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Reframing Ocracoke Inlet within an Atlantic World Perspective

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Reframing Ocracoke Inlet within an Atlantic World Perspective

While there is no denying that the presence of the Outer Banks and the lack of good ports and easily navigable east-west waterways profoundly shaped North Carolina’s early settlement, trade, and travel patterns, looking at the Outer Banks only from either a comparative perspective or from the perspective of the rest of North Carolina does not do justice either to the early significance of the site or to history as residents of Portsmouth – both black and white – experienced it during the town’s zenith. Such accounts fail to see that while the rest of North Carolina may have been comparatively isolated because of the Outer Banks, Portsmouth was during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries one of the least isolated parts of the state. By virtue of its proximity to Ocracoke Inlet, the major passageway through the barrier islands from the colonial period until the mid-nineteenth century, Portsmouth was a vibrant gateway from North Carolina to what historians have come rather recently to term a wider “Atlantic world” in which connections fostered by ocean travel and commerce often had greater significance than state or political boundaries.

To understand Portsmouth, then, we must look at it on its own terms, both in relation to North Carolina and in this wider Atlantic context, as belonging to a border region – a region in continual political, economic, and cultural dialogue with both the colony or state to the west and the larger watery world to the north, south, and east. That dialogue included the mainland ports of Edenton, New Bern, Beaufort, Bath, Washington, and Plymouth in North Carolina; the American coastal ports of Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and New England; the expansionist nations of western Europe; and the slave-, rum- and sugarcane-trading islands of the Caribbean.

Changing our perspective and point of reference will allow us to see Portsmouth’s story in a new light. Writing about seventeenth-century Virginia, April Lee Hatfield explains the transformative effect of an “Atlantic world” point of view:

[f]ar more than the historians who have studied them, seventeenth-century Virginians understood that they lived in a world much larger than the Chesapeake. Neglecting or underestimating the firm links between colonies, their impact on Virginia’s history, and their relevance for understanding seventeenth-century English colonists’ perceptions of their world, most historians have framed colonial history largely within political boundaries . . . . Such approaches fail to capture a dimension of colonial experience that was mobile, that crossed and recrossed the Atlantic Ocean and the colonies’ political boundaries, that entailed the adoption of a transatlantic and transnational sense of geography among colonial ‘adventurers,’ that faced outward toward the seas and ships at least as intently as it looked toward westward and interior expansion, and that took for granted the circulation of people from diverse ethic and national points of origin and the ideas and information they brought with them as they traveled.18

Among historians, the concept of the “Atlantic world” has emerged and gained prominence (especially from the 1990s on) as a powerful analytical paradigm. Scholars in Harvard University’s influential International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World (convened by Bernard Bailyn for nearly fifteen years now) regularly argue that not only can one gain fresh and essential perspectives on local, regional, and national histories by linking them with the larger Atlantic world, but also that these histories cannot be adequately understood in the absence of such links.19

Closer to home, the College of Charleston’s Carolina Low Country and Atlantic World Program (CLAW; also founded nearly fifteen years ago) is directly illuminating for the CALO region. CLAW takes a cue from historian Peter H. Wood’s observation (now nearly thirty-five years ago) that the low country coast of the Carolinas constituted “a thin neck in the hourglass of the Afro-American past‚ a place where individual grains from all along the West African coast had been funneled together‚ only to be fanned out across the American landscape with the passage of time.” Woods’s early argument has at length helped inspire such recent work as University of North Carolina professor Peter Coclanis’s edited collection The Atlantic Economy During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (2005) and Bradford Wood’s This Remote Part of the World: Regional Formation in Lower Cape Fear, North Carolina, 1725-1775 (2004) – the latter based partly upon computer analysis of large bodies of disparate data. Both of these studies (published in CLAW’s own series) and many related ones are pertinent to the history that CALO is called upon to understand and interpret for the public.

One of the best summaries of how the concept of the Atlantic world has been developed and deployed may be found in Georgetown historian Alison Games’s article “Atlantic History: Definitions, Challenges, and Opportunities,” which appeared in 2006 in the American Historical Review. Games identifies several sources of energy for the expansion of Atlantic frameworks as an avenue to new historical understanding – especially the burgeoning scholarship on the African diaspora and transatlantic slave trading networks and new studies of colonial and imperial societies in the Atlantic (which benefit from the fact that their writers are usually well trained in the use of sources in several languages and locales).20

Games argues that effective Atlantic history must focus on the multiple means of exchange and interaction that oceangoing transit enabled: in particular the movement of goods, peoples, and ideas.21 Observing that Atlantic history can entail a variety of approaches, from large-scale holistic studies that investigate entire Atlantic systems to small studies investigating a single location in an Atlantic framework, Games advocates a flexible definition of Atlantic history whereby historians “work on geographic units that make sense for the questions they ask.”22 Additionally, she cautions that the extreme variety of particular stories within the wider Atlantic region often defy neat categorization or identification as an “Atlantic culture” or “system.” Effects and outcomes in one area or for one people, she argues, may have been very different from those in another.23

Similarly, although Atlantic world scholars generally concur that the concept begins to become useful in studying the post-1492 period with the extension of the European imperial reach into the western hemisphere, Games finds less agreement about when the end point for the idea’s usefulness occurs. The period during which a number of (though certainly not all) European colonies attained their independence provides one convenient ending point (ca. 1825), while the (generally later) end of the slave trade in most places provides another. Indeed, from the standpoint of global interchange, many of the trends identified in Atlantic studies persist today.24

Most important for our purposes here is Games’s larger point: “The Atlantic, in short, was linked in ways that disregard the modern political boundaries that have defined departmental field structures and specializations. Atlantic history ultimately privileges and requires history without borders.”25 Good Atlantic history, Games advances, would “put the ocean at the center,” since people “moved around the Atlantic, and commodities did as well. The ocean was not only the vehicle of circulation, but also the unique space within which goods and people were created, defined, and transformed.”26

Although the “Atlantic world” perspective is by now mature enough within historical studies to have begun to merit its own reconsiderations, critiques, and sub-arenas of interest, it remains a useful perspective for a reconsideration of the history of the communities of North Carolina’s barrier islands.27

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