In This Article Domestic Slave Trades in the Americas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Demographic Contexts
  • British West Indies
  • Spanish America

Atlantic History Domestic Slave Trades in the Americas
Michael Tadman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0246


Through their power to tear families apart, domestic slave trades (also called internal slave trades) brought awful extra layers of suffering to add to the emotional and physical burdens of enslavement. These brutal trades were crucial for the expansion of some major slave economies, most notably the booming 19th-century phases of slavery in the United States and Brazil. In these coerced migrations, enslaved people were sometimes transported by sea, river, or railroad, but much more often they were chained together in coffles and were marched great distances to regions where labor demand and slave prices were especially high. Major urban centers played important roles in these trades, but the grassroots of villages and plantations were far more important both in the buying and in the selling phases of the trade. The domestic trades with which this article is concerned relied on one crucial factor: regional differences in the price of slaves. For a large-scale traffic to be sustained, however, a second factor was of great importance too: slave-exporting areas usually had a naturally increasing population that produced a surplus of enslaved people for distant markets. The dominance of sugar plantations in many slave regimes in the Americas (and the link of sugar planting to natural decrease) limited the potential for domestic slave traffics in many parts of the Americas. The domestic trades that have been most researched share two key features. First, the slave society had ended, or virtually ended, its involvement in the African slave trade, and, second, an antislavery movement was active in drawing public attention to the pain inflicted by these domestic trades. The domestic trade was most prominent in North America from 1807 (the abolition of the African trade) to 1865 (the abolition of US slavery), in Brazil from 1850 (the ending of African importation) to 1888 (the ending of slavery), and in the British Caribbean from 1807 (again, the abolition of the African trade) to the abolition of slavery in 1833. The skew of this article toward North America reflects the far more extensive scholarship on that region as well as fundamental demographic factors that worked against trading in many other areas. For the South American and Caribbean slave regimes generally, however, work on areas of natural increase and decrease, as well as on regional slave prices, could open up new knowledge on domestic trades and their significance. The local selling of enslaved people within neighborhoods existed throughout all slave regimes, but local sales are not central to this article. The long-distance redistribution of newly imported Africans is beyond the scope of the article. It should be noted that some studies have important things to say about several key issues, and they are therefore cited more than once.

General Overviews and Demographic Contexts

Scholarship on domestic slave trades is spread unevenly across the Americas, with a major growth in interest in the US trade from the 1980s onward, with an important though less developed literature for Brazil, and with a small but important literature for the British West Indies. For other regimes, the focus has been on the dominant African slave trade, and significant research on domestic trades awaits development. Tadman 2010 provides the only Americas-wide introduction to the domestic trades, and Slenes 2004 makes valuable comparisons between the trades of Brazil and the United States. Johnson 2004 is a pioneering collection of essays that, though rarely comparative, provide discussions of the trades in an exceptionally wide range of locations across the Americas. Tadman 2000 is valuable because it provides evidence that the enslaved populations of sugar plantations almost never enjoyed natural increase (more births than deaths). Sugar areas, therefore, rarely formed the basis for the interregional sale of locally born slaves. On demography and slaveholdings, see also Bergad 1999, Luna and Klein 2004, and Higman 1984.

  • Bergad, Laird W. Slavery and the Demographic and Economic History of Minas Gerais, Brazil, 1720–1888. Cambridge Latin American Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511572708E-mail Citation »

    Detailed quantitative study of a Brazilian region whose slave population grew through natural increase in the 19th century.

  • Higman, Barry W. Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834. Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    Detailed quantitative study of slave demography in the islands of the British Caribbean between the ending of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and the abolition of slavery in 1834.

  • Johnson, Walter, ed. The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. Papers Presented at the first Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference, held at Yale University in October 1999. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent pioneering collection of fourteen essays on trades in the Americas. Employs diverse methodologies, from demographic and political history to geography and cultural studies.

  • Luna, Francisco Vidal, and Herbert S. Klein. “Slave Economy and Society in Minas Gerais and São Paulo, Brazil in 1830.” Journal of Latin American Studies 36.1 (2004): 1–28.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022216X03007053E-mail Citation »

    Revises the traditional picture of plantation-dominated slavery. Shows the importance of small slaveholding units; points to natural increase of slaves in some areas.

  • Slenes, Robert W. “The Brazilian Internal Slave Trade, 1850–1888: Regional Economies, Slave Experience, and the Politics of a Peculiar Market.” Paper Presented at the First Gilder Lehrman Center International Conference, held at Yale University in October 1999. In The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. Edited by Walter Johnson, 325–370. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent overview of the domestic trade in Brazil. Combines demographic, economic, social, and some political perspectives.

  • Tadman, Michael. “The Demographic Cost of Sugar: Debates on Slave Societies and Natural Increase in the Americas.” American Historical Review 105.5 (2000): 1534–1575.

    DOI: 10.2307/2652029E-mail Citation »

    Argues that natural increase of slaves in the United States did not arise out of favorable treatment by owners. Instead it arose because—except in Louisiana—the United States was not an important sugar producer. Elsewhere in the Americas, sugar tended to predominate, and its physical demands and selection of male-dominated gangs systematically produced more deaths than births.

  • Tadman, Michael. “Internal Slave Trades.” In The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas. Edited by Robert L. Paquette and Mark M. Smith, 625–642. Oxford Handbooks. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.013.0001E-mail Citation »

    Synthesis of research on the domestic trades in North America, Brazil, and Cuba. Includes comparisons between the trades in the different slave regimes and makes brief suggestions for new research.

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