In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slave Owners in the British Atlantic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Absentee Ownership
  • The Economics of Slave Ownership
  • Slave Owner Culture and Identity
  • Family and Firm Histories
  • Estate Studies
  • The Legal Context of Slave Ownership
  • The Four Nations and British Colonial Slave Ownership

Atlantic History Slave Owners in the British Atlantic
Nick Draper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0103


The recent historiography of slavery in the Atlantic world has, for entirely understandable reasons, been weighted toward recovering the histories of enslaved people. But an understanding of the slave owners is central to an understanding of Atlantic slavery and of many specific controversies within its history. The role of Atlantic slavery in forming modern Europe, the timing and magnitude of the “decline” of the slave economy, and the reasons for the triumph of abolitionism all can be illuminated through the examination of the slave owners, the tensions among them, and their relationships with enslaved people and with non-slave-owning compatriots. Nevertheless, colonial slave owners did not represent a single socioeconomic category but, rather, comprised a series of subgroupings differentiated by the scale of their ownership, their economic function, their location relative to the enslaved people, their race, and their gender. Slave owners could be proprietors of large estates with a coerced labor force of several hundred enslaved people, or they could own no land but instead own smaller gangs of laborers whom they hired out to estate owners, or they could own one or two enslaved people who worked as domestic servants or artisans in urban environments. Slave owners could be pioneers who cleared land and established themselves as producers of tropical crops, or merchants and financiers who had arrived at slave ownership through money lending and subsequent foreclosure. They could live and work among the enslaved people or live thousands of miles away from “property” in the enslaved people whom they never saw. They could be white, or, increasingly over the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they could be people of color. They could be men or women: in the British Caribbean, women owned a higher proportion of slave property than any other single category of property for which systematic ownership information exists. What they had in common were that they themselves were free (enslaved people were forbidden from owning “slave property” in most jurisdictions), that they had property rights to other human beings, that they accessed the fruits of the expropriated labor of those people and, as the 18th century wore on, that they experienced increasing friction with the forces of antislavery operating in the metropolitan centers in Europe and in the northern states of the United States. Even more importantly, beyond their role as historical actors, these “masters” and “mistresses” shed light on the essence of chattel slavery (and its distinction from other forms of labor organization that are sometimes presented as in some way contiguous): the untrammeled power of men and women over other human beings held as property.

General Overviews

Three important, linked controversies govern the understanding of Atlantic slave ownership. The first is the relationship of Atlantic slavery to other historical forms of slavery. One school, exemplified by Davis 1966, sees Atlantic slavery as continuing an eternal human institution found in almost every previous civilization, and relates the position of slave owners to the perennial “problem” of interdependence between slave owner and enslaved, a problem closely associated with Hegel but already expressed in Greek and Roman societies. The alternative view, implicit in Williams 1944, conceives Atlantic slavery as a new phenomenon and a historical discontinuity and also locates Atlantic slave owners in the context of economic circumstances specific to their time and space. The second controversy concerns the nature of slave owners as a class: were they simply a reactionary parasitic fraction or paternalist group searching for alternative paths to modernity? Or were they important contributors (as expropriators and transmitters of wealth derived from slavery) to the capitalist transformation of the Atlantic world? Again, Williams 1944 advances an elegant argument: that within the context of the mercantilist capitalism of the 18th century, slave ownership contributed to the genesis of the modern world, but that within the industrial capitalism to which it helped give birth, slave ownership became an obstacle to Britain’s material progress and was swept away by a newly powerful industrial bourgeoisie. Allahar 2000 argues for the continuing entrepreneurial dynamism and essentially bourgeois nature of the early-19th-century Cuban planter class, while Fox-Genovese and Genovese 1983 and other studies place the southern US slave owners outside conventional class categories, in an increasingly romanticized narrative. Although Amussen 2007 outlines large claims for the role of Caribbean slave owners in modernizing mentalities toward labor discipline in late-17th-century England, it is fairer to conclude that slave ownership was both reactionary and progressive and that the slave owners were simultaneously both baroque and modern. The third controversy surrounds the economic trajectory of slave ownership, and whether the system decayed through its own contradictions or remained economically dynamic but was swept away by exogenous pressures overwhelming the slave owners in the 19th century. Williams 1944, following Ragatz 1928, conceives the British colonial slave system as in decline from a peak c. 1763–1775, whereas Drescher 1977 argues that decline followed abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Again, more-recent scholarship tends to recognize “decline” (as Christopher Leslie Brown remarked) as an ideological as much as technical concept and accepts that for Britain the salience of colonial slavery was indeed reduced by the early 19th century. Outside these controversies, Beckles 1993 prompts rethinking of the received wisdom of “masters” as active agents and “mistresses” as passive consumers in slavery.

  • Allahar, Anton L. “The Cuban Sugar Planters, 1790–1820: ‘The Most Solid and Brilliant Bourgeoisie Class in All of Latin America.’” In Caribbean Slavery in the Atlantic World: A Student Reader. Edited by Verene A. Shepherd and Hilary McD. Beckles, 621–633. Princeton, NJ: Marcus Wiener, 2000.

    Challenge to the notion of slave owners as a regressive landowning class, which it seeks to replace with an acknowledgement of the real if constrained entrepreneurial dynamism of the Cuban sugar planters. Contained in an important resource originally published in 1991 and expanded and reissued in 2000.

  • Amussen, Susan Dwyer. Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640–1700. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

    Suggestive rather than conclusive study based in part on a slave-owning family from Devon that advances large claims for the wide-ranging influence of slave ownership in laying the ground in late-17th-century England for the changed mentalities underpinning the Industrial Revolution.

  • Beckles, Hilary McD. “White Women and Slavery in the Caribbean.” In Special Issue: Colonial and Post-colonial History. History Workshop Journal 36.1 (Autumn 1993): 66–82.

    DOI: 10.1093/hwj/36.1.66

    Call to arms for the recognition of the economic, social, and cultural agency of the white woman (i.e., the “mistress”) in the formation and reproduction of slave societies, in particular as slave owners in urban environments.

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

    Classic locus of the tradition that there was “nothing new” in transatlantic slavery, that it was essentially a continuation of the slavery of the classical world, and that slavery had always been accommodated by all belief systems but nevertheless gave rise to the same consistent tensions centered on the central “problem” of the master’s dependence on the enslaved person for identity and validation. Republished in 1988 (New York: Oxford University Press).

  • Drescher, Seymour. Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

    Important challenge to Williams and Ragatz, arguing that the West Indian slave economy was as vibrant and as important to Britain on the eve of the abolition of slavery in 1807 as it had been in the mid-18th century. Essential as part of the debates that provide context to examining slave ownership, but the text itself is not interested in the slave owners as a class or as an economic and political force.

  • Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth, and Eugene D. Genovese. Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

    Collection of essays focused on the “Old South” of the United States as a pre-bourgeois formation, but including a (partisan) discussion of the ways in which the role of slave ownership has been theorized in the Marxist tradition.

  • Ragatz, Lowell J. The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763–1833: A Study in Social and Economic History. New York: Century, 1928.

    Early and influential proponent of the “decline” thesis in British colonial slavery, from which Williams drew both inspiration and evidence. Focuses on the older British slave colonies settled in the 17th century, which Ragatz argued were already decaying before the challenge of abolitionism was felt. Republished in 1963 (New York: Octagon).

  • Williams, Eric Eustace. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944.

    The central text on British colonial slave ownership from which all others now derive, either in opposition or support. Argues for the specific character of Atlantic slavery, the centrality of slavery to Britain (and to Europe) under commercial capitalism until the American Revolution and its subsequent decline in the face of the industrial capitalism that it helped to create, and for the formative role of “West Indian” slave owners in the commerce, politics, society, and culture of 18th-century Britain. Republished in 1961 (New York: Russell & Russell).

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