Atlantic History Race and Racism
Andrew Wells
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0163


It has become an acknowledged commonplace that “race” and the other entities from and against which it has been defined—“racism” and “racialism”—are historically and culturally constructed. While it is recognized that race is a spurious concept with no scientific basis, the social reality of racism is impossible—and dangerous—to ignore. The role played by the opening of the Atlantic world in the development of the theory and practice of race and racism was profound. Beginning in the mid-15th century, a wider range of peoples, cultures, and colors were brought into closer interaction than ever before. The existence of a hitherto unknown population on a hitherto unknown continent posed serious questions, resulting in a flurry of intellectual and social activity that created, defined, and reified differences between peoples. Sexual interaction between peoples of the Atlantic world soon produced new populations through a process of ethnogenesis and resulted in the application of older thinking to new problems. One example was the use of Spanish concepts of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre), originally developed to root out supposedly insincere converts of Jewish or Muslim origin, in a new colonial sistema de castas. Sexual interaction between groups not merely of different ethnic origin but within the same social rank (especially the “blue-blooded” nobility) as well as colonial domination both near and far (particularly in early modern Ireland) also resulted in the development of concepts of whiteness. At the same time as these ideas were elaborated, they were supported by a growing sense of substantial difference between peoples who were, in varying degrees, susceptible to European or tropical diseases. Demographic catastrophe only reinforced the importance of examining the origins of native Americans, even if it was speculation on those of Africans that was most recognizably racist to modern eyes. This is, no doubt, because such speculations went hand-in-hand with the development of one of the most monstrous racist abuses in world history, the transatlantic slave trade. Complicating this picture, however, is the fact that such activity could take place within a theological worldview that held that all the world’s peoples had sprung from the same origin. Productive conceptualizations of racism, therefore, have distinguished the concept from individual prejudice or even ethnocentrism through its institutionalization within authoritative discourses (concerning the body or the law/state, for example) and through its efforts to rationalize a fundamentally irrational prejudice. With the debunking of its claims to biological reality, it arguably lives on by having culture perform the function that science can no longer fulfill.

Primary Sources and Data Sources

Several excellent collections of primary sources on race and racism exist, many of which are available online. Most of these relate to slavery, but the broad range of such resources allows scholars to explore different aspects of racist practice within the “peculiar institution.” Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database contains detailed information on the vast majority of transatlantic slave voyages undertaken between the 16th and 19th centuries and has proven useful for scholarly efforts to assess the accuracy of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, to give one example. The institutional apparatus supporting slavery is well covered in Slaves and the Courts, 1740–1860, which contains images and full text of (mostly American) pamphlets that deal with individual slave cases, including the Dred Scott case. The full range of arguments for and against slavery is contained in the collection of pamphlets held by the library of Anti-Slavery International, available online in Recovered Histories. The bulk of these date from the 1820s to the 1850s and offer an insight into one of the most fruitful periods in the history of racist thought. Also useful for charting the interrelation of racist theory and practice is Empire Online, a wide-ranging (if selective) online resource containing printed and manuscript sources. Richer for later centuries, this database nonetheless offers material on early modern Ireland, an important locus of racism. An indispensable anthology of racial texts is Loomba and Burton 2007, which offers selections not simply of vital texts but of earlier works that provided source material and inspiration for these. The chronological focus of this collection (1510s–1699) reflects the recent drift to locating the origins of race in the Early Modern period. Ranging beyond concepts of race to practices of racism, the collections of primary sources offered in Conrad 1983 and Quinn 1979 are particularly useful for tracing European interactions with Native Americans and African slaves in (respectively) Brazil and the Americas more generally. Alden and Landis 1980–1988 is an invaluable guide to European printed works on America for almost the entire period of the existence of the Atlantic world, with vitally important indexes.

  • Alden, John, and Dennis C. Landis, eds. European Americana: A Chronological Guide to Works Printed in Europe Relating to the Americas, 1493–1776. 6 vols. New York: Readex, 1980–1988.

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    Not strictly on race or racism but a comprehensive bibliography of European texts on America, which contains many of the works used by racial thinkers or contain contemporary discussions of race and racism. Of particular use are the subject, geographical (of printers and booksellers), and alphabetical (including printers and booksellers) indexes.

  • Conrad, Robert Edgar. Children of God’s Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983.

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    Wide-ranging selection of mostly unpublished primary sources on slavery and the slave trade to and within Brazil. Contains useful selections on the urban lives of slaves, relations between races, and legal aspects of slavery.

  • Empire Online.

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    Subscription website containing a wide range of digitized print and manuscript sources on empire. Of particular interest is Section 5 (“Race, Class, Imperialism and Colonization, 1607–2007”), which contains essays, pamphlets, government papers, maps, and extracts from books. Most of these are from the 19th and 20th centuries, but there is much material on early modern Ireland.

  • Loomba, Ania, and Jonathan Burton, eds. Race in Early Modern England: A Documentary Companion. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2007.

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    Very broad selection of primary sources on race, ranging from Aesop’s Fables (6th century BCE) to Edward Tyson (1699), although the primary focus is on the period 1519–1699. Contains an excellent introduction and useful translations of extracts from works in ancient and modern European languages.

  • Quinn, David B., ed. New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612. 5 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1979.

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    Encyclopedic collection of documents ranging from ancient geography to the settlement of Virginia. Several chapters contain useful documents on Native Americans and relations with Europeans, although there is less information on Africans.

  • Recovered Histories.

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    Website containing digital copies of almost eight hundred pamphlets held at the library of Anti-Slavery International, dating from the early 18th to the early 20th centuries (the bulk was produced 1820–1850). Contains much information on American and British slavery debates, including proslavery and early racialist texts, and government inquiries.

  • Slaves and the Courts, 1740–1860.

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    Digitized collection of just over one hundred pamphlets on slavery and the law (both within and outside the courtroom). Contains much material on celebrated cases, such as Dred Scott v. Sandford and the trial of John Brown, and a manuscript copy of the District of Columbia Slave Code (1860).

  • Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

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    Based on a CD-ROM project first published by Cambridge University Press in 1999, this open-access database has details on almost 35,000 (of an estimated 43,600) transatlantic slaving voyages from 1514 to the mid-19th century. Users can search by a wide range of variables and generate tables of statistics from the dataset.

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