Scale, the Global, and the City before 1850

AHA Session 206
Conference on Latin American History 46
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
New York Ballroom East (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Zephyr L. Frank, Stanford University
Mariana L. Dantas, Ohio University
Jennifer Van Horn, University of Delaware
Emma F. K. Hart, University of St. Andrews

Session Abstract

What role do cities play in shaping empires? Atlantic historians have usually assumed their vital importance to lie in their role as ports and as gateways, connecting imperial centers and peripheries to create systems of trade, cosmopolitanism and enlightenment. This is undoubtedly true, but by focusing on the question of scale, the participants in this roundtable will suggest a more multi-faceted role for the city in this vital era of imperialism and globalization.

Global and transnational historians use scale as an essential tool in their efforts to understand the connections between large scale events and processes, and the role played in them by people on the ground, operating on the small scale. By their very nature as concentrated assemblages of people of various social, economic, and ethnic categories, cities were often the place where these varied scales came into conversation with one another. Indeed, this quality of urban places has been keenly observed by commentators interested in the global urban dynamic of the recent past and of our contemporary world. But how did these different scales of activity relate to one another in the Atlantic world before 1850? And how did they mediate the city’s relationship to larger units of nation and empire that were under formation in this period?

The participants in this roundtable will explore such questions in a variety of Atlantic cities before 1850. These cities are often labelled “walking cities” that hosted “face-to-face” societies. But what does this mean for the role played by cities on the Atlantic stage? Does their role as “urban villages” mean that these places had a fundamentally different influence to their modern successors? Were the scales of interaction between empires and the subjects different as a result? What does the scalar character of the Atlantic city mean for the non-white inhabitants who were such a significant proportion of the population in so many of these places? Pondering such questions will not only open up new avenues of inquiry in the formation of the Atlantic world, but will also bring early modern urban histories into conversation with those now being written in the modern era.

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