This article focuses on the historiography of abolition and antislavery. Abolitionism is an idea, articulated through language that emerged in the eighteenth century and propelled people to act. It ultimately changed the world. People came to believe that God had endowed all humans with the inalienable right to be free and that slavery was an intolerable evil that must be abolished. Most scholars agree with this basic definition of abolitionism. But they have long disagreed about its significance and the process by which the idea led to action and political change. The discussion covers the age of gradual abolitionism (1770s–1820s), gradual abolition in the British Caribbean and French Caribbean, the age of immediate abolitionism (1820s–1860s), the French abolition movement, and the road to civil war and emancipation in the United States.
Which of the major components of the Atlantic world — the Americas, Africa, and Europe — was most immediately affected by the integration of the Old and New Worlds that Columbian contact triggered? On epidemiological grounds alone the Americas would be the choice of most scholars, with Europe, at least prior to the eighteenth century, the least affected. In terms of dramatic economic, demographic, and social consequences of the early stages of Atlantic integration, Africa lies somewhere between the two. Yet if we shift the focus to changes in the nature and size of connections between the continents as opposed to changes within them, the most striking developments between the 1640s and the 1770s relate to Africa, not Europe or the Americas. The Slave Coast was a major supplier of slaves to transatlantic markets. West Central Africa, by far the largest supplier of slaves to the Americas, experienced two diasporas. Captives from the northern ports went to the colonies of northern Europeans, those from Luanda and Benguela in the south went to Brazil. By the end of the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the transatlantic slave trade was close to the highest level it was ever to attain.
Archaeology provides an interdisciplinary approach to the study of slavery that combines analyses of archaeological findings with careful readings of traditional primary sources of historiography. Excavations of sites where enslaved people once lived and worked yield residue of things produced, consumed, and discarded by the former occupants of these sites. This article discusses plantation spatial organization and the built environment of slavery; slave consumption, production, and exchange; religious expressions; slave resistance; and future directions in the archaeology of slavery.
Kenneth F. Kiple
This article reviews scholarship on the biology of African slaves. Mother Africa ensured that her sons and daughters could tolerate a disease environment sufficiently harsh that it served as a barrier to European outsiders for many centuries, keeping them confined to the coast and, save for some notable exceptions, away from the interior. Falciparum malaria and yellow fever, however, the chief ramparts in this barrier, did not remain confined to Africa. Rather, they reached the Americas with the Atlantic slave trade to rage among non-immune white and red people alike. But they largely spared blacks who were relatively resistant to these African illnesses, as well as to the bulk of those Eurasian diseases whose ravages were mostly directed at indigenous peoples. The sum of these pathogenic susceptibilities and immunities added up to the elimination of the latter (and white indentured servants) as contenders for tropical plantation labourers, and placed that onus squarely on the shoulders of the Africans. Yet, such a nomination in an age of rationalism bore with it the notion that black people, because of their ability to resist fevers, were sufficiently different biologically from Europeans as to constitute a separate branch of humankind and a lower one at that.
Robert W. Slenes
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in Brazil. Brazil possessed a more varied slave economy with a much larger sector producing for the internal market than scholars had previously thought. The already large slave population of Minas Gerais increased dramatically from 168,543 in 1819 to 381,893 in 1872. Minas Gerais consisted of an intricate mercantile system based on slave labour that not only supplied foreign markets with hides, tobacco, and the products of a revived mining and incipient coffee sector, but also satisfied the domestic demand of Minas and of the rapidly growing Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo plantation complex for cheese, hogs, cattle, and homespun cotton cloth. An elite group of merchants in the ports — often descendants of representatives of Portuguese mercantile houses who had married into large landowning and slaveholding families — came to dominate Brazil's trade with Africa as well as its coastal commerce.
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in the British West Indies and Bermuda. The British West Indies differed from other places colonized by the British in the Americas in the rapidity by which slavery became central to the workings of society. In this process, Barbadosstands stood out both for the qualitative leap taken by entrepreneurial Barbadian sugar planters in integrating the factors of production — Barbadian land, African slaves, and London Capital — into an impressively efficient operation under a single owner and for the influence of Barbados's slave society on English and non-English colonies. In Bermuda, the charter generation of Africans, possibly from West-Central Africa, arrived early (by 1620, the island had around 100 African slaves) and lasted for several generations. Bermuda tried — and for a time succeeded — in establishing an economy based on tobacco, but this tiny archipelago, one-eighth the size of Barbados, never made the transition to a mature plantation society. Without a plantation generation to overwhelm them, however, Bermudian slaves were quintessential Atlantic creoles, often attaining a measure of independence denied to slaves elsewhere in a fluid society where slavery closely resembled indentured servitude.
Jonathan Daniel Wells
This article reviews scholarship on class and slavery. The evolution of the historiography on class and slavery is complex, and historians have only recently begun to revisit some of their basic assumptions about class formation, class ideology, and the social structure of the Old South more broadly. New studies raise questions about the ways in which human bondage and class intertwined in slave societies, particularly the American South, and have initiated a discernible shift in the field. While scholars profitably continue to study the plantation and the lives of masters and slaves, many historians now call for a wider view of southern society to take account of life in the region outside the plantation, and the various ways in which different classes of whites interacted with, and were shaped by, the institution of slavery. It is with these new calls that the subject of class is enjoying resurgence.
Daniel C. Littlefield
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in colonial and revolutionary United States. Slavery was a southern American institution associated primarily with cotton and a divinely ordained labour force of blacks. Southerners in the Chesapeake might realize that slaves once produced tobacco, and in low-country South Carolina and Georgia that they once grew rice, and in southern Louisiana that they once raised sugar cane, but most people, when they thought about slavery at all, thought about the growing of cotton and reckoned that an African workforce required no explanation. Few knew that at one time slavery lived in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, that it had been vibrant in New York and Pennsylvania, and that slaves still worked in New Jersey in 1860. Even in the South, where the presence of a significant African-American population made the heritage of slavery undeniable and people generally recognized the meaning of that fact, most understood neither slavery's age nor its origins.
Enrico Dal Lago
This article first briefly reviews the historiography of comparative slavery, so as to identify the main trends and changes it went through. It then provides a summary of the state of the art of comparative studies in the three main historical periods in which slavery flourished in the Americas: the colonial period (sixteenth to late eighteenth centuries), the revolutionary period (roughly 1770–1820), and the nineteenth century. At the heart of the article are the different ways in which comparative perspectives have enhanced our understanding of the different historical phenomena — chief among them capitalism — associated with the rise and spread of the Atlantic slave system in the New World. A long debate is still in course on the definition of the relation between slavery and capitalism and on whether we can see this relation as an alternative route to modernity followed by the slave societies in the Americas, especially the Old South. The comparative perspective helps by showing that capitalist and precapitalist elements were present in different degrees in all the areas characterized by slave labour and that it was this coexistence of different elements that provided New World slavery with features that make it comparable to systems of both free and unfree labour in other parts of the world.
Matt D. Childs and Manuel Barcia
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in Cuba. In the sixteenth-century, Africans crossed the Atlantic and accompanied Diego Velésquez and other Spanish conquistadors in the first expeditions sent to subjugate Cuba. Africans served in post-conquest Cuba as enslaved assistants to powerful military and political officials or as domestic servants. During the nineteenth-century heyday of plantation slavery, Cuban social and political life centred on the master-slave relation. Foreign capital and foreign political pressure — British abolitionism and United States annexationism, for example — began to shape Cuban slavery beyond the contours of Spanish colonialism alone. The transatlantic slave trade lasted longer to Cuba than to any other New World slave society with final abolition coming only in 1867.