In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Atlantic Slavery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comparative Treatments
  • Journals
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Primary Sources
  • West Africa
  • Central Africa
  • Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • Mainland Spanish America
  • British Caribbean
  • French Caribbean
  • Spanish Caribbean

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Atlantic History Atlantic Slavery
Matt Childs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0051


If historians were forced to name the one institution or historical phenomenon that most decisively fostered the creation of the Atlantic world by connecting the four continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean, many would undoubtedly name slavery. From the first arrival of sub-Saharan African slaves in Europe via the Atlantic slave trade in 1441, to the final abolition of Brazilian slavery in 1888, slavery bonded together the Atlantic world through the chains and links of human enslavement. If scholars reduced the importance of Atlantic slavery to the estimated 11 million enslaved Africans forced across the Atlantic and their New World destinations, historians would be telling only a small part of how slavery created the Atlantic world. Atlantic slavery sustained colonies and empires by the goods and products slavery could produce at an ever more abundant and profitable rate for consumption on the other side of the Atlantic and in far-flung destinations across the globe. Even more importantly, and a legacy still shaping the world we live in today, Atlantic slavery created new racial identities whereby people of European descent increasingly embraced a “white” identity and people of African descent embraced a “black” identity. Moreover, the struggle to end slavery gave rise to some of the most momentous, radical, and contradictory political movements of the modern era, which slowly ushered in the ideology of natural rights and, eventually, the widespread belief that freedom and liberty should be regarded as basic human rights. Given the weighty historical influence of Atlantic slavery in shaping the past five hundred years of human history, it is not surprising—and only appropriate—that the literature on the topic is just as massive and complex. The literature cited and described below grapples with many of these defining elements of Atlantic slavery. In addition, over the past forty years historians have tackled the empirical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of placing slaves individually and collectively at the center of the story of the rise and fall of Atlantic slavery in the New World. As a result, some of the most outstanding social and cultural history, representative of the best work in the historical profession, has emerged from scholars writing on Atlantic slavery.

General Overviews

Given the importance of slavery in shaping the colonization of the New World and connecting the Atlantic world through trade, commerce, and people, there exists a large scholarly literature of both general treatments and synthetic works. Much of this literature is intended for college classroom use. That stated, the expert in slavery in one region of the Atlantic eager to learn about the institution in another geographic region and time period will find these overviews and general treatments the best place to start. The literature can be divided into three groups: (1) slavery in an Atlantic context; (2) works on the African diaspora; and (3) colony-, country-, or region-specific overviews of slavery. For slavery in an Atlantic context, Davis 2006 provides an impressive sweep of the intellectual and political history of slavery in the New World, and Blackburn 1998 emphasizes the braiding of cultural and economic forces that gave rise to slavery in the Americas. From a diasporic perspective, Gomez 2005 traces the dispersal of Africans to regions within and beyond the Atlantic; Thornton 1998 focuses on the cultural imprints Africans made in shaping the Atlantic World; and Hall 2005, in particular, argues that African ethnic communities among slaves could be found throughout the New World during slavery, and that they fostered cultural links with their continent of origin. For really specific overviews, Lovejoy 2000 provides an admirable survey of slavery in Africa, emphasizing transformations resulting from interactions with Atlantic slavery; Klein and Vinson 2007 cogently summarizes slavery in Latin American and Caribbean settings, combining chronological and thematic approaches; and Kolchin 2003 summarizes American slavery with an emphasis on the antebellum period, master ideology, and slave culture and resistance.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1998.

    Impressive synthesis on the formation of the slave societies in the Americas, with treatment of the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch slave systems. Special emphasis is placed on explaining the convergence between cultural and economic forces that shaped the emergence of slavery in the New World.

  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    A collection of updated and revised essays, many of which provide cogent summaries of the major arguments by one of the most influential scholars writing on slavery in the second half of the 20th century. Although centered primarily on the repercussions of slavery for US history, Davis’s scholarship extends back to Classical societies and throughout the Atlantic.

  • Gomez, Michael A. Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    An impressive synthesis of the origins and dispersal of people of African descent, spanning several centuries with concise and succinct treatments. Topics range over Africans’ experiences in the Old World, Mediterranean, Islamic world, and New World in lands colonized by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and English.

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

    Part of a revisionist approach to studying slavery in the New World that emphasizes the idea that the transatlantic slave trade created distinct “ethnic” communities under New World slavery by linking exporting and importing regions. Hall tends to extrapolate and build upon evidence from the Afro-Louisiana history and apply the results to other regions in the New World.

  • Klein, Herbert S., and Ben Vinson. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Succinct overview of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean, with chapters covering the chronological rise and fall of slavery as an institution and thematic chapters covering family, labor, community, resistance, free people of color, and abolition.

  • Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619–1877. Rev. ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2003.

    Synthetic interpretation of American slavery, revised with a new preface and afterword from 1993 edition. Emphasis is placed upon how slavery functions as a system (notably in the antebellum period), the role of paternalism as a guiding ideology, slave culture, and impact on white society.

  • Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Overview of slavery in Africa and how the institution functioned as a “mode of production.” Emphasis is on transformations through the twin processes of demand stemming from the transatlantic slave trade and warfare in Africa.

  • Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    An examination of the role of Africans and people of African descent in shaping and contribution to the formation of the Atlantic world. Book is divided into two parts: an overview of African history during the precolonial era, and cultural chapters on Africans in the New World, mainly covering the 16th and 17th centuries.

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