In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Captivity in Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections

Atlantic History Captivity in Africa
Vincent Carretta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0182


Factual as well as fictional accounts exist of specific individuals taken captive in Africa and brought into contact with the English-speaking world from the 17th century through the Reconstruction era in the United States. The extant accounts by or about people captured in Africa, however, represent an infinitesimal percentage of all the people seized in Africa during the period. The subjects are also disproportionately male, captured as children, and Muslim. Many, perhaps most, African captives never entered the transatlantic slave trade. But at least 12.5 million enslaved people suffered the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas between 1500 and 1867. More than half of the estimated 10.7 million who survived the Middle Passage came during the 18th century. About 1.8 million of them were brought to the British Caribbean colonies. Fewer than 500,000 went to North America. Although Muslims enslaved in Africa and brought to the Americas probably numbered only in the tens of thousands, their narratives comprise a disproportionately very high percentage of the extant accounts. People of European descent were also taken captive in Africa. Between the 17th and first half of the 19th century about 20,000 Britons were held captive in the Barbary Coast regencies of the Muslim Ottoman Empire on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of north and northwestern Africa. About 700 Americans from the last half of the 18th to the first decades of the 19th century also experienced Barbary captivity. Both defenders and opponents of slavery used Barbary captivity narratives to reflect on the institution of slavery. The captivity accounts often provide ethnographic information about the various peoples and cultures that interacted with Europeans and European Americans. The accounts reflect the evolving relationship between African societies and the transatlantic world between the Early Modern and Reconstruction periods marked by the American Revolution, the late-18th-century movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, the conflict between the United States and the Barbary Coast regencies at the turn of the turn of the 19th century, the abolition of the transatlantic trade in the first decade of the century, the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean colonies in the 1830s, and the emancipation of the slaves in the United States following the Civil War. Always seemingly mysterious and alien to outsiders, Africans were at times perceived as oppressors, at others as victims; often demonized, and occasionally, albeit begrudgingly, respected.

General Overviews

Bellagamba, et al. 2016–2017 covers the general subject of African captivity throughout the period of the transatlantic slave trade. Miller 2015 and Eltis and Richardson 2010 offer transatlantic contexts for African captivity from the 16th through the 19th century. Introductions to anthologies in Collections give narrower overviews of specific categories of African captivity: Austin 1984 (cited under Collections) provides context for narratives by and about Muslim African captives; Baepler 1999 (cited under Collections), the context for British and United States residents held captive in North Africa; Curtin 1967 (cited under Collections), the context for accounts by and of several Africans taken captive by people of European descent; and Handler 2002 (cited under Collections), the context for the extant autobiographical narratives by people taken captive in Africa and brought to the Anglophone Caribbean and North America.

  • Bellagamba, Alice, Sandra E. Greene, and Martin A. Klein, eds. African Voices on Slavery and the Slave Trade. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016–2017.

    Essential compilation of a wide range of directly and indirectly recorded accounts of captivity, as well as consideration of methodological challenges of recovering such voices.

  • Eltis, David, and David Richardson. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

    Essential presentation and analysis of data on the Middle Passage.

  • Miller, Joseph C., ed. The Princeton Companion to Atlantic History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

    Five major essays and over 125 alphabetical entries on connections among Africa, the Americas, and Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries.

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