Atlantic History Slavery and Empire
Christian Pinnen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0304


Slavery and empire are two concepts that are intimately connected in the Atlantic world. From the first moments of Spanish discovery and subsequent settlement of the Americas, slavery played a crucial role in the development of European colonies. Both imported African slaves and Native American captives toiled on European plantations, spent hours of backbreaking labor in the darkness of European mines, and carved out new lives for their white masters under inhumane conditions. The most powerful European empires of the modern world were born from this form of coerced labor. The Spanish dominated both hemispheres after Columbus’s discovery, and were followed by England (and later Great Britain), France, Portugal, the Netherlands, and others. Even before the discovery of the Americas, African slaves were brought to Europe via the Atlantic slave trade, starting in 1441. That institution, which caused misery for so many, ended only in 1888 when Brazil finally abolished slavery. During those 447 years, at least 11 million people of African descent were enslaved in the New World, along with somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million indigenous people. All of these men and women, and their descendants, were deployed to increase the wealth and power of one European people or another, and Europeans in turn competed for the rights to enslave Africans and Amerindians, and for land on which to employ the forced labor profitably. Empire-building in the Americas would have been impossible without the labor of the enslaved. Europe’s preeminent position in the world, its industrial revolutions, and its eventual colonial expansion were all fueled by slave labor. In the process, these empires developed new procedures and a new language to manage their economic gain. Europeans increasingly defined whiteness as good, as Christian, as free, and as superior; blackness, in turn, meant heathen, inherently unequal, unfree, and enslaveable. Slavery became race-based, which allowed Europeans to continuously exploit African and Amerindian labor without feeling the guilt of human misery weighing on their consciences. Yet beyond the economic benefits, empires had to accept that the importation of enslaved Africans and the enslavement of indigenous peoples also created new societies in the New World. Race became just as difficult for colonial administrators to handle as other social indicators, such as wealth and birth. The intermingling of a variety of ethnic groups produced a population with increasingly mixed-racial heritage and a growing number of people who did not fit within the black and white dichotomy created by imperial institutions. The existence of these mixed-race people, as well as imperial actions in the colonies and the resistance of the enslaved people, forced empires to wrestle with ever-evolving ideas of whiteness and blackness, liberty and slavery, and enslavers and the enslaved in the colonial societies that made managing these institutions a nightmare on the local level.

Overviews and General Treatments

Slavery and empire in the Atlantic world together encompass an extremely large field, and, by definition, scholars of one subfield are not necessarily literate in the other. Yet there are works that allow specialists to discern larger trends in the general historiography. Although often intended for classroom use, the titles and sources listed here nevertheless present the works of dedicated scholars who are experts in their fields, and hence can be consulted to start research or to form the base for classroom lectures. Overviews that allow the reader to truly understand the imperial intricacies of the time are hard to write, but if executed well they can make all the differences in understanding the Atlantic empires. Elliot 2006 and Russel-Wood 1998 are good examples of these types of texts. The history of slavery—tightly connected to the slave colonies of all empires—in the Caribbean is particularly rich and complex, as described in Klein and Vinson 2007. Two books analyze slavery in a sweeping Atlantic context: Davis 2006 explores the basis of the intellectual and political theories, and Blackburn 1998 describes the intertwined economic and cultural forces behind the institution. Slavery often could not exist without the counterweight of manumission, which dangled the possibility of liberty in front of large slave majorities in order to control them. Hence, it is important to follow the varying ways that slave societies granted the enslaved access to liberty, which is the focus of Brana-Shute and Sparks 2009. Thornton 1998 notes that what shaped the New World slave societies in particular were the traditions people of the African diaspora brought with them to their new homes through forced migration. Slavery, of course, had previously existed in Africa, but it was the racial character of the institution in the New World that set it apart from indigenous forms of bound labor in Africa; see Lovejoy 2012.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1998.

    This is a comprehensive synthesis of the origins and establishment of slave societies across the Americas. The author includes the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch slave systems. Blackburn especially highlights the dual influence of cultural and economic forces as slavery emerged in the Americas.

  • Brana-Shute, Rosemary, and Randy J. Sparks, eds. Paths to Freedom: Manumission in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009.

    This work is a selection of excellent essays on manumission covering multiple regions throughout the Atlantic world. The book particularly focuses on political and legal cultures throughout the different slave societies that either hindered or benefitted enslaved people in pursuing their freedom.

  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Drawn from a series of lectures and essays, this book contains a history of slavery in the United States. Davis also draws on scholarship that reaches back to Babylonian slave societies to locate the origins of racial servitude and to explain the development of racial slavery in the New World in general, and in the United States specifically.

  • Elliot, J. H. Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    Seminal book on empires in the New World, particularly the Spanish and British iterations. Elliot highlights both similarities and differences between the European approaches to empire, but he does not create two national narratives. Slavery played such a major role in the building of empires that it is woven throughout the text as the author addresses various societies at large and social hierarchies in particular.

  • Klein, Herbert S., and Ben Vinson. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    This work is a concise treatment of the history of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some chapters are organized chronologically, covering the ascent and collapse of slavery in the region. Other chapters are organized around themes such as labor, free people of color, family, community, resistance, and abolition.

  • Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa. 3d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    An updated overview of the origins of transatlantic slavery in Africa, this work emphasizes Africans not as passive victims of European slavers, but as actors in a complex world of African politics with its own rules. It highlights “mode of production” in the transformation of African systems of captivity through the demand of the Atlantic slave trade and the expanding warfare between African nations.

  • Russel-Wood, A. J. R. The Portuguese Empire, 1415–1808. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

    Important contribution to the history and development of Portugal’s American empire. The author emphasizes people and transportation as agents of cultural exchanges, including African slaves. The Portuguese Empire and its slave society are placed on the same level as Britain and Spain, particularly with regard to commodities such as sugar. Russel-Wood emphasizes the importance of the Portugal colonial economy to world trade.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511800276

    Stimulating study of the contributions of Atlantic African peoples to the molding of the Atlantic world. As a two-part work, the first section is a short history of the African continent prior to the colonial era, whereas the second section focuses on the cultural history of Atlantic Africans in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries.

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