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.