Atlantic History South Atlantic
Mariana P. Candido
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0138


The Atlantic south of the equator line was the most active economic hub in the early modern world, connecting Africa, the Americas, and the early colonizing European states, Portugal and Spain. Winds and ocean currents divide the Atlantic Ocean into two systems, north and south. The South Atlantic system follows the pattern of giant wheels turning counterclockwise, favoring sail from western African ports to the Americas. The South Atlantic was dominated by merchants trading with the only Portuguese colony in the New World, Brazil. And most of the people who crossed the Atlantic between 1500 and 1820 did so in the southern part. The transatlantic slave trade, the largest forced migration in history, affected the region profoundly, in part because most of the African slaves exported from Africa (over 5.6 million people, around 45 percent), left from a single region, West Central Africa. Over 44 percent of all African slaves who survived the Middle Passage landed in Brazilian ports, that is 5.5 million individuals. Yet, most of the debate on Atlantic history centers on the North Atlantic, heavily dominated by British merchants until the 19th century. The study of Atlantic history, although clearly moving away from political boundaries and characterized by flexibility and fluidity, is very much restricted due to language barriers. South Atlantic and the history of slave trade, slavery, and Native American populations have been excluded from classic Atlantic works, such as Jacques Godechot’s Histoire de l‘Atlantique and Michael Kraus’s The Atlantic Civilization: Eighteenth-Century Origins. Recently, historians have readdressed these problems and started to introduce Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean into the Atlantic debate. Scholars focusing on the Lusophone South Atlantic, the Atlantic nominally under Portuguese control, have shown the singularities of the connections in the southern part of the ocean. One of the characteristics of the South Atlantic system is the irrelevance of the idea of Triangular Trade that dominated north of the equator. Since the 1970s historians, such as Philip Curtin, Fernando Novais, Joseph Miller, John K. Thornton, Stuart Schwartz, A. J. R. Russell-Wood, and Mary Karasch, among others, have emphasized that in the South Atlantic, bilateral trade between commercial elites in the Americas and Africa prevailed, excluding the participation of the European partners. Although the Portuguese crown regulated and taxed trade, merchants based in Brazil dominated the Atlantic commerce.

General Overviews

Very few studies consider the South Atlantic world as a unity of analysis, but many works focus on the establishment and development of the Portuguese empire and the links between Brazil and Angola. Boxer 1952, Mauro 1997, Alencastro 2000, and Ratelband 2003 consider the Atlantic as a space for the circulation of individuals, goods, ideas, crops, and technology. Most of the scholarship on the South Atlantic is published in Portuguese (see, for example, Alencastro 2000 and Pantoja and Saraiva 1999), although this trend is starting to change. Scholars such as Russell-Wood (Russell-Wood 1992) and Novais (Novais 1981) have emphasized the autonomy of Brazil vis-à-vis the metropolis. In the past two decades, academics such as Heywood and Thornton (Heywood and Thornton 2007) placed a great deal of importance on the role of Africans and African societies in the formation of the Atlantic world. Benton 2000 compares the similarities of legal systems in the South Atlantic.

  • Alencastro, Luis Felipe. O Trato dos Viventes: Formação do Brasil no Atlântico Sul, Séculos XVI e XVII. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000.

    One of the most influential recent books on the South Atlantic. The ocean is seen as a space unifying populations settled on its shores rather than separating them. Focuses on the formation of Brazil as part of the South Atlantic and intrinsically connected with Angola and the Spanish colonies. Stresses the economic relationships between merchant elites in Brazilian and African ports.

  • Benton, Lauren. “Legal Regime of the South Atlantic World, 1400–1750: Jurisdictional Complexity as Institutional Order.” Journal of World History 11.1 (2000): 27–56.

    Important study that explores the similarities between Portuguese legislation and legal codes in Africa regarding crimes and enslavement.

  • Boxer, C. R. Salvador de Sá and the Struggle for Brazil and Angola, 1602–1682. London: Athlone, 1952.

    A classic on the Portuguese Atlantic Empire. Through the life of the official Salvador de Sá, Boxer explores the competition between Portugal and Holland and the Angolan-Brazilian slave trade in the 17th century.

  • Heywood, Linda M., and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundations of the Americas, 1585–1660. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 2007.

    Recent addition to the scholarship on the Atlantic world that stresses the role of Africans as central agents in the 16th and 17th centuries. Discusses the establishing of slavery in the Americas, emphasizing the large presence of central Africans.

  • Mauro, Frédéric. Portugal, o Brasil e o Atlântico, 1570–1670. 2 vols. Lisbon: Estampa, 1997.

    Originally published in French in 1983, places the study of Brazil in an Atlantic perspective, emphasizing historical connections and interactions. Explores the rise of the Portuguese empire and its intimate link with maritime expansion and its overseas colonies in its early phase.

  • Novais, Fernando. Portugal e Brasil na Crise do Antigo Sistema Colonial (1777–1808). São Paulo: Editora HUCITEC, 1981.

    Classic study that emphasizes the importance of the Atlantic market for the formation of Brazil and its relative autonomy.

  • Pantoja, Selma, and José Flávio S. Saraiva, eds. Angola e Brasil nas Rotas do Atlântico Sul. Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand, 1999.

    One of the few studies that discuss the concept of South Atlantic and its centrality for the history of Brazil and Angola. A well-organized collection of essays that stress the links between societies around the Atlantic.

  • Ratelband, Klaas. Os Holandeses no Brasil e na Costa Africana: Angola, Kongo e São Tomé, 1600–1650. Lisbon: Vega, 2003.

    Explores the role of the Dutch in the South Atlantic systems, including the island of São Tomé in the analysis. Argues that the Dutch presence in Brazil and African ports was part of the same process.

  • Russell-Wood, A. J. R. A World on the Move: The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America, 1415–1808. Manchester, NH: Carcanet, 1992.

    Influential study on the constant movement of people and commodities within the Portuguese empire. Places the Portuguese as the early agents in a globalized world.

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