Atlantic History Creolization
Roderick McDonald, Michelle Craig McDonald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0016


Few areas of historical scholarship have undergone such dramatic expansion, in so short a space of time, as the study of creolization. Most studies have considered creolization in the context of its relationship to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, a key theme of the field since Melville Herskovits’s The Myth of the Negro Past, first published in 1941. Two opposing assumptions now dominate this branch of the historiography. The first emphasizes continuities between Africa and the Americas, while the second posits the Middle Passage as a traumatic break, a fundamental rupture that removed Africans from most vestiges of their former lives. Adherents of the second assumption focus on how Africans changed after they arrived in the Americas. Since the mid-1980s, models based on European-African interactions have been adapted and applied to the study of native groups in the Caribbean, Latin America, and North America. These analyses not only look at interactions between native peoples and Europeans or Africans, but also between different native peoples themselves, including how they formed and shifted alliances from the 15th through 19th centuries. Most of these studies either use particular themes (e.g., social and family structures, economics, gender and sexuality, religion, race, culture) or geographic regions as their primary lens for exploring cultural adaptation and change, but rarely are these categories discrete. Susan Sleeper-Smith’s work on Mayan women, trade, and Catholicism, for example, appears in the Religion section of this bibliography but might as easily have been listed in Gender and Sexuality or Social and Family Structures. In addition, some strong comparative studies have begun to broaden the field, and as the number of college courses on race, ethnicity, and identity escalate, these are sure to grow in number.

General Overviews

Historical interest in creolization is often driven by an interest in discovering the origins of contemporary, diverse societies. Though race receives pride of place in such discussions, it is not the only theme through which creolization is explored; other possibilities include politics, power, economics, and culture. Scholarly works such as Barnabe, et al. 1989 and Brathwaite 2005 have effectively challenged the influential model of creolization developed by Mintz and Price 1976, which argued that the Atlantic slave trade’s random nature blocked the re-creation of specific African cultural identities in the Americas. Hall 2005 goes one step farther, arguing that specific African ethnicities not only crossed the Atlantic but also drove the process of creolization in the Americas. Manning 2009, by contrast, refuses to divide the African diaspora into the experiences of separate regions and nations. Instead, Manning follows the multiple routes that brought Africans and people of African descent into contact with one another and with Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Other works, such as Burton 1997, take a more contemporary stance, arguing that cultural models formed during imperialism are responsible for postcolonial inequities of wealth and political power. White 1991 and Richter 2003 apply some of these same criteria of cultural exchange and adaptation to Native American communities. White focuses more on the peoples, economies, and experiences in what is now the upper Midwest, while Richter centers on lands and peoples east of the Mississippi Valley.

  • Barnabe, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphael Confiant. Éloge de la Créolité. Paris: Gallimard, 1989.

    In response to la négritude, a 1930s literary movement pioneered by Aimé Césaire that asserted African rather than French colonial culture shaped West Indian society, créolité proponents drew on Edouard Glissant’s antillanité model, proposing that a creolized French West Indian identity, rather than either Euro-French or African influences, best defined peoples in the region. A bilingual edition, Éloge de la Créolité/In Praise of Creoleness, was published in 1993.

  • Brathwaite, Kamau. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820. Miami, FL: Ian Randle, 2005.

    A foundational study of Atlantic creolization in which Kamau (formerly Edward) Brathwaite argues that Jamaica developed its own distinctive “Creole” character. Institutions, customs, and attitudes were shaped by African and European influences, but, as part of a wider regional complex, they were also influenced by regional economics and political and revolutionary ideologies. Originally published by Clarendon Press (Oxford) in 1971.

  • Burton, Richard D. E. Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition, and Play in the Caribbean. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

    Focuses on how African traditions in religion, music, dress, and family structure melded with European and indigenous forces to create the particular cultures of Jamaica, Trinidad, and Haiti, as well as how such Afro-Creole cultures have contributed to the present-day social, political, and economic circumstances of these countries.

  • Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

    Explores the persistence and significance of links between particular ethnic groups in Africa (divided into Greater Senegambia, Lower Guinea, and the Bantulands) and the enslaved in the Americas through analysis of the temporal and spatial dimensions of the slave trade.

  • Manning, Patrick. The African Diaspora: A History through Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

    Positioned against Hall 2005, Manning does not divide the African diaspora into separate regions, but instead follows multiple routes that brought Africans into contact with Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In so doing, he places the transatlantic experience within a large global context that includes the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

  • Mintz, Sidney W., and Richard Price. An Anthropological Approach to the Afro-American Past: A Caribbean Perspective. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1976.

    A key text in creolization studies that moves beyond the debate over enslaved Africans’ cultural retention or loss. Argues that the slave trade’s randomizing effect inhibited transplantation of intact African cultures, and that slaves in the Americas remade themselves and their world according to the circumstances they encountered. Republished in 1992 as The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Boston: Beacon Press).

  • Richter, Daniel. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    A masterful study that revisits the first centuries of Native American and European encounters from the perspective of native people, demonstrating that Native American communities adapted to the forces introduced by the arrival of Europeans and were active participants in creating a new way of life on the continent.

  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    An important account of the interactions among Europeans and native peoples during this crucial phase in North American history. Overturns traditional historical accounts that portrayed white conquest as inevitable or Indian defeat as absolute, and suggests instead that European and Indian contact produced a rich intermingling of cultures in their early years of contact.

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