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.
Richard H. Steckel
This article discusses the demographic history of slavery. It covers the origins of African slavery, dimensions of the African slave trade, distribution of the slave population in 1825, health and mortality of slave populations, plantation conditions in the United States and in the sugar colonies, and fertility.
Henk den Heijer
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in the Dutch Caribbean. The history of the Dutch slave trade and slavery started a new phase with the Dutch West India Company's (WIC) seizure of Curaçao from the Spanish in 1634. Strategically located north of Venezuela and possessed of a superb deep-water port at Willemstad, the island would develop in little more than a decade into an important transit port for slaves destined for sale in the Spanish colonies. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century, Dutch interlopers from West Africa supplied most of the slaves offered for sale in the island of St Eustatius. Between 1719 and 1727 the WIC organized the island into an open slave market. The recent historiography of Dutch slavery has also dissolved crusted stereotypes of slave docility by detailing a range of ways, from passive resistance to open rebellion, that slaves countered dehumanization and altered the terms of their bondage.
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in the early republic and antebellum United States. During the colonial period, slavery was present in varying degrees throughout what would become the United States. In the wake of the American Revolution, however, slavery became the ‘peculiar institution’ of the South. In the North, where the slave population was small and less crucial to the functioning of the economy, states took the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality to their logical conclusion, each passing either an immediate or gradual emancipation law by 1804. Further south, especially in the Chesapeake, slavery was weakened as revolutionary-era runaways and manumissions depleted the slave population. Yet, with the fading of the revolution's egalitarian rhetoric and the invention of the cotton gin that made it possible to extract safely and efficiently the delicate fibres from short-staple cotton, the institution of slavery would not only persevere but become entrenched and expand across the southern United States. The antebellum decades witnessed the movement of slaves south and west with the advance of the cotton frontier.
This article examines issues of traditional concern to economic historians of slavery: the origins of and motivations/rationales for slavery; pattern and variation in the institution both across space and over time; questions relating to slavery's profitability; the developmental effects of slavery; and the reasons for its demise. The focus is on slavery in the Western hemisphere, and, only then, on slavery in societies established therein by European colonizers beginning in the late fifteenth century.
This article focuses on the historiography of emancipation in Latin America. Latin American independence was part of a widespread challenge to European colonialism in the Americas beginning in the late eighteenth century with the American Revolution. Historians now recognize that slavery and emancipation were central issues in the struggles over empire and independence. To understand how anti-colonial rebellions in the Iberian world undermined slavery and set the stage for emancipation, it is important to look at them in relation to the earlier wars of independence that transformed the British and the French Atlantic empires.
The aims of this article are twofold. First, it traces the broad contours of the historiography, examining the myriad ways in which scholars have come to incorporate the slave perspective in studies of slavery. Having established the general trajectory of this search through the 1970s, it examines the ways in which slaves' voices have led scholars to important insights in one particular area of study — the political, social, and economic implications of the slaves' internal economy.
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in the French Caribbean. Pierre d'Esnambuc, a Norman sailor, planted France's first Caribbean colony on the tiny Lesser Antillean island of St Christopher in 1625. The settlement contained several dozen slaves. Although Great Britain removed this French foothold at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), slavery expanded under French auspices, albeit in fits and starts, to other islands during the seventeenth century. Slavery peaked in the French Caribbean during the eighteenth century as French slave traders carried more than one million slaves to the Americas. Most slaves in the French Caribbean laboured on plantations and in other commercial enterprises.
Kirsten E. Wood
In the last three decades, gender has become an indispensable category of analysis in the study of slavery in the Americas, illuminating both the day-to-day lives of enslaved and enslaving peoples and ideas about race and slavery. While studying gender means much more than studying women, the literature on enslaved women is especially influential, in part because of gender analysis's origins in women's history and in part because of women's central importance in slavery: women and ideas about them shaped slavery from beginning to end. This article discusses the origins of slavery, the gendered division of slave labour, reproduction in slavery, sexuality, enslaved families, black femininity and masculinity, mastery and white gender identities, and politics.
Indian slavery was neither fleeting nor secondary to the story of colonialism, imperialism, and economic exploitation in the Americas. Persisting for centuries, it both pre-dated African slavery in the Americas, and survived African slavery's abolition in the United States. Not until the American government's five-year program to eradicate Indian slavery in Colorado and Utah after the American Civil War did slavery officially end, though it likely persisted in several areas of the American West. This article examines the contours of Indian slavery in the Americas, its evolution and character, the varieties of labour systems implemented to control Indian labour and lives, and the existence of Indian slave trades that paralleled African slave trades.
This article reviews scholarship on internal slave trades in the Americas. Intra-regional slave trades in the Americas have often left few records and have been little noticed by historians. In many cases, historians have probably ignored significant inter-regional trades that pre-dated the era of abolition. The internal slave trades that have been most researched are long-distance trades that operated under the critical attention of active abolitionist movements, and they are trades that flourished after the supply of slaves from Africa had terminated or been much restricted. The internal trade was most prominent in North America from 1807 (the abolition of the African trade) to 1865, in Brazil from 1850 (the ending of African importation) to 1888, and in the British Caribbean from 1807 (again the abolition of the African trade) to 1833.