In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Atlantic Slave Trade

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Journals, Bibliographies, and Encyclopedias
  • Primary Sources
  • Collections
  • The Middle Passage
  • Europe and the Slaving Business
  • African Coasts and Ports
  • Slavery in Africa and Its Abolition
  • Africa and the Americas
  • Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

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Atlantic History The Atlantic Slave Trade
David Northrup
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0053


The slave trade was one of the earliest and the most capital-intensive forms of Atlantic interaction. The largest intercontinental migration in history before the mid-1800s, this forced transportation of enslaved Africans repopulated the Americas and greatly affected cultural and racial mixes there. Europeans had acquired some slaves during the first two centuries of direct contacts with sub-Saharan Africa, but only with the growth of West Indian plantation colonies in the mid-1600s did slaves become the predominant African export. In all periods Africans received vast quantities of European, American, and Asian goods in return. The growing transportation of trade goods, of millions of Africans, and of plantation products gradually tied the Atlantic continents together. The earliest studies of the Atlantic slave trade were by British abolitionists, who emphasized the cruelties of the Middle Passage across the Atlantic as a way of rallying support for ending the trade. While this approach to the subject is still common, modern scholarship has opened up several new areas of study: the slave trade as a business, the participation of African merchants in this business, and the social and cultural consequences of so large an African migration to the Americas. All aspects of studying the slave trade have benefited from efforts to measure the flow of slaves across the Atlantic with greater precision.

General Overviews

Recent scholarship reflects in varying degrees the different conceptions of the slave trade: as a moral outrage, as a successful capitalist enterprise, as part of European imperialism, as a major link in the creation of an Atlantic world, and as the father of New World racism. The complexity of the subject and the influence of so many ethical issues make balanced and objective treatment difficult. Large surveys also differ in their attention to the trade’s different aspects. The introductory works of Rawley 2005 and Thomas 1997 emphasize the role of Europeans in the creation of this transatlantic system. At the forefront of new efforts to compile and use statistics to understand the shape of the Atlantic connections, Eltis 2000 also pays much greater attention to the roles of African rulers and merchants in making the trade possible. Works from historians of Africa such as Lovejoy 2000, Lovejoy 2004, and Manning 1990 situate the Atlantic slave trade in the broader context of internal slave trades in sub-Saharan Africa and to the Islamic world. Davis 1984 also connects the Atlantic slave trade to the cultural and commercial context of slavery and racism in the Islamic world but has little to say of its African context. Focused on a single French voyage, Harms 2002 manages to capture in great detail the complex dimensions of the trade.

  • Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

    A book of sweeping scholarship and insight that ties Atlantic slave systems to Muslim origins in the Mediterranean, analyzes racial attitudes about slaves in a broad comparative context, and explores the connections of New World slavery and its abolition to changing ideas of progress.

  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    An authoritative and stimulating discussion of the origins of the slave trade down to the early 1700s, with exceptional coverage of the African engagement. Though an economic and demographic historian, Eltis argues against a purely economic explanation for the trade in African slaves. The British experience is privileged.

  • Harms, Robert. The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

    Building on the surviving records of a French slave ship voyage in 1731–1732, Harms provides a compelling account of the complex range of involvement, including the assembly of trade goods and capital, the ship and crew, bargaining for slaves at the African port of Whydah, the slaves’ experiences of the Middle Passage, and their subsequent sale in the French West Indian colony of Martinique.

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

    This sophisticated comparative study of the Islamic and Atlantic slave trade within and from Africa reaches important, if controversial, conclusions about the legacies of these trades for Africa.

  • Lovejoy, Paul, ed. Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2004.

    These scholarly case studies explore slavery in three different relationships: between Muslims and non-Muslims in West Africa, between black slaves and their Muslim masters in North Africa, and between black slaves and Christian masters in the Americas.

  • Manning, Patrick. Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    Although it is not able to make use of the latest data on the Atlantic slave trade, this statistical model estimates the changing demographic impact of Atlantic and Islamic slave trades over several centuries on various regions of Africa as well as overall.

  • Rawley, James A., and Stephen D. Behrendt. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

    Updated to reflect the latest statistics on the slave trade, this carefully researched volume organizes its presentation in terms of the nationalities of the slave merchants: Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British, and American. Brazilian and African traders are neglected.

  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

    This eight-hundred-page account is probably the definitive study of the European aspects of the organization and conduct of the slave trade. Thomas displays impressive scholarship in a number of languages and a compelling narrative ability, although his work largely ignores newer research on African involvement and the quantitative aspects of the trade.

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