Militarizing the Atlantic World: Army discipline, coerced labor, and Britain’s commercial empire

Peter J. Way, University of Windsor


Historians of the Atlantic World have paid startlingly little attention to the main instruments European states deployed in their takeover of the region: their armies and navies. Conversely, few military historians have sought to re-think their own subject matter in terms of the many scholarly achievements of Atlanticists, being locked into the nationalist tropes embedded in studies of warfare. And rarely do scholars seek to recover the experience of the common soldier so as to relate them to the historical processes creating the modern world. As key players in the getting and keeping of Britain’s Atlantic Empire, soldiers also played a central role in globalizing capitalism by acquiring new territories to be planted with slaves and indentured servants, producers of commodities, the lifeblood of commerce. Like these unfree laborers, soldiers also had masters more than willing to whip them to their duty, making them another form of coerced labor in the capitalist project. In early modern warfare getting enough men into the field proved key to success. Making men into good soldiers willing to suffer horrible wounds or death required the imposition of rigid discipline. And soldiers resisted that class discipline in many ways, from calculated ineptitude through insubordination and desertion to mutiny. In return, their officers brought the might of a legal system to bear. Military justice proved even bloodier than the civil justice system, which whipped, mutilated, and executed felons with abandon. The army in effect waged guerilla class war against its own men, maiming and killing many to coerce them to do their duty in a way that transcended indentured servitude and slavery. Studying the application of military discipline in such political economic terms while mapping it against the Atlantic shows how colonial expansion itself relied on force and not just the labor regimes it enabled.