In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Origins of Slavery

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Surveys
  • Bibliographies and Encyclopedias
  • Journals
  • Images and Databases
  • Letters and Narrative Accounts
  • Document Collections
  • Europe and the Mediterranean World
  • Africa
  • Indian Slavery
  • Indentured Servitude and Convict Labor
  • Brazil
  • Spanish Colonies
  • Caribbean
  • British North America

Atlantic History The Origins of Slavery
Michael Guasco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0058


Slavery predated European forays into the Atlantic world, but the system that developed during the 16th and 17th centuries was a more exploitative, inhumane, and racially tinged institution than anything that had previously existed in Europe, Africa, or the Americas. The European conquest of the Americas and establishment of colonies was profit oriented. Indigenous peoples were initially preyed upon for their labor in the Caribbean and throughout the Americas, especially in the silver mines of Mexico and the Andes. Bound European laborers were also employed by the thousands, particularly by the French and the British in their West Indian and mainland colonies, where they were used primarily as plantation laborers. Historians agree that a combination of factors (most notably the deaths of Indians from epidemic diseases and the expansion of labor-intensive plantation agricultural enterprises, especially sugar cultivation) led to the decline of these earlier forms of bound labor and the emergence of a new predatory system of slavery that relied on bound African laborers. The unwillingness or inability to treat white Europeans in a slavish fashion also encouraged Europeans to look elsewhere for a labor force that could be totally dominated and compelled to serve the needs of the labor-starved American planters. Though it began in the 16th century as a relatively small-scale enterprise, the transatlantic slave trade erupted in the 17th and 18th centuries to satisfy the demand for human beings to cut cane and tend the sugar mills in Brazil and the West Indies, to work the tobacco fields and rice paddies of North America, and generally to perform the often backbreaking and dehumanizing tasks that Europeans were unwilling to do themselves. The specific labor regimes and legal systems that developed in different parts of the Americas varied greatly, but everywhere Europeans came to agree that African peoples were uniquely valuable commodities whose labor, as slaves, was integral to the wealth and power of both Europe and the emerging states in the Americas.

General Overviews

There are a number of important general surveys of the larger history of slavery in the Americas, although many tend to concentrate on one or two nations and pay much more attention to the mature slave system than its early development. Black 2006 provides researchers with a good overview of the best in journal literature. Curtin 1990 and Davis 2006 emphasize the importance of Mediterranean precedents, particularly with sugar cultivation but also with the exploitation of African slaves. Eltis 2000 and Blackburn 1997 are similarly interested in the paradoxical emergence and expansion of slavery in the Atlantic world when the institution was largely irrelevant in western Europe. Patterson 1982 is interested in those things that make slavery alike in different times and places, while Turley 2000 seeks to establish the qualities that make slavery distinctive in separate arenas.

  • Black, Jeremy, ed. The Atlantic Slave Trade. 4 vols. Aldershot, UK, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.

    A useful collection of eighty-five essays originally published in English between 1940 and 2004. Volumes 1 and 2 deal with the period before 1700. Although the editor has made an effort to include the most important works, he is as concerned with coverage as quality.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1997.

    An intriguing examination of the development of slavery that characterizes the emergence of plantation slavery in the New World as a phenomenon wholly consistent with modernity.

  • Curtin, Philip D. The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    First half of the book frames slavery in light of the development, elaboration, and repeated transplantation of the plantation complex throughout the Atlantic world. Places particular importance on the Mediterranean origins of both sugar production and racial slavery.

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

    Thematic presentation that emphasizes the author’s interest in the ancient, medieval, and Mediterranean origins of Atlantic slavery and racism. Slight attention to the colonial plantation complex.

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

    Largely concerned, especially in the early chapters, with the English and Dutch and why they, in spite of the rhetoric of freedom that undergirds their political cultures, embraced and developed arguably the most exploitative slave systems in the Americas.

  • Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

    A complex and contested effort to provide a universal definition of slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons” (p. 13). Variously embraced and attacked by scholars but never ignored.

  • Schwartz, Stuart B., ed. Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450–1680. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

    Collection of essays that place the cultivation of sugar at the center of narrative detailing the development and elaboration of plantation societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Turley, David. Slavery. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

    An accessible, brief conceptual work that provides useful categories for considering why slavery, and the lives of slaves, may have been quite distinct in different times and places.

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