In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Labor Systems

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Labor in Early Modern Europe
  • Encomienda
  • Indentured Servants and Redemptioners
  • Transportation of Convicts
  • African Slavery
  • Indian Slavery
  • Slavery in Africa
  • Apprentice System and Apprenticeship
  • Domestic Servants
  • Agricultural Labor
  • Maritime Laborers
  • Gender and Labor
  • Wage Labor

Atlantic History Labor Systems
Ty M. Reese
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0116


For the vast majority of peoples of the Atlantic world, their place within it was defined by their toil. The most studied labor system of the Atlantic world is that of African slavery, yet African slavery was but one of many labor systems that operated within the Atlantic world. Traditionally, labor within the Atlantic world was divided between free and slave labor, but more recently scholars have argued that these old distinctions are not really clear and that people beyond slaves labored within obligations to someone else. The more recent arguments involve a spectrum of labor systems within the Atlantic world that ranged from slave to free. Studies of laborers and labor systems are important to our understanding of the Atlantic world in that they demonstrate larger changes taking place in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. A relationship existed between the early modern agricultural revolution that occurred within Europe and the rise of indentured servitude in the Americas. Beyond this, the rise of slavery not only related to the economic decision to find the cheapest sources of labor to make the appropriated lands of the Americas productive within a European framework but also related to important cultural and intellectual changes occurring in this period. The rise of wage labor within the late 18th century is often explored within the context of the decline of contracted labor, and the developing abolitionist movement that would slowly dismantle the transatlantic slave trade and transatlantic slavery.

General Overviews

A good starting point for developing an understanding of the labor systems of the Atlantic world are those works that broadly examine it. For the issue of unfree labor, begin with the Lovejoy and Rogers 1994 edited collection of essays, which introduced the varieties of unfree labor that existed in the Atlantic world. Menard 2001 and Morgan 2001 supplement this with their stress on the relationship between indentured servitude and slavery within British North America. A similar type of study, but excluding Barbados, is Beckles 1989, which also explores the decline of indentured servitude and the rise of slavery within the plantation system. For British North America, see the edited collection of essays Innes 1988, which examined workers and their labor. For Africa, Coquery-Vidrovitch and Lovejoy 1985 contains a series of articles that examine African labor during the period of Atlantic trade. More recently, scholars have attempted to developed new interpretations of labor within this period. Rediker and Linebaugh 2001 explores the creation of an Anglo-Atlantic working class that was multiracial and multiethnic. The articles within the Christopher, et al. 2007 edited collection broadly examine the forced migrations of labor within the early modern world and the development of capitalism.

  • Beckles, Hilary. White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados, 1627–1715. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989.

    Examines the development of labor in Barbados from indentured servitude to African slavery. Argues that a critical determinate as to which labor system became dominate was economics—the planters sought the cheapest source of labor. Shows that the experiences of servants and slaves were similar.

  • Christopher, Emma, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker, eds. Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World. California World History Library 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

    A collection of eleven essays that utilize the concept of the Middle Passage to globally examine the forced migration of labor and its relationship to the development of capitalism. Topics include the Indian Ocean slave trade, Livingstone’s encounters with African slavery, German laborers in South Africa, and British convicts.

  • Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine, and Paul E. Lovejoy, eds. The Workers of African Trade. Papers presented at a conference held at York University, Toronto, in September 1983. SAGE Series on African Modernization and Development 11. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1985.

    A collection of essays that studies the laborers of precolonial Africa’s varied economic systems while trying to place them into a Marxist perspective as proto-proletariats. Explores a variety of topics, with each essay providing a solid starting point for subjects that remain minimally explored.

  • Innes, Stephen, ed. Work and Labor in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    A collection of essays that examines the varied labor systems of British North America, while challenging first the idea that colonial farmers were peasants and second the stress on the negative consequences related to the rise of capitalism.

  • Lovejoy, Paul E., and Nicholas Rogers. Unfree Labour in the Development of the Atlantic World. Studies in Slave and Post-Slave Societies and Cultures. London: Frank Cass, 1994.

    An edited series of essays that originated at a 1993 conference at York University, Toronto. The essays examine how the development of the capitalist Atlantic economy affected labor in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Includes essays on Mexico, the West Indies, Brazil, the Yoruba, and Britain.

  • Menard, Russell R. Migrants, Servants, and Slaves: Unfree Labor in Colonial British America. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001.

    A collection of eleven of Mernard’s essays that span his career and illustrate his influence on our understanding of labor in British North America. The majority of the essays deal with Maryland and South Carolina, and all are concerned with the transition from indentured to slave labor.

  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

    A synthesis of the role of indentured servitude and slavery in British North America that provides a solid introduction to the subjects and the main historiographical debates. Explores the development of indentured servitude over time, the rise of slavery, and the relationship between freedom and slavery during the American Revolution.

  • Rediker, Marcus, and Peter Linebaugh. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon, 2001.

    Explores the multicultural, multiracial, free and unfree working class of the Anglo-Atlantic. Examines how these laborers responded to the development of capitalism and modern society and how, throughout the Atlantic, these laborers created cycles of revolt.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.