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

A World of Watercraft

Educational Resources

Explore artifacts and first person accounts of transatlantic travel in the 17th and 18th centuries to compare and contrast their experiences.

Ships, boats, and sailors tied the Atlantic world together. Native peoples and colonists depended on boats for fishing, communication, and trade with the wider world. Warships, merchant ships, and the thousands of sailors who sailed them allowed European nations to manage their empires and profit from the far-flung lands they controlled. These models represent some of the many types of watercraft people used in commerce around the Atlantic world.

Birchbark Canoe

Native Americans depended on North America’s rivers and lakes for food and transportation. They fashioned tough, lightweight bark canoes for fishing, hunting, fur trading, and warfare. By the early 1600s, the French had adopted Indian canoes for their own fur trading.

This model, made by an unknown native maker around 1803, represents the type of canoe built by the Micmac people in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canada.

Lent by the Peabody Essex Museum

South American Canoe

Native peoples in coastal South America and the Caribbean made canoes of logs, bark, and reeds. This model shows a type of canoe used by the Akawai Indians on the Demerara River, which empties into the Atlantic in Guyana.

Lent by the Mariners’ Museum

Ship Model, Santa Maria [1965]
Ship Model, Santa Maria

Náo (round ship) Santa María

Built in Galicia, Spain, before 1492

Crew: 40

Gift of Lawrence H. M. Vineburgh

The Santa María

View Object Record

Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic in 1492 hoping to find a shorter route to the riches of Asia. Instead, he found the islands of the Caribbean Sea, which he claimed for Spain, though they were already inhabited. Waves of conquerors and colonists—both free and enslaved—followed. What was a triumph for Spain was a catastrophe for native peoples. New livestock, plants, diseases, and beliefs unsettled centuries-old communities and ecosystems, changing and destroying the lives of millions of native people.

Ship Model, Susan Constant [1998]
Ship Model, Susan Constant

Bark Susan Constant

Built near London, England, about 1605

Gift of John W. Chapman

The Susan Constant

View Object Record

In May 1607, men from the Susan Constant and two other ships founded Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America. They made the dangerous 3,000-mile voyage in slow, uncomfortable cargo vessels, hoping to find gold and spices. The next month, when they sent the ship home, it was filled with timber.

Ship Model, Ketch [1978]
Ship Model, Ketch

Ketch, name unknown

Built in the 1600


Magnificent catches of fish drew colonists to New England’s shores, and some made their fortunes selling fish in overseas markets. Salt-preserved cod was the region’s main product. It fed plantation slaves in the West Indies and was traded there for molasses. During the 1600s, New England fishers set out in small boats like this two-masted vessel called a ketch.

Ship Model, Sloop Mediator [1962]
Ship Model, Sloop Mediator

Sloop Mediator

Built in Virginia, about 1741

The Mediator

View Object Record

Coastal commerce linked North America’s largest cities and towns. Fast Chesapeake Bay sloops such as the Mediator regularly called at ports from New Hampshire to Georgia, and in many British, French, and Dutch harbors in the Caribbean. The sloop’s design was adapted from small, swift vessels developed in the West Indies.

Ship Model, Chaleur [1962]
Ship Model, Chaleur

Square-topsail schooner Chaleur

Built in New England, before 1764

Purchased by the British Royal Navy, 1764

The Chaleur

View Object Record

Great Britain was often at war in the 1600s and 1700s, and Britain’s enemies attacked ships from the American colonies. To outrun danger, New England shipbuilders developed fast-sailing schooners. The Chaleur, a Marblehead schooner, represents a common type in the Massachusetts fishing fleet.

Ship Model, Colonial Sloop [1960]
Ship Model, Colonial Sloop

Colonial sloop, name unknown

Built in Virginia, about 1768


View Object Record

Sloops formed the backbone of the trade along the coasts and to the West Indies. They often sailed as smugglers and warships, too. This armed example from the 1760s, with oars to maneuver in calms, is similar to craft used by Caribbean pirates a century earlier.

Ship Model, Ship London [1967]
Ship Model, Ship London

Ship London

Built at New York, 1770 or 1771

The London

View Object Record

Settlers exported vast amounts of timber cut from forests in the Americas, and such naval stores as turpentine and tar. With so much wood close at hand, colonial shipbuilding prospered, and American ships sold well overseas. English owners ordered the London, a fast-sailing general-cargo ship, directly from builders in New York.

Ship Model, Brig Swift [1963]
Ship Model, Brig Swift

Brigantine, original name uncertain

Built in North America, 1778

Taken into British Royal Navy, 1779, and named Swift

The Swift

View Object Record

The Swift was designed for speed and had little cargo capacity. The vessel may have been a packet, which carried mail and government dispatches.

Ship Model, Schooner HMS Berbice [1960]
Ship Model, Schooner HMS Berbice

Schooner, original name unknown

Built in North America, before 1780

Captured by the British, 1780, and renamed HMS Berbice

The Berbice

View Object Record

Connected by the sea, farmers and fishermen in the continental colonies fed the residents of the Caribbean islands in exchange for molasses, sugar, and rum. The British captured this merchant vessel in the West Indies during the American Revolution.

Ship Model, Brig Diligente [1960]
Ship Model, Brig Diligente

Slaver brig Diligente

Built in United States, before 1839

The Diligente

View Object Record

The slave trade created vast misery and wealth. For nearly 400 years, merchants in Europe and America financed slaving voyages, some African peoples sold their enemies into bondage, and American planters exported valuable crops without paying their workers. Even after international treaties banned slave importing, vessels like the Diligente continued this lucrative, inhuman trade.


Narrative Accounts, 1680–1806


English Sea Captain, 1680

The Maner of the Ship Sampson in stress of Wether on the 25 day of Aprill, 1694, in South Lattitude 29 degreis & 50 minutes.

Drawing by Edward Barlow from his journal

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

African Slave, 1756

Olaudah Equiano, engraving by Daniel Orme, after W. Denton, 1789

Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.78.82

American Woman Passenger, 1778

“Dominia Anglorum in America Septentrionali,” 1759.

Courtesy of Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

English Sailor, 1787

Map of Philadelphia and Parts Adjacent, by N. Scull and G. Heap, 1752.

Courtesy of Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

American Officer on Slaver, 1795

Joseph Hawkins, 1797.

Reproduced from A History of a Voyage to the Coast of Africa...

American Sailor (Former Slave), 1806

John Jea.

Reproduced from The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher.


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.