In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Interracial Marriage in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Interracial Marriage in the Spanish Atlantic
  • Afro-European Marriages on the West African Coast
  • Interracial Marriage in New England
  • Interracial Marriage in the English Chesapeake and Anglo Caribbean
  • Interracial Marriage in the Great Lakes Region
  • Interracial Marriage in French Louisiana and the French Caribbean
  • Interracial Marriage in the Nineteenth-Century United States

Atlantic History Interracial Marriage in the Atlantic World
Brooke Newman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0279


The transformations wrought in the Atlantic world during the colonial era brought Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans into sustained contact in the Americas for the first time, fostering interethnic mixing, sexual violence and intimacy, and intermarriage. In a wide variety of colonial sites across the Atlantic, interracial marriages expanded kinship and trading networks, cemented military and political alliances, and facilitated the adaptation and survival of Native communities. Interracial marriages not only provided economic and social benefits to European and Euro-American explorers, traders, and settlers and the indigenous populations whom they encountered, they also served as a powerful political tool in contested borderlands far from imperial centers. In Latin America, North America, the Caribbean, and along the West African coast, European males mingled socially and sexually with women of Indian, African, and mixed heritage, though the vast majority of these interracial relationships took place outside the sanctity of marriage, and many involved some level of coercion. While historians have traditionally held that racially mixed marriages occurred with greater regularity in Spain’s New World colonies, in contrast to the French and English empires, more recent scholarship has demonstrated the ubiquity of interracial concubinage, informal marriage, and intermarriage throughout the early modern Atlantic world. Responses to the frequency and visibility of illicit interracial relations were nonetheless uneven and changed over time, as the emergence of legal, social, and cultural prohibitions against interracial marriage prevented the widespread acceptance of racially exogamous mixed unions and intermarriage. Focusing on official attitudes toward and legal restrictions on racial interaction and interracial marriage as well as everyday practices, these newer studies track the extent to which colonial policies varied in response to local conditions and broader imperial developments. Attention to intermarriage as a tool of colonization and strategy for assimilation has underscored the critical role of Native women as cultural intermediaries. Scholars argue that the toleration or ban of interracial marital unions by officials depended upon a range of interrelated factors: demographic conditions, the ancestry of the female partners (European, Indian, African, or mixed heritage), public attitudes toward interracial mixture, colonizing and trading goals, and transatlantic religious and intellectual currents. Intermarriage, and the inclusion of mixed-raced offspring in kinship networks, fundamentally transformed family structures, shaped developing notions of racial difference, and posed challenges to group cohesion and individual and national identity.

General Overviews

While there is no one text offering a general overview of interracial marriage in the Atlantic world, scholars have produced a number of regional studies and essay collections dedicated to the subject of race mixture and intermarriage over the centuries. Historians focus on the influence of Christianity and political and military goals on attitudes toward interracial marriage in different colonial regions (Botham 2009, Godbeer 2002, Mörner 1967, Hodes 1999), the development of legal regulations designed to police and criminalize interracial sexual mixture (Higginbotham 1980, Pascoe 2009, Rout 1976), and the emergence and survival of métis families and communities in the face of developing concerns about gender and racial purity (Aubert 2004; Hodes 1999; Peterson and Brown 1985; Schroeder, et al. 1997).

  • Aubert, Guillaume. “‘The Blood of France’: Race and Purity of Blood in the French Atlantic World.” William and Mary Quarterly 61.3 (2004): 439–478.

    DOI: 10.2307/3491805

    Influential article linking ideas about blood and kinship in early modern France to emerging apprehensions about racial purity in the French Atlantic. Shows how concerns about marriages between the French nobility and commoners were adapted to New World conditions and ultimately gave rise to prohibitions on interracial marriage.

  • Botham, Fay. Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

    Botham’s study, though primarily focused on the century following the Civil War, examines the origins and development of laws designed to regulate and curtail interracial marriage in colonial America and the United States. She argues that Christian religious doctrine influenced both the initial passage of these laws and the movement that gave rise to the legal challenges that overturned bans on interracial marriage.

  • Godbeer, Richard. Sexual Revolution in Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

    Analyzes how attitudes about Anglo-Indian marital unions changed over time in the colonial south and in New England. Godbeer argues that fears of cultural pollution overrode earlier, more pragmatic attitudes toward Anglo-Indian intermarriage, leading to the repudiation of such unions in both regions by the late 17th century. Also explores the social, legal, and economic dynamics that discouraged interracial marriages between English settlers and African slaves and their free descendants in the colonial Caribbean.

  • Higginbotham, Leon. In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process; The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

    Provides a useful chronological analysis of the development of anti-miscegenation statutes during the colonial era and the criminalization of interracial marriage throughout North America. Higginbotham’s focus on the emergence of legal prohibitions against interracial sex and marriage in multiple colonies, including Virginia, Massachusetts, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, illustrates the extent to which regional variations influenced official responses to interracial marriages and the codification of race laws.

  • Hodes, Martha, ed. Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

    An essential collection of scholarly essays about the intersection of race, sex, and power in the Americas from the early colonial period through the 20th century. The essays address a wide range of topics related to interracial marriage, including French-Indian marriages as a strategy of colonization, cases of Indian and African American intermarriage, the regulation of Anglo-African American marriages, the lives of interracial families, and fictionalized accounts of mixed marriage.

  • Mörner, Magnus. Race Mixture in the History of Latin America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

    Translated from the Spanish original, El mestizaje en la historia de Ibero-America (Mexico City: Editorial Cultura, 1961), Magnus’s classic study argues that the Spanish Crown and colonial authorities officially sanctioned racial intermarriage in the Spanish American colonies in order to promote the conversion of Indians to Catholicism.

  • Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Analyzes legal strictures designed to discourage interracial sexual relations and criminalize intermarriage from the colonial period to the early 20th century. Pascoe argues that anti-miscegenation laws were intended to protect the racial purity of white women and thereby naturalize the racial boundary between whites and nonwhites.

  • Peterson, Jacqueline, and Jennifer S. H. Brown, eds. The New Peoples: Being and Becoming Métis in North America. Winnipeg, Canada: University of Manitoba Press, 1985.

    Includes several essays (especially Dickason, Peterson, Spry) focused on the prevalence of interethnic marriage alliances between French male settlers and Indian women in fur-trade settlements in New France and the rise of métis communities.

  • Rout, Leslie B. The African Experience in Spanish America: 1502 to the Present Day. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

    Classic work that reconsiders the problem of interracial marriages as presented in the then-current historiography of Spanish America. Rout argues that assumptions that the Spanish were more tolerant of interethnic marriage focuses only on Indian-Spanish unions while neglecting the stigmatization of Afro-Spanish marital alliances.

  • Schroeder, Susan, Stephanie Wood, and Robert Haskett. Indian Women of Early Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

    Collection of scholarly articles exploring the various roles of Native women in colonial Mexico. Multiple authors address the emergence of Indian-Spanish marriages and trace the impact of these unions on Native and colonial Spanish society and gendered power hierarchies.

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