For Eu­ro­pe­ans of the medieval and early modern periods, the Atlantic Ocean con-
jured images of the vast unknown, the sea beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, or the
Pillars of Hercules, the world known to the Greeks, and, therefore, the world of
civilization. Eu­ ro ­ pe­ans had been venturing into the Atlantic abyss since at least the
ninth ­century CE, when Norsemen traversed the North Atlantic to Iceland, Green-
land, and, eventually, Newfoundland. Other adventurers—­mostly Portuguese—­
probed southward. They harnessed the winds and currents to explore the coast of
Africa, and eventually rounded the Cape of Good Hope. As impor­tant as striking
across the Atlantic would become, Eu­ ro ­ pe­ans of the fifteenth ­century did not look
in that direction. The lure of wealth and power beckoned from the East, from China
and India, as it had since antiquity. Explorers sailed the Atlantic for shorter Asian
routes, to bypass Arab middlemen, thus raising Eu­ ro ­ pean profit margins on trade.
Moreover, domestic affairs mattered more. The clash of kingdoms in Eu­rope occu-
pied more than enough attention for merchants and monarchs, not to mention for
ordinary ­people scratching out a subsistence living.
Other zones of what would become the Atlantic world ­ were similarly focused
away from the Atlantic Ocean. In Africa, trade, warfare, and po­liti­cal rivalry brought
the continent’s many ­ peoples in contact with a Mediterranean sphere. Islam, hav-
ing expanded from the Arabian Peninsula, was an impor­tant force. East Africa was
linked to the Indian Ocean. Yet, much trade, and many ­ people, moved overland
or via rivers, especially in West Africa, where the Atlantic Ocean was a place for
coastal fishing not exploration. For some cultures, the Atlantic was a foreboding
site. It was the world of the dead, their ancestors, and the line between land and
sea marked the division between the living and the dead.
In the Amer­i­cas, some groups lived from the seas, and the islands of the Ca­rib­
bean had beckoned to settlers as early as 2000 BCE, when ­ people known as the
Arawaks migrated from mainland South Amer­i­ca to the islands. Like Eu­ro­pe­ans
and Africans, Native Americans ­were focused more on land-­based and internal con-
tacts than on venturing across the ­waters, though plenty of contact between a
variety of ­ peoples took place. The Aztecs, to take but one example, had entered ­
today’s Mexico in the thirteenth ­century and, over time, they asserted their domi-
nance over the land’s other inhabitants. By the mid-­fifteenth ­century, before the
arrival of the Spanish, the Aztecs ruled over a network of tributaries from their
fortified imperial capital, Tenochtitlán.
Christopher Columbus’s voyage took place in 1492 against a backdrop of ­ peoples
engaged in many activities other than searching for new worlds. If a generaliza-
tion about such vast territories and diverse ­people is pos­si­ble, then from Eu­rope to
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