The place of Africans in the Atlantic world is one of enormous, and contested, significance. Demographically, they form the large majority of those who crossed the Atlantic and settled in the Americas between the 16th and the middle of the 19th centuries. Nevertheless, traditional historiography suggested that African migrants were largely “passive victims” of the patterns of European colonization and settlement in the Americas. Since the 1990s, this idea has been challenged by a series of studies in a range of fields that show decisively the influence that African peoples had in shaping the emergence of Atlantic cultures. Scholars working in the fields of cultural, food, religious, and military history have all shown the many different ways in which African worldviews and actions contributed to the emergence of American societies. The most recent studies suggest continuities of revolutionary movements from West Africa into the Age of Revolutions in the Americas from the late 18th century onward. Meanwhile, though, new theoretical paradigms stressing the agency and involvement of Africans in New World societies themselves have drawn some criticism, as underestimating the impact of imperial violence in shaping the African experience. This powerful, important, and contested subject remains one of the liveliest fields in historical studies during the early modern period; this article should be read alongside that related to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, where works relating more specifically to Atlantic slavery are considered.
There is a huge range of possible ways into the experience of Africans in the Atlantic, and most begin from the starting point of recognizing the complex dynamic of agency as opposed to the violence and coercion of enslavement. Thornton 1998 was one of the most significant works in shaping the engagement with this dynamic, since taken into other languages through the work of Caldeira 2013 and Coquéry-Vidrovitch and Mesnard 2013. The unique and different dynamics of Brazil were first properly delineated by Russell-Wood 1982, while Lovejoy 2009 and Lovejoy and Trotman 2004 both look at vital aspects of identity and continuity of experience between Africa and the New World, and emphasize this complex balance of enslavement and agency in the experience of Africans in the Atlantic world. Thornton 2012 then produces an excellent synthesis of the activity and engagement of Africans in shaping cultural forms and productions of the Atlantic, including food, language, and religious practice.
Caldeira, Arlindo. Escravos e Traficantes no Império Português: O Comércio Negreiro Português no Atlântico durante os Séculos XV a XIX. Lisbon: Esfera dos Livros, 2013.
Important book by one of the leading historians of the Atlantic world in the Lusophone world, this saw the first sustained engagement of Portuguese historiography in a systematic way with the developments in the field in Anglophone studies. A detailed and accurate synthesis of the study of Africans and slavery in the Portuguese Atlantic context.
Coquéry-Vidrovitch, Catherine, and Éric Mesnard. Être Esclave: Afrique-Amériques, XVe-XIXe Siècle. Paris: La Découverte, 2013.
This book co-authored by one of France’s leading historians of Africa looks at the active role of enslaved Africans in shaping societies in both the Americas and Africa even through the experience of enslavement.
Lovejoy, Paul E., ed. Identity in the Shadow of Slavery. 2d ed. London: Continuum, 2009.
An outstanding collection of essays from leading authorities in the field that look at the complexity of the African experience in the Atlantic in terms of language, identity, religious practice, and belief—and ranging from North and South America to the Caribbean.
Lovejoy, Paul E., and David V. Trotman, eds. Trans-Atlantic Dimensions of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora. 2d ed. London: Continuum, 2004.
An excellent collection of essays looking at the question of ethnic identities in the diaspora and the effect this had on African identities in the Atlantic world, both in the New World and among those Africans who at times “returned” from the Americas to Africa.
Russell-Wood, A. J. R. The Black Man in Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 1982.
A pathfinding work in the study of the complexity of the African experience in Brazil, which was itself the destination of the largest African population in the Atlantic world. Based on huge archival research and deep knowledge of colonial Brazil, it conveys well the complexity of the subject.
Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
One of the earliest general works to focus on the agency of Africans in shaping Atlantic societies, written by a leading authority in the field. The work came specifically in response to the paradigm of dependency theory, which, the author contended, had occluded the active place of Africans in shaping Atlantic society.
Thornton, John K. A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250–1820. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
An overview that provides an extraordinary synthesis of almost 600 years of history, showing the relative importance of African contributions alongside those of other peoples in the shaping of Atlantic cultures. Shows well the plural nature of the cultures that emerged and the place of African social formations [use of structures unclear] and peoples in shaping them.
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