In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Internal Slave Migrations in the Americas

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Databases and Primary Sources
  • Forced Migrations between Polities
  • Forced Migrations within Polities
  • Freedom-Based Migrations between Polities
  • Freedom-Based Migrations within Polities

Atlantic History Internal Slave Migrations in the Americas
Viola Franziska Müller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0329


Studies of the movements of enslaved people from one region to another have been dominated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, it is, due to its volume, duration, and involvement of international actors one of the most well-known migrations in history. But also in the Americas, enslaved people often migrated within and across national, territorial, and regional boundaries. The volumes were usually much smaller and their durations shorter than those of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, still these migrations often had a dramatic impact on the lives of the enslaved, on economic developments, and on policies regarding slavery. Internal slave migrations were mainly defined by forced migrations, most notably slave trades. Runaway slaves can also fall under the category of slave migrants, yet labeling their movement “voluntary” does not do justice to their situation. “Freedom-based migration” is a more adequate term as it encompasses both their initial situation and the envisioned outcome. This does not necessarily mean that enslaved people fled to free polities, yet because free-soil regions increased toward the end of the eighteenth century, the number of enslaved people who migrated over borders to achieve freedom became larger as well. The forced displacement of enslaved people has a longer history, but drastically intensified in the nineteenth century. This was mostly due to the domestic slave trades of Brazil and the United States. As the number of involuntary and freedom-based movements grew in the nineteenth century, the social, cultural, political, and economic ramifications they brought with them became more dramatic. The focus of his bibliographical overview will therefore be primarily on the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Approaching slave trade and slave flight through the lens of migration highlights the agency and experiences of the migrants over those of enslavers, traders, and policy makers. More research is needed to add social-historical perspectives; for the time being, the references here listed intend to serve as starting points and inspiration.

General Overview

This article provides a selective overview of the literature on forced and freedom-based internal slave migrations in the Americas, both between and within political entities. For many enslaved Africans, the journey as captives from the African continent did not end after the trans-Atlantic passage. Within the Americas, the earliest coerced slave migrations that took place across political borders were interregional slave trades between different European colonies. Works discussing the distributions of recently arrived Africans are less numerous than those on the Middle Passage. O’Malley 2014 is exceptional in putting it centerstage. A valuable quantitative contribution on the volume of intercolonial slave trades comes from Borucki 2012. Besides the intra-American slave trade, slaves were sometimes forced to migrate alongside their owners. This occurred, for instance, in the aftermath of the Haitian revolution (Scott 2011). After the illegalization of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, trades within the Americas increased. Domestic slave trades are, due to their dramatic volumes, especially important for 19th-century American and Brazilian history. Johnson 1999 and Pargas 2015 provide excellent studies of the US South; for the internal slave trade in Brazil, see Klein 1971 and Graham 2002. Slave trades often disrupted families. People escaping slavery, consequently, were often motivated by the desire to reunite with family members, or slave flight was at least triggered by the separation from kin. Enslaved people could turn into migrants of their own right by running away and crossing the borders to another jurisdiction or by staying within slaveholding territory. Freedom-based migrations furthermore included maroons, urban runaway slaves, and people escaping to indigenous groups. All these scenarios are included in Pargas 2018. Clavin 2015 provides an in-depth study of fugitives to Spanish Florida, and Price 1996 compiles a study on maroons.

  • Borucki, Alex. “Trans-Imperial History in the Making of the Slave Trade to Venezuela, 1526–1811.” Itinerario 26.2 (2012): 29–54.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0165115312000563

    With a focus on Venezuela, this article connects the slave trades of the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British empires and international commercial networks. Borucki presents valuable reassessments of the numbers of imported slaves. As a quantitative history, it offers a starting point for more social-historical approaches.

  • Clavin, Matthew J. Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674088238

    Approaching Spanish Florida both as a refuge for fugitives from the United States and as a springboard for further migration to various Caribbean destinations, Clavin follows an important historiography on Spanish imperial policies aimed at receiving runaway slaves from rival colonial powers.

  • Graham, Richard. “Nos Tumbeiros Mais Uma Vez? O Comércio Interprovidencial de Escravos no Brasil.” Afro-Ásia 27 (2002): 121–160.

    The Brazilian domestic slave trade of the second half of the nineteenth century was remarkable because the abolition of slavery was a foreseeable reality planters had to reckon with. Graham argues that the resistance of forced migrants contributed a vital part to the final abolition of Brazilian slavery. Downloadable from Afro-Ásia.

  • Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    Putting New Orleans centerstage as the most absorptive market for American slaves, Johnson depicts the horrors of the American internal slave trade, mostly from regions in the Upper South to the new sugar and cotton regions. Beautifully written, this book is a compelling account of the social order of the 19th-century US South and the agency of forced migrants in chains.

  • Klein, Herbert. “The Internal Slave Trade in the Nineteenth-Century Brazil: A Study of Slave Importations into Rio de Janeiro in 1852.” Hispanic American Historical Review 51.4 (1971): 567–585.

    DOI: 10.2307/2512051

    One of the earliest contributions on the Brazilian internal slave trade, Klein scrutinizes the long-distance seaborne trade in enslaved people to the central coffee-producing areas after the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Offering important quantitative insights, this article paved the way for decades of research to come.

  • O’Malley, Gregory E. Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469615349.001.0001

    O’Malley is the first to provide a book-length study on the intra-American slave trade. He outlines how the British supplied both their own and foreign slave markets between 1619 and 1807. Although primarily a quantitative study, O’Malley is sensitive to the struggles of the forced migrants.

  • Pargas, Damian A. Slavery and Forced Migration in the Antebellum South. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Pargas combines accounts of the American intrastate, interstate, and rural–urban slave trades. He studies the struggles, fears, pains, and hopes of enslaved men and women during their forced removal. The special merit of this book lies in the careful scrutiny of integration processes after arrival. Approaching trafficked people as newcomers in unknown lands, Pargas highlights the migration experience of the enslaved.

  • Pargas, Damian A. ed. Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018.

    Featuring essays on enslaved people escaping from the 19th-century US South to various destinations throughout the North American continent, this collective volume is the first to make a conceptual distinction between formal, semiformal, and informal spaces of freedom. Articles deal with freedom-based migrations between polities, including the US North, Canada, and Mexico, as well as within the slaveholding South.

  • Price, Richard, ed. Maroon Societies: Slave Rebel Communities in the Americas. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

    Price’s collective volume is still the most comprehensive collection of works on maroons in Spanish America, the French Caribbean, Guianas, Jamaica, Brazil, and the United States. While not explicitly approaching them as internal migrants, many of the chapters discuss the cultural aspects of community formation of escaped slaves. Originally published 1973.

  • Scott, Rebecca. “Paper Thin: Freedom and Re-Enslavement in the Diaspora of the Haitian Revolution.” Law and History Review 29.4 (2011): 1061–1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0738248011000538

    Migrating together with their owners from St. Domingue after the Haitian revolution, more than three thousand slaves arrived in New Orleans in 1809. Driven by questions about the relationship between law and slavery, Scott asks how and on what grounds these people were held as slaves, given that slavery had been abolished in St. Domingue in 1793.

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