In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Retailers and Small Artisans in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Primary and Online Sources
  • Europe
  • Gender and Women’s Roles

Atlantic History African Retailers and Small Artisans in the Atlantic World
Stewart King
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0295


Enslaved and free Africans played a crucial role in the economies of the Atlantic world throughout the era of the slave trade. As small merchants and artisans, producing and selling articles of daily use, they were the most common participants in the retail marketplaces of the slave societies of the Americas. As counterparts to the European slave merchants, they were a crucial component of the African end of the Atlantic slave trade and of the increasing participation of tropical Africa in global markets in other goods. In regions with few slaves, such as the northern colonies of North America and Western Europe, free people of color were predominantly urban. In port cities in those areas, they were heavily represented in the small retail and artisanal workforce. Historians of the Atlantic world have portrayed the lives of these workers in great detail since the 1970s. Culturally, urban people of color were descended from “Atlantic Creoles,” as Ira Berlin and Jane Landers termed them. Their culture and ancestry drew on African, European, and sometimes indigenous roots, and they maneuvered the thicket of racial norms, class prejudice, laws related to slave status, and imperial regulations to forge lives for themselves as independent economic actors. On the eve of the Haitian Revolution, free colored activist Julien Raimond called the free people of color the “natural bourgeoisie” of the colonies. He meant that they held a middle status, between the mass of enslaved workers and the tiny minority of white slave owners, and he also probably meant to refer to the supposed superior moral standards of the bourgeoisie when compared with the (also supposedly) corrupt and decadent nobility. But if we take bourgeois to mean what it does in contemporary class analysis, a middle class changing society through the modern virtues of pragmatism, individualism, rational utility, and profit, he had a point.

General Overviews and Textbooks

It was the path-breaking work of Africanists in the 1970s that led to a fuller understanding of the role of Africans in the Atlantic world. Curtin 1975 (cited under Senegambia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast) returned agency to the African merchant. At the same time, historians of the United States and of Latin America were digging into public records and revealing the economic life of free and enslaved African-descended people in the Americas. Cohen and Greene 1972 is a collection of essays that told the story of free people of color and began the task of demonstrating their key role in the economies of slave societies in the Americas. Studies of the Atlantic economy have continued to address the independent agency of Africans and African-descended people. Realizing that the African merchant was an independent player who exercised a great deal of control over the terms of trade was a remarkable, and controversial, new perspective. Similarly, the growing realization that African-descended people in the Americas, suffering as they did under the twin handicaps of race and status, were nonetheless able to be independent actors in the economy deepened our understanding of the complexity of slave societies as a whole.

  • Berlin, Ira, and Philip Morgan, eds. The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. London: Frank Cass, 1991.

    Collected essays that first appeared in Slavery and Abolition give a tour d’horizon of the impact of slave production in the economy. Most of the work concentrates on agriculture, but marketing is an important ancillary activity and gets its share of attention in all these articles.

  • Cañizares- Esguerra, Jorge, Matt D. Childs, and James Sidbury. The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. 384.

    Essays discussing the role of African-descended people in urban areas in the Americas and Africa. Focus on the role of black civic associations.

  • Cohen, David W., and Jack P. Greene, eds. Neither Slave nor Free: The Freedmen of African Descent in the Slave Societies of the New World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

    A classic collection containing a number of foundational essays for the study of this group.

  • Dantas, Mariana L. R. Black Townsmen: Urban Slavery and Freedom in the Eighteenth-Century Americas. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230611115

    A pathbreaking comparative study of the urban black populations of Baltimore and Minas Gerais. Both groups included many artisans and small merchants, and there is a chapter dealing specifically with the free population and labor.

  • Flint, J. E., and I Geiss. “Africans Overseas, 1790–1870.” In The Cambridge History of Africa. Edited by J. E. Flint, 418–457. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521207010.014

    A general overview of the African diaspora during the precolonial century as seen from an Africanist perspective.

  • Hansen, Thorkild. Coast of Slaves, Ships of Slaves, Islands of Slaves. Accra: Sub Saharan Publishers, 2002.

    A 21st-century edition of the classic trilogy, originally published 1967, 1968, and 1970, on the Danish colonial empire and slave society by one of Denmark’s greatest writers in a recent English translation. Merchants and artisans play an important role. Although this is a case study of a relatively minor player in the colonial Atlantic, its readability and focus on the lives of ordinary people make it a good introduction to the field for non-specialists. The edition cited is an excellent new translation.

  • Hopkins, Anthony G. An Economic History of West Africa. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

    Somewhat dated, but still a foundational text for understanding the role of Africans in the Atlantic economy.

  • Peabody, Sue, and Keila Grinberg. Slavery, Freedom, and the Law in the Atlantic World: A Brief History with Documents. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

    Important edited collection of primary documents on the legal status of slavery and legal restrictions on people of color; useful background for students of the period.

  • Scott, Rebecca J., and Jean M. Hébrard. Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674065161

    This is a sweeping family history that tracks the life of a family of color from Sénégal to Saint-Domingue in the 18th century, on to Louisiana, Cuba, and Mexico in the early 19th century, and then to Europe and New York, and even into a concentration camp in mid-20th-century Europe. Most members of the family in freedom were businesspeople, and the book discusses their economic activities as well as family relationships, politics, and culture.

  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800276

    A standard text introducing readers to Africans as agents in the Atlantic economy of the early modern period. The author’s style is very accessible for undergraduates. The 1998 second edition refines the argument and broadens the chronologic and geographic coverage, making the book suitable as a text for a class in Atlantic history.

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