Atlantic Worlds: Exploration and Cultural Encounters

Atlantic trading brought unprecedented cultural exchange and altered the world forever.

Africa and the Atlantic World

The cultures of the African continent are rich and diverse, with ancient histories that have withstood centuries of social and cultural change. They have included many different and powerful kingdoms. These societies have different languages, religions and traditions, and a variety of complex social and political structures.

In West Africa, societies such as those of Benin and Asante were founded on wealth from mining gold and extensive trading across Africa. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive on the West African coast in the 15th century. In addition to vast reserves of gold and complex trading networks, they also encountered artists producing ornate artefacts following long-established creative traditions. Travellers were amazed by both the natural and manufactured riches of Africa, and before long ships from other European countries arrived.

African artists frequently created artworks especially for these visitors. Soon, beautiful objects were being brought back to Europe for sale as expensive, luxury items. Impressed by travellers’ reports and the goods they brought back, traders from many European countries soon began to seek new markets and supplies of raw materials in West Africa.

However, Europeans could not trade wherever they liked. They needed permission from the rulers of the kingdoms that they entered. These powerful men controlled trading in their regions. Some leaders formed strategic alliances with the newcomers. Generally, Europeans had to pay in the local currency of the people they traded with, which differed from region to region.

Many African traders used this as an opportunity to exchange their own goods, such as ivory and gold, for scarcer and more sought-after goods like cloth, brass bowls, metal bars and guns.

At first, Europeans bought gold and ivory. But as they started to settle and cultivate the Americas, their demand for labour increased. Eventually they began to purchase enslaved Africans, who were transported across the Atlantic Ocean and forced to labour on plantations in the Americas.

Encountering a ‘New World’: North America

Before European contact, the North American continent was home to about a thousand tribes speaking hundreds of different languages. For millennia these indigenous groups had interacted, traded with each other and developed sophisticated ways of organizing and understanding the world around them.

The Vikings are the earliest Europeans known to have reached America. They settled in Greenland and Newfoundland, but their settlements did not last. In the 16th century, Europeans again began to explore lands across the Atlantic Ocean. Their motives included the search for resources, a desire to find a short cut to Asia through the fabled North-West Passage, and the need to escape religious persecution.

Until the early 1600s, European voyagers to the coasts of North America failed to establish lasting colonies there. They came into contact with indigenous people, however, who traded with them and taught them valuable survival skills. But relationships were not always harmonious, particularly as Europeans brought with them alcohol, disease and – as the numbers of immigrants increased – a desire for more and more land.


The Atlantic Ocean, connecting three continents, provided the means for people to move around a vast region. Migrations of huge numbers of people, both forced and voluntary, characterized the ‘Atlantic world’ and profoundly shaped the one we live in today.

The forced transportation of millions of enslaved Africans was fundamental to the development of huge areas of the Americas. It is estimated that eight million Africans had been taken over the Atlantic by the 1820s   only 2.5 million Europeans crossed it during the same period.

From the 1630s onwards, large numbers of people also left the British Isles and continental Europe to start new lives in the Americas. They did so for many reasons: to escape poverty, to make their fortunes and to enjoy greater religious and personal freedom.

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