In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in British America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The British Slave Trade
  • Slavery in British America in the 17th Century
  • Race and Representation
  • Indian Slavery and Indentured Servitude
  • Regional Studies
  • Population, Medicine, Gender, and Demography
  • Work, Labor, and Economics
  • Religion and Culture
  • Planters and Power
  • Resistance
  • Slave Voices
  • Freed People
  • American Revolution
  • End of Slavery

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Atlantic History Slavery in British America
Trevor Burnard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0127


Slavery was the most important institution in colonial British America. Every area of colonial British America before the American Revolution allowed slavery, and in southern and island plantations it was essential to all areas of life. Although all areas of colonial British America allowed African chattel slavery from the mid-17th century onward and although slavery among Native Americans was well established before European arrival and continued and expanded after Europeans arrived, slavery was a dominant institution in only a few colonies. In these colonies––ranging from Maryland in the north to Demerara in South America––slavery was not only the principal source of wealth, but also it shaped every aspect of slavery. Britain relied on slavery and slave-produced products for whatever wealth it got from British America and was heavily involved in slavery as the leading trafficker of slaves across the Atlantic from the mid-17th century until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. British ships carried millions of slaves to the Americas, where they changed the demographic makeup of European-controlled settlements markedly. Slavery was also a highly significant social institution. It led to the growth of a planter class––the most important and long-lasting elite in British American and American history. It also was important in developing pernicious ideas of race that were used by planters to justify their dominion over enslaved people. And, most importantly, it brought Africans to America. They brought with them their African culture, which was transformed by exposure to other cultural practices and became a distinctive part of the British American experience. Finally, slavery was an institution that relied at bottom on coercion and violence. The application of such coercion met with considerable resistance from those to whom violence was done.

General Overviews

The study of colonial British American slavery has been transformed by the publication of Berlin 1998, in which slavery is treated as an institution constantly changing over time. It can also only be understood in the context of wider trends, as Blackburn 1997 insists. Even studies ostensibly about slavery in British North America look more widely than the thirteen colonies, as Littlefield 2010 demonstrates with his insistence on Barbadian precedents. Morgan and Hawkins 2004 places British American slavery within the context of the British Empire. Some textbook accounts concentrate on British North America, as Wood 2003 does, while Walvin 2007 puts more emphasis on Britain, and Morgan 2007 tends to stress developments in the British West Indies than on British North America. Wood 2005 combines a useful survey of colonial slavery with a careful selection of documents. What is still missing from the literature is a book that extends Berlin 1998 from British North America to the West Indies.

  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

    Wonderful work of synthesis of large body of scholarship on colonial and revolutionary North American slavery. His introduction of the concepts of the Atlantic Creole and the plantation revolution has been highly influential.

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

    Inspired by Marxist methodologies, this expansive and provocative book places the development of the British American plantation system in wider context. It emphasizes the close links between the development of “factories in the field” and modern capitalism.

  • Littlefield, Daniel C. “Colonial and Revolutionary United States.” In The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas. Edited by Robert L. Paquette and Mark M. Smith, 201–226. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.013.0001

    Well-written short essay that stresses the importance of Barbadian precedents for shaping the development of plantation societies in the lower south of British North America.

  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and the British Empire: From Africa to America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Excellent short synthesis that contains first-rate summaries of the British slave trade as well as concise chapters on population, work, and resistance. Integrates the West Indies with British North America very well.

  • Morgan, Philip D., and Sean Hawkins, eds. Black Experience and the Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Contains six synthetic chapters outlining the experience of blacks in the British Empire, both in Africa and the Americas and within the slave trade and outside slavery.

  • Walvin, James. Britain’s Slave Empire. London: Tempus, 2007.

    Accomplished synthetic survey by prolific writer on slavery and black life. Tends to put more emphasis on slave trade as a transformative event in African American life than in most surveys.

  • Wood, Betty. Slavery in Colonial America, 1619–1776. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

    Short and incisive summary of colonial slavery suitable for starting scholars accompanied by a well-chosen set of documents and an excellent bibliography.

  • Wood, Peter H. Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America, 1526–1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Short synthesis that stresses the brutal nature of slavery in British North America and the means by which Africans survived this process and began shaping a new African American culture.

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