Western Africa and the Atlantic World in the
Pre-Colonial Era, American Historical Review, vol. 93, n. 4, 1988, pp. 936-959; David Eltis, Economic
Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, New York, 1987, p. 72.
6 Joseph E.Inikori, Introduction, in Joseph E. Inikori, dir., Forced Migration. The Impact of the Export
Slave Trade on African Societies, London, Hutchinson, 1982, pp. 54-56; J. D. Fage, A History of Africa,
London, Hutchinson, 1978.
7 David Eltis and Lawrence C. Jennings, Trade between Western Africa and the Atlantic World, pp.
953-954, 957-959; J. D. Fage, African Societies and the Atlantic Slave Trade, Past and Present, n.
125, 1989, pp. 97-115.
8 Wolfgang, Reinhard, Economic Change in the Atlantic Triangle, in Hans Pohl, dir., The European
Discovery of the World and its Economic Effects on Pre-Industrial Society, 1500-1800,Stuttgart, Franz
Steiner Verlag, 1990, p. 40; Patrick K. O'Brien, European Industrialisation from the Voyages of
Discovery to the Industrial Revolution, in Hans Pohl, dir., The European Discovery of the World, p. 171.
9 David Eltis, Free and Coerced Transatlantic Migrations: Some Comparisons, American Historical
Review, vol. 88, n. 2, 1983, pp. 252-255; Pieter C. Emmer, European Expansion and Migration. The
European Colonial Past and Intercontinental Migration: An Overview, Itinerario, vol. 14, n. 1, 1990,
pp. 11-24.
10 David Eltis, Economic Growth, pp. 64-71.
11 Ronald Findlay and Kevin H. ORourke, Commodity Market Integration, 1500-2000, paper
presented to the NBER conference on Globalisation in Historical Perspective, Santa Barbara, May 2001,
p. 1.
12 Kevin H. ORourke and Jeffrey G. Williamson, After Columbus. Explaining the Global Trade
Boom, 1500-1800, Journal of Economic History, vol. 62, n. 2, 2002, pp. 417-456.
13 John J. McCusker and Russell R. Menard, The Economy of British America, 1607- 1789, Chapel
Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1985, pp. 85-86.
14 David Eltis, Atlantic History in Global Perspective, Itinerario, vol. 23, n. 2, 1999, p. 143.

Para citar este artculo

Referencia electrnica
Pieter Emmer, The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800, Nuevo
Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En lnea],Coloquios, 2008, Puesto en lnea el 19 septembre 2008. URL :

Pieter Emmer
University of Leiden

Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos

The Myth of Early Globalisation: The Atlantic Economy, 1500-1800

Tous droits rservs
Abstract / Rsum

In recent historiography, it has been argued that the expansion of Europe between 1500
and 1800 created a system in the Atlantic by which the economies of Europe, West
Africa and the New World were closely interconnected by trade and migration. However,
the available evidence suggests that the economic implications of such a system were of
marginal importance. Rather than boosting the economy, the Atlantic System stimulated the
expansion of European values and norms, such as private property, monogamy, the nuclear
family, free labour, and the place of women and children in society.
Keywords : European expansion, Atlantic economy, early maritime trade, European norms and values, myth of

Dans lhistoriographie rcente, a t avance lide que lexpansion europenne entre 1500
et 1800 aurait cr un systme au sein du monde atlantique, par lequel les conomies
de lEurope, de lAfrique de lOuest et du Nouveau Monde auraient t troitement
interconnectes du fait du commerce et des migrations. Il apparat cependant clairement que les
implications conomiques dun tel systme avaient une importance marginale. Plutt que de
dynamiser lconomie, le Systme atlantique entrana lexpansion des valeurs et des normes
europennes, telles que la proprit prive, la monogamie, la famille nuclaire, le travail libre,
la place des femmes et des enfants dans la socit.
Mots cls : Expansion europenne, conomie atlantique, commerce maritime de la priode moderne, normes et
valeurs europennes, mythe de la globalisation

Entradas del ndice

Cronolgico :16th century, 17th century, 18th century
Geogrfico :Atlantic World, Atlantic System
Licence portant sur le document : Tous droits rservs
ndla : An earlier version of this article has been published in the European Review, vol. 11,
n. 1, 2003, pp. 37-47.

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