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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • Comparative Urban Slavery
  • The Profile of Urban Slavery
  • Labor and Economic Integration
  • Community and Identity
  • Gender and Family
  • Religion and Culture
  • Resistance and Rebellion
  • Racial Order and Social Control
  • Manumission and Emancipation
  • Microhistories of Urban Slaves

Atlantic History Urban Slavery
Mariana Dantas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0142


The study of slavery in the Atlantic World has been dominated by scholarship focused on the plantation environment. This tendency is not gratuitous. The vast majority of Africans forcibly moved across the Atlantic to work in the New World, and their descendants after them, ended up living, laboring, and dying on the many plantations that sustained the economies of that region throughout the colonial period and much of the 19th century. Some within this population, however, experienced slavery within an urban environment. Their history and historical significance have yet to receive systematic attention by scholars of slavery, and it would be exaggerated to suggest that urban slavery constitutes a distinct track or field within broader studies of slavery. Indeed, for vast regions of the Atlantic World, much of what we know about urban slaves comes from local, regional, or national studies of slavery in general that nevertheless acknowledge the presence of slaves in urban environments. In part, the still incomplete treatment of urban slavery within the historiography has been influenced by Richard Wade’s 1964 study, Slavery in the Cities (Wade 1972, cited under General Overviews). In that work, Wade argued that the difficulties and cost of controlling slaves in the urban South undermined the practice of urban slavery and explained its decline in the region. Wade thus introduced the theory that slavery was incompatible with and thus could not be sustained in urban environments, a notion that many scholars after him have had to contend with in order to justify their pursuit of the topic. Moses Finley’s differentiation between slave societies and societies with slaves, which has been more recently embraced and advanced by Ira Berlin, has posed further challenges to historians of urban slavery. The distinction between societies in which slavery was clearly the dominating system of labor organization versus societies in which it was but one possible system of labor organization has condemned, in a way, cities and towns to the category of societies with slaves. The argument that it was only in slave societies that the practice of slavery and the presence of slaves shaped the overall economic, social, political, and cultural makeup of a region or locality has raised questions about the extent to which slavery and slaves affected the historical trajectory of cities and towns, again forcing scholars of the topic to justify the relevance of their work. Despite these general tendencies, the body of literature that has been produced on the topic, particularly since the 1990s, has successfully demonstrated that any attempt to understand fully the diversity of the practice of slavery; the extent to which slavery informed Atlantic developments; and slaves’ experiences with the institution and the societies that supported it, must take into consideration urban slavery.

General Overviews

These articles examine in broad terms the different experiences urban environments afforded slaves when compared with rural environments. Higman 1984, Russell-Wood 2002, Berlin 2003, and Welch 2003 place particular emphasis on certain freedoms slaves enjoyed, such as the possibility of hiring out their labor, and the greater frequency, when compared with rural slaves, with which they achieved their freedom through manumission. Indeed, all articles argue to varying degrees that the nature of the urban environment or economy contributed to creating a more flexible or fluid environment in which slaves could live more autonomous lives and potentially gain their freedom. They differ, however, in their interpretation of how this dynamic affected the overall practice of urban slavery. Wade 1972 and Goldin 1976, for instance, both maintain that rising public and private costs of controlling slave workers encouraged the abandonment of slavery and adoption of other labor options in southern cities. However, whereas Wade 1972 suggests the rising costs of enforcing a slave order was a linear process that gradually but surely led to the decline of slavery in Southern cities in general, Goldin 1976 demonstrates that the costs and benefits of slavery varied in a more irregular fashion, leading sometimes to a decline, sometimes to an intensification of the practice in different urban locations at different times throughout the antebellum period. The more interesting comparison, however, is between North American and Latin American/Caribbean scholarships. By demonstrating that urban slavery was consistently practiced outside of the United States and that it was an extension of the broader plantation society’s commitment to slavery—or, as Bowser 1974 argues in the case of Peru, the dominant form of slavery—Bowser 1974, Higman 1984, Russell-Wood 2002, and Welch 2003 challenge representations, such as in Fields 1985, of urban slavery as a short-lived anomaly or a labor system unsuited to the needs and demands of cities.

  • Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    An important synthesis of the experience of slavery in North America that offers insight into the lives of slaves within early colonial urban centers (such as New Amsterdam) and later colonial and revolutionary towns. Emphasizes the greater opportunities and freedoms enjoyed by urban slaves.

  • Bowser, Frederick P. The African Slave in Colonial Peru, 1524–1650. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974.

    Important work on slavery in Peru that stresses the need to study urban slavery as one among other possible manifestations of that institution in the Americas. Demonstrates slaves’ vital role in sustaining the urban economy in Lima and argues that urban slavery afforded slaves greater autonomy, liberties, and social mobility.

  • Fields, Barbara Jeanne. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century. Yale Historical Publications. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Focused on explaining how Maryland’s position, in between the slaveholding South and the free North, affected slavery and slaves, this study also offers one chapter on slavery in Baltimore that argues that slavery could not meet urban labor demands and that cities could not control slaves to ensure their productivity.

  • Goldin, Claudia Dale. Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820–1860: A Quantitative History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

    Goldin rejects both the push (urban economies pushed slaves out of cities) and pull (rural labor demands pulled slaves from cities) theories offered to explain the decline of urban slavery and asserts that high elasticity of urban labor demands led slave buyers to seek alternative labor options when slave prices rose.

  • Higman, B. W. Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834. Johns Hopkins Studies in Atlantic History and Culture. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

    Based on extensive empirical research of the slave registration returns collected by colonial authorities, this study argues that slaves’ experiences were shaped by the material conditions in which they lived; consequently, urban slaves’ access to paid labor through skilled occupation and self-hire afforded them greater social mobility.

  • Russell-Wood, A. J. R. Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil. Oxford: Oneworld, 2002.

    A comprehensive study of enslaved and free blacks focused on their experiences with the oppressive nature of the slave society in Brazil and their struggles to wield control over their lives. Urban environments appear as spaces where slaves enjoyed opportunities for economic gain, social and cultural exchanges, and social mobility.

  • Wade, Richard C. Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

    Wade’s book proposes to explain the decline of slavery in the urban antebellum south. It examines the working and living conditions of slaves and the mechanisms of control to suggest that, by undermining the relationship of control that supported slavery, the urban milieu made slavery undesirable in cities.

  • Welch, Pedro L. V. Slave Society in the City: Bridgetown, Barbados, 1680–1834. Oxford: J. Currey, 2003.

    Study challenges a monolithic view of slave societies based on the plantation complex. It demonstrates the diversity of slave occupations, slaves’ access to wages and self-purchase, urban social fluidity, and the formation of a free black population. It characterizes urban slaves as quasi-free despite urban instruments of slave oppression.

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