In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literature, Slavery, and Colonization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Comparative Studies
  • Journals
  • Electronic and Online Resources
  • The Netherlands
  • Nordic Countries
  • Germany
  • Economic Literature
  • The Cultural Memory of Slavery
  • Ecology and Environmentalism

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Atlantic History Literature, Slavery, and Colonization
Madeleine Dobie
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0257


The conquest and colonization of the Americas and the enslavement of Amerindians and Africans have inspired a large and heterogeneous body of literature. In the two centuries following Columbus’s voyage, conquistadors, missionaries, and merchants wrote accounts of contact and conquest. By the 18th century, observers in Europe were writing about the colonies and slavery in a variety of genres, including fictional, scientific, and philosophical literature. At the same time, the colonies emerged as sites of literary production by writers of various backgrounds, including a small number of Amerindians and a larger contingent of “creole” writers of European descent. By the end of the 18th century, several former slaves had written autobiographical narratives recounting their experience of servitude. The African diaspora and slavery also created conditions for the interpretation of skin color as a marker of human diversity, giving rise to theories of race, including a significant corpus of scientific writing and reflections on the social, political, and cultural identity of Afro-descendants in the Americas. The 19th century was marked by several interconnected transitions. Beginning with the United States and Haiti, colonies began to gain their independence, European economic and strategic interests shifted toward Africa and Asia, slavery was abolished, and new imperial ideologies such as the “civilizing mission” gained currency. Literary culture evolved in parallel with these changes. Notably, slavery became an object of sustained critique by writers from around the Atlantic rim. Scholarship on the literary imprint of colonization and slavery in the Atlantic world has predominantly been organized by language, though there are also comparative studies that cross linguistic boundaries. Some studies are anchored within the framework of a particular imperial history, e.g., the British or French, while others advocate for transnational or regional categories such as “the Americas,” “the Atlantic world,” or “the black Atlantic,” arguing that these better reflect the circulation of people, ideas, and texts. One challenge of establishing a critical bibliography on the literature associated with colonialism and slavery is that literature is a fluid category and, as a result, literary scholarship overlaps significantly with cultural history. In addition to studies of narrative fiction and poetry, this bibliography includes scholarship on autobiographical, philosophical, economic, and scientific writing. Research on literature and colonization has expanded significantly since the advent of postcolonial studies in the 1980s, hence the heavy representation of research published since this watershed. Postcolonial theory and studies of postcolonial literature are, however, not included, with the exception of those that emphasize the memory of colonization and slavery.

General Overviews

There are, essentially, no comprehensive overviews of the literature of colonization and slavery in the Atlantic world because a study of this kind would have to cover four centuries, multiple languages, and diverse genres of writing. Broad studies include Davis 1966, a classic account of the place of slavery in Western culture that covers writing from the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds; Hannaford 1996, which traces the idea of race from ancient Greece to contemporary times; and Pagden 1995, which surveys Spanish, British, and French theories of empire from the 16th to the 19th century.

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966.

    Classic study covering both ancient and modern worlds, which considers how Western religious and philosophical doctrines have variously sanctioned or contested slavery.

  • Hannaford, Ivan. Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 1996.

    Attempts to provide a comprehensive history of concepts of race from ancient Greece to the present.

  • Pagden, Anthony. Lords of All the World: Ideologies of Empire in Spain, Britain and France c. 1500–1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

    Intellectual history of European imperialism that covers, in broad brushstrokes, debates about conquest and settlement, relations between colonies and metropole, and the transition from empire to other forms of political association.

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