Atlantic History Captivity
Neal Salisbury
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0096


The study of cross-cultural captivity as a phenomenon of Atlantic history from the late 15th to late 19th centuries remains largely undeveloped. Yet, since the end of the 20th century, scholars of captivity have moved away from earlier, provincial foci toward broader, more balanced approaches. Although most of their work remains oriented toward one or another geographic region or colonial empire, it does enable us to begin considering captivity from an Atlantic perspective and in the making of an “Atlantic world.” We are now able to see that Christian Europeans and their descendants were captors as well as captives of Indians in North America and of Muslim North Africans in the western Mediterranean and adjacent Atlantic. The extent of the forced movement of Native American captives, particularly from the mainland to the West Indies as enslaved laborers, has also become more apparent in recent years. To complement the rich scholarship on enslaved Africans and African Americans, we are learning much more about captive Africans’ experiences in Africa and during the Middle Passage, prior to reaching their ultimate destinations. (For coverage of slavery in the Americas, see other Oxford Bibliographies articles such as Atlantic Slavery and The Origins of Slavery.) Recent studies also make clearer the range of outcomes that captives experienced. The vast majority, Indians as well as Africans, were permanently enslaved as commodities rather than humans. Yet many of these and other captives died before reaching their destinations, while others escaped. Some surviving captives were redeemed, either informally or through routinized procedures. Those who remained with their captors, or with others to whom their captors transferred them, either became full members of their new households and societies or were assigned to one or another inferior status. Above all, the new studies, including narratives and biographies of captives, recognize that their protagonists’ identities were fluid and varied rather than rooted in rigid, hierarchicalized racial or cultural categories, from which at most an exceptional few deviated. Despite these promising developments, our understanding of Atlantic captivity remains limited by geographic and other gaps and by a paucity of transregional and comparative work. Nevertheless the titles listed here help us to recognize that captives figured among the millions of people whose movements over vast geographic and cultural distances helped to shape a new Atlantic world.

Reference Works

The encyclopedia Drescher and Engerman 1998 is solid but is less detailed and somewhat less easy to navigate than Finkleman and Miller 1998. The unparalleled online resource, Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, can be consulted profitably at any stage of a project relating to that subject.

back to top

Your subscription doesn't include the subject of this book.