Web of Connections

On the Water - Web of Connections

After 1500, a web of maritime trade linked Western Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Thousands of ships carried explorers, merchants, and migrants from Europe to the Americas. They also transported millions of enslaved men and women from Africa. Vessels bound back to Europe carried gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, rice, and other cargoes, along with returning travelers. Every crossing brought new encounters between people, customs, and ways of life, ultimately creating entirely new cultures in the Americas. The maritime web connected the lives of millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Atlantic World

Trace the web of maritime connections between western Europe, western and central Africa, and the Americas that made up the Atlantic world.

Details from “The Western Ocean,” a map published in The English Pilot, the Fifth Book, 1720

Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum

Sailors in the Atlantic World

As maritime trade expanded after 1500, hundreds of thousands of men found work as sailors. These new seamen came from across Europe, Africa, and the Americas and brought a mixture of languages, customs, and beliefs to their ships.

Conditions at sea were often dreadful, marked by hard labor, harsh discipline, poor provisions, low wages, violence, and disease. Desertion was common, and sailors from faraway places jumped ship in port cities and towns throughout the Atlantic world.

Engraving by William Hogarth

Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries

. . . Turn’d away and Sent to Sea, 1747

In this 18th-century print, a young man is shown the brutality of seafaring by three unsavory sailors. While one rows, another taunts him with the lash, used for discipline on ships. The third points to the body of a pirate hanging from the gallows. His mother weeps, perhaps at the prospect of losing her son to the sea.