Atlantic History Poverty in the Early Modern English Atlantic
David Hitchcock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0188


Poverty in the early modern English Atlantic world was an economic reality that could touch the lives of everyone who lived within the orbit of the Atlantic Ocean and its networks of people, trade, and transport. The poor, however one defines them, were the most numerous and yet the most marginal group to make the crossing from the Old World to the New, either willingly or as indentured servants or slaves. British migrants and African slaves dominated the flow of European transatlantic migration, and the lands that they came to, as colonizers and new masters, or, more commonly, as servants and property, were unforgiving and vast and not at all like homes once known. According to Armitage and Braddick 2009 (cited under Introductory Works), the Lower South, the Chesapeake, and the Caribbean were “charnel houses” for the vast majority of poor Europeans who migrated there. Yet, the rate at which poor whites died was dwarfed by the misery and death of the Middle Passage and of forced black migration to the plantation economies of the English Atlantic. The “lower sort,” whether “deserving” or not, had to get by, or “make shift,” in their new environs as readily as they did in their previous homes and parishes. They often did so through a mélange of casual or temporary employment, menial labor, household economies, and recourse to legal systems of relief. Moreover, researchers examining poverty should read widely beyond a narrow historiography of poor relief alone. Therefore, this bibliography contains sections on related topics, such as migration and law, colonialism in Ireland and Scotland, and survey texts on the social history of the Atlantic world. The historiography of Atlantic poverty is an immense subject, even when divided by empire or by geography. But, despite disparate scholarly interests and changing trends over time, social historians generally share one overriding concern: recovering marginalized experiences once thought lost to posterity. Atlantic social history has never been more vibrant or more relevant than it is in the early 21st century. Within this burgeoning scholarly corpus, which explores the massive and deeply important social implications, convergences, and marginalities of this fluid geography, the study of poverty and economic inequality continues to occupy a central place. The English Atlantic world conceived of by contemporaries between 1500 and 1800 was impossible without the poor—without slaves, indentured servants, and subsistence migrants; and without schemes for relief, colonization, and the easing of need.

Introductory Works

In the absence of a general survey text on poverty in the Atlantic world, readers should consult key chapters in Armitage and Braddick 2009 and Mancke and Shammas 2005. On the subject of class and socioeconomic inequality in the Atlantic world, consult Middleton and Smith 2008.

  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    This edited collection on the British Atlantic world provides the broad social and economic contexts necessary for further study. The most pertinent chapter for the historian of poverty is the one on class, written by Keith Wrightson, which should be required reading for any student seeking to begin a study of the poor in a broader Atlantic context.

  • Mancke, Elizabeth, and Carole Shammas, eds. The Creation of the British Atlantic World. Anglo-America in the Transatlantic World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

    This collection begins its explanation of the creation of the British Atlantic world with a chapter on servants and slaves, both impoverished and marginalized groups that were crucial to the formation and characterization of this space. Readers concerned with the role of the poor in the early Atlantic should read the first section of this book closely.

  • Middleton, Simon, and Billy G. Smith, eds. Class Matters: Early North America and the Atlantic World. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

    Despite two decades of scholarship proclaiming otherwise, the authors in this volume argue that class still matters as a category of historical analysis. Chapters examine inequalities throughout the Atlantic world, and the chapters on infant paupers and class struggles in a plantation society are particularly welcome.

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