Atlantic History People of African Descent in Early Modern Europe
Annika Bärwald, Josef Köstlbauer, Rebekka von Mallinckrodt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0326


People of African descent shaped early modern Europe, here encompassing the 15th to 18th centuries, in many ways. They traveled, moved, or were trafficked to the European continent, voluntarily or by force, temporarily or for the rest of their lives. Yet the great majority of Africans arrived in Europe as captives or slaves. Enslavement practices that originated in ancient and medieval times gained momentum during the era when peoples living in the Mediterranean basin practiced reciprocal enslavement, only to continue after the advent of the transatlantic slave trade. This article takes into consideration people from North Africa who were part of the Mediterranean slavery system as well as sub-Saharan Africans who were affected by the transatlantic slave trade and are referred to in some research literatures as “black Africans.” However, as the early modern term “moor” was used indiscriminately by contemporaries to refer to dark-skinned people from a wide variety of geographical locations, it is not always possible to differentiate between people from the African continent (North and South), the Ottoman Empire (which extended from Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean to North Africa), or, for instance, the Indian subcontinent. Africans not only arrived as captives or slaves but also as merchants, diplomats, scholars, and students. They came as the partners or children of marital, but more often informal, relationships between Europeans and Africans in the colonies. Whereas it is often difficult to reconstruct to what extent these relationships were characterized by love, force, or pragmatism, the composition of Euro-African families in Europe suggests African agency as much as the intellectual, artistic, and military career trajectories of people of African descent. By contrast, research on the contribution of people of African descent to early modern European culture is only in its beginning stages and is aggravated by a dearth of sources as well as Eurocentric perspectives. The research in different European countries differs enormously, depending on the country’s proximity to the Mediterranean or the Atlantic basin, its involvement in colonial projects and subsequent need for manpower, and public awareness of the topic. Whereas research on the Mediterranean slave trade as well as the repercussions of the transatlantic slave trade on western European colonial powers like France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain partly goes back to the 1950s, Scandinavia, the German territories, and the Central European “hinterlands” have attracted more attention only recently.

General Overviews

The number of publications on people of African descent in national historiographies is growing steadily. However, only a small number of works transcend the boundaries of national historiography. This is not surprising, considering the conceptual difficulties presented by different historical traditions of the study of slavery and African-European encounters in different parts of Europe. The oldest work cited, Debrunner 1979, tackles this problem by assembling a huge amount of biographical sketches. This book helped scholars to get a sense of the sheer scale of the phenomenon and it points to useful sources for further research. In a similar vein, Martone 2009 offers an encyclopedic presentation of Africans and people of African descent in Europe throughout the ages. Gnammankou and Modzinou 2008, while also taking a broad approach, presents many classic themes, historical figures, and authors. Many edited volumes are characterized by a comparative approach. Earle and Lowe 2005 has proven quite influential. It presents case studies from different parts of Renaissance Europe and arranges them thematically, thus covering a wide range of subjects, from the perception and representation of Africans to slavery, manumission, and identity formation in different early modern European societies. The essays brought together in Hanss and Schiel 2014 situate Mediterranean slavery in a global context and show that the semantics of slavery merit special attention. Spicer 2012 not only demonstrates the African presence in Renaissance Europe, but the works of art presented therein also show how Africans were perceived and represented in early modern visual media. Conversely, Northrup 2014, a book-length synthesis of African-European relations from the late medieval to the modern period, centers African perceptions of Europeans and Europe. The essays in Grinberg and Peabody 2011 demonstrate the importance of comparative research on the legal framing of slavery and race. Schorsch 2004 ties matters of perception and social construction to an analysis of legal traditions in a study of Jewish-African relations in early modern Europe. Finally, Dakhlia, et al. 2011–2013 remind us of the importance of collective religious identities that often connect subjects across geographical distance. As a result, a considerable amount of scholarship on North Africans can be found in publications on Muslims in Europe. Taken together, the selected works amply demonstrate the multifaceted and complex character of the histories of people of African descent in Europe from the medieval period to modernity and introduce readers to a broad variety of perspectives.

  • Dakhlia, Jocelyne, Wolfgang Kaiser, and Bernhard Vincent, eds. Les musulmans dans l’histoire de l’Europe. 2 vols. Paris: Albin Michel, 2011–2013.

    While this edited volume does not appear to be about people of African descent at first sight, religious collective identities are used in order to locate people of North African descent and trace their different life trajectories. It features contributions from Emanuele Colombo on a Muslim prince from Fez (Morocco), who became a Jesuit in Italy after being captured, and a chapter by Wolfgang Kaiser on itinerant merchants between Algiers, Tunis, and Marseille.

  • Debrunner, Hans Werner. Presence and Prestige: Africans in Europe. Basel, Switzerland: Basler Afrika-Bibliographien, 1979.

    This vast bio-bibliographical work by a Swiss theologian and missionary historian ranges chronologically from the Middle Ages to the 20th century and geographically from the Mediterranean to northern and western Europe. Widely regarded as a groundbreaking study in its day, it now appears somewhat dated but can still be of use due to its plethora of source references.

  • Earle, Thomas Foster, and Kate Lowe, eds. Black Africans in Renaissance Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    This voluminous and complex edited volume covers conceptualizations of black Africans in literature and art, representations and living conditions of black Africans at court, aspects of enslavement and emancipation, and a chapter on “Black Africans with European Identities and Profiles.” The geographical and temporal focus is on Renaissance Italy, Spain, and Portugal, but the book also provides examples from the Holy Roman Empire, England, and France.

  • Gnammankou, Dieudonné, and Yao Modzinou, eds. Les Africains et leurs descendants en Europe avant le XXème siècle. Toulouse, France: Maison de l’Afrique à Toulouse, 2008.

    Taking a broad temporal, geographical, and topical approach, this edited volume unites many of the subjects, countries, historical figures, and authors that are assembled in this bibliographical article and thus can serve as an introduction to the theme. However, the editors did not always include the most recent scholarship. A chapter by Patrick Manning on how people of African descent in Europe fit into the broader picture of the African diaspora is of special interest.

  • Grinberg, Keila, and Sue Peabody, eds. Special Issue: Free Soil. Slavery & Abolition 32.3 (2011).

    This special issue addresses the important subject of “free soil,” a legal principle circulating in late medieval and early modern Europe that granted slaves their freedom if they touched urban, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish soil. Although never resolutely implemented, it constituted an important argument for liberty and a glimmer of hope for many slaves.

  • Hanss, Stefan, and Juliane Schiel, eds. Mediterranean Slavery Revisited (500–1800): Neue Perspektiven auf mediterrane Sklaverei, 500–1800. Zürich, Switzerland: Chronos Verlag, 2014.

    This multilingual edited volume with contributions in English, French, German, and Italian focuses on enslaved persons from diverse origins, including people of African descent, in medieval and early modern Mediterranean regions, Russia, and Siam. Special attention is paid to the semantics and practices of slavery as well as to transcultural perspectives.

  • Martone, Eric, ed. Encyclopedia of Blacks in European History and Culture. 2 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2009.

    An ambitious compilation encompassing biographical sketches and entries on representation and the social-political circumstances of people of African descent in Europe from Antiquity to the 21st century. The articles are of varying length and depth. The encyclopedic structure facilitates selective reading and a transnational, comparative approach. Due to its consistent referencing of further reading materials it is an accessible introductory source for students.

  • Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 1450–1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    A remarkable history of Africa and Europe that aims to create an alternative to Eurocentric narratives of expansion and locates African agency in interactions with Europeans. Six thematically organized chapters explore Africans’ perceptions, strategies, and motivations in their engagement with Europeans and the repercussions thereof. Chapter 6, “Passages in Slavery” (pp. 157–189), is of special interest here, as it is concerned with Africans in Europe. Useful because it establishes a wider context for Afro-European encounters.

  • Schorsch, Jonathan. Jews and Blacks in the Early Modern World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    This work traces social histories, legal traditions, Jewish discourses on race, and the lives of people of African descent through several centuries while also resoundingly refuting the myth of an above-average Jewish involvement in slave trading. The third chapter contains detailed research findings on free and enslaved people of African descent in early modern Jewish communities in Italy and northwestern Europe. The author focuses on questions of conversion, manumission, and communal participation.

  • Spicer, Joaneath A., ed. Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2012.

    This exhibition catalogue with contributions from Kate Lowe, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Joaneath Spicer combines art historical with cultural and social historical perspectives. It pays equal attention to African slaves, free people of African descent, and African ambassadors and rulers in Renaissance Europe. Due to its balanced, complex, and at the same time concrete and vivid approach, it can serve as a good introductory work for students.

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