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date: 30 May 2020

Slavery in the Americas

Abstract and Keywords

This article presents a general discussion of slavery in the Americas. Slavery in the Americas pre-dated Columbus, but once taking root in the Americas under western European auspices, acquired a predominantly commercial character whose benefaction to the sustained economic growth of the Western world no serious scholar can any longer doubt. The introduction of slavery into the New World affected indigenous peoples in many ways, sometimes drawing them into the orbit of slave society, sometimes alienating them from it, and sometimes augmenting a preexisting commitment to different types of slavery already practiced by some of those societies. The experiences of the enslaved also varied depending in factors such as the ethnic origins of the slave, the timing of his or her forced relocation to the Americas, the type and size of plantation, and the particular proclivities and personalities of the master and mistress.

Keywords: slavery, slaves, Americas, New World

Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb, the proslavery Georgian architect of the Confederate Constitution, and José Antonio Saco, the antislavery Cuban patriot, both reared and educated among slaves, stood almost alone among the intellectuals of the nineteenth century in combining sufficient interest, boldness, and erudition to undertake the daunting task of writing a serious global history of slavery. Although they ultimately reached different conclusions about the institution's morality, they concurred on the problem of its history. “A detailed and minute inquiry into the history of slavery,” Cobb observed in the preface to his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery (1858), would force the historian “to trace the history of every nation of the earth.” Slavery's beginnings, he suggested, date at least to Noah and the flood, and probably before. From that darkened moment in biblical time, slavery spread out across the habitable continents of the earth to become “more universal than marriage, and more permanent than liberty.”1 Like Cobb, Saco in his multi‐volume Historia de la esclavitud (1875–7) investigated slavery around the world “from the times most remote.” He examined not only bound and documentary sources, but also ancient sculptures, inscriptions, and monuments. “Nations, whether barbarous or civilized, great or small, powerful or weak, pacific or warlike, under the most diverse forms of government, professing the most antagonistic religions, and without distinction of climate and ages,” he concluded, “all have carried the poison of slavery in their womb.”2

(p. 4) At first blush, the thirty‐three essays that comprise The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas suggest that slavery ranged so ineffably wide across continents with such remarkable regional diversity that generalizations about the institution from a hemispheric or even global perspective might seem to obscure more than they reveal about the significance of slavery in a particular location. Slavery, wherever it existed, evolved with no predictable trajectory under dynamic pressure from a complex battery of internal and external forces. They stamped each New World slaveholding society with a distinctive profile so that, for example, the countenance of slavery in Brazil, the country that imported African slaves in numbers that approached half of the total, was, in any number of important ways, quite different from that in the United States, the Dutch Caribbean, or the slaveholding societies established and fostered by the French and the Spanish.

Slavery in the Americas pre‐dated Columbus, but once taking root in the Americas under western European auspices, acquired a predominantly commercial character whose benefaction to the sustained economic growth of the Western world no serious scholar can any longer doubt. Some regions began—Britain's colonies on the North American mainland, for example—as societies with slaves. Slavery there existed as one particularly extreme, ignominious form of dependency in a continuum of others. In other regions or countries slavery quickly developed into the cornerstone of the economy and the very essence of social life, as it did in northeastern Brazil by the end of the sixteenth century or in Barbados by the mid‐seventeenth century. Colonial Cuba remained a society with slaves for several centuries after the Spanish conquest. But with the boom in coffee and sugar production during the first half of the nineteenth century, the island became one of the hemisphere's most conspicuous slave societies and one of the world's wealthiest colonies, importing more African slaves in a fifty‐year period than did the United States during its entire colonial and national history.3

If, as the classicist Moses Finley and the sociologist Orlando Patterson would have it, the proper cross‐cultural definition of slavery connotes the idea of social death, then slaves throughout the world have struggled at ground level to redeem themselves from non‐humanity or chattelhood through persistent artifice.4 They married, forged families, worshiped together, staged funerals, engaged in market activity, and initiated legal actions in courts. In the process slaves also differentiated among themselves: by status, occupation, ethnicity, gender, and color. In the Americas, slave revolts, gestures toward manumission, important demographic shifts in the ratio of female to male slaves, and the reconfiguring of slavery from a patriarchal institution with the emphasis on brute force to a paternalistic one that sought to translate power into authority changed the shape, flavor, and meaning of slavery not only to the enslaved and their masters, but to nonslaveholders as well. The definition of slavery also proved mildly plastic. Laws, whether constructed from the ground up by a ruling class of masters or imposed from the top down by nonslaveholding metropolitan officials, reiterated and reconfigured slavery (p. 5) throughout the New World. At different times and in some places slavery was indexed to “race”; at other times, genealogy furnished the proper metric. Even the common tendency to enslave “outsiders” proved subject to compromise when those deemed to be “natural” slaves began to share, especially in maturing slave societies, some of the values and cultural norms of their masters.5

If slavery itself were a highly variable and differentiated condition, so too were the many institutions and classes to which it gave rise. The introduction of slavery into the New World affected indigenous peoples in many ways, sometimes drawing them into the orbit of slave society, sometimes alienating them from it, and sometimes augmenting a preexisting commitment to different types of slavery already practiced by some of those societies. On the one hand, Tapuya auxiliaries in seventeenth‐century Brazil helped Portuguese forces after decades of struggle put an end to Palmares, the largest community of runaway slaves in the history of the hemisphere. In 1811 Tunica trackers helped French‐speaking planters above New Orleans hunt down the routed remnants of the largest slave insurrection in United States history. On the other hand, in 1729 African slaves joined the Natchez in attempting to cleanse lower Louisiana of French colonists. During the Second Seminole War (1835–42) Creeks and runaway slaves fought together against US troops in the swampland of central Florida.

Free people of color inhabited slaveholding societies in different proportions, the result largely of varying rates of manumission and natural increase. Like indigenous peoples, they tended to live in studied ambiguity, sometimes acting as agents of slave liberation, sometimes acting as agents of slave repression, and sometimes acting as both depending on the time of day and perceived changes in the balance of forces. Slavery affected nonslaveholding whites, most often the numerical majority in New World slave societies, in ways not always predictable by phenotype. Some remained peripheral to the cultural imperatives of the institution but benefited from the economic system to which it gave rise; others, such as the aspirant yeomen farmers of the antebellum southern United States, frequently joined the ranks of the slaveholding class even as they remained skeptical and critical of many of the master class's political initiatives and cultural pretensions. With the prices for slaves rising and the percentage of slaveholders declining in the South in the 1850s, nonslaveholding farmers in Mississippi figured prominently in the movement to reopen the Atlantic slave trade. Rural poor whites known as monteros or guajiros in Cuba hunted down runaway slaves for big planters and mustered as an irregular cavalry after outbreaks of slave insurrection. Although sometimes politically independent of slaveholders, nonslaveowning whites lived in societies where slaveholding was the norm, where owning slaves was considered desirable and empowering, and where the general desirability for social order and hierarchy was seemingly preserved by making white men, slaveholding or no, the arbiters of power.

(p. 6) As several of the essays presented in this collection point out, slavery gave rise to classes that looked rather conventional within modernizing, industrializing societies. Slavery did not, for example, prove incompatible with the emergence of a small, often urban, middle class; nor did it preclude the existence of a class of poor whites who had, in material terms, a standard of living more in common with that of enslaved field‐hands than with that of slaveholding planters. How these multiple classes functioned, how they accommodated to and challenged the prevailing cultural and political authority of the masters, also varied but, in most instances, the cultural, economic, and political sway of slavery proved sufficiently strong to prevent the emergence of class consciousness and conflict. The ideology and general authority of the master class as well as the heavy emphasis on racialized slavery tended to preclude the sort of class consciousness among the dispossessed and the middle class that was beginning to emerge in nineteenth‐century nations that had abandoned bondage in favor of various forms of free or wage labor, the defining feature, according to various proslavery and antislavery thinkers, of capitalism itself.

Master classes also varied. Brazil and the United States typically produced resident masters; the French and British Caribbean had high rates of master absenteeism. Cuban masters tended to sojourn on their rural estates, preferring residence in a townhouse. Those looking for a full‐blown formal defense of slavery in the eighteenth‐century will find it largely absent, courtesy of a general agreement among elites of all persuasions in a patriarchal age, that organic social relations and hierarchy structured all good societies. During and after the Enlightenment masters throughout the hemisphere found common ground in targeting Rousseau as a primary source of all manner of things profane and radical to established hierarchies. Beginning mainly in the early nineteenth century slaveholding elites in the Americas began to articulate a more systematic and thoroughgoing defense of the institution, principally in response to an emerging modernist critique that conjoined religious and secular ideas. United States slaveholders who congealed as a class with formal political power in that great experiment in republican government developed the most sophisticated proslavery argument by arguing in a way that transcended race that slavery was the proper relation between capital and labor. The intellectual premises of the proslavery defense varied, however, and elaborated in tension with each other. Scattershot sociological and scriptural defenses frequently collided, and defenses of bondage grounded in the precepts of political economy seemed far removed from the biological defenses of race‐based enslavement pushed by a rising tide of nineteenth‐century ethnologists and natural scientists. Although lawless filibustering activities like those of William Walker in Nicaragua drew sharp criticism in the antebellum South itself, only antebellum southern slaveholders embarked in conspicuous numbers on a civilizing mission to the tropics by attempting to regenerate allegedly inferior others through enslavement.6

(p. 7) The experiences of the enslaved throughout the Americas also depended on a rich assortment of particulars in any given place: the ethnic origins of the slave, the timing of his or her forced relocation to the Americas, the type and size of plantation, the particular proclivities and personalities of the master and mistress, the age of the slave, the region and sub‐region where they lived, type of crop produced, climate, stage of economic development, demographics, gender, disease, and locus of political power to list a few of the more obvious variables in the formula. As many of the essays in The Oxford Handbook make clear, such forces decisively shaped the lived experience of slaves and influenced how they managed their lives in a tension‐filled, conflict‐ridden dialectic of resistance and accommodation. For some slaves, whether they lived in Canada, Chile, or somewhere in between, life resembled Thomas Hobbes's famous description of the natural condition of mankind: a state of “continuall feare and danger of violent death,” where “the life of the man [is] solitary, poore, short, nasty, and brutish,” as, indeed, was also the case—as proslavery advocates were quick to point out—for many of the working poor in ostensibly free and industrializing societies.7 For other slaves, happenstance, skin color and tone, and a variety of other factors enabled them to carve out slightly better lives. Some even became slaveholders themselves and bought bondspeople either by way of introducing them to a nominal form of slavery or for reasons very similar to the master class. The French colony of Saint‐Domingue, for example, gave rise to one of the most powerful classes of free colored slaveholders in the Americas, and in the South Province, before the outbreak in 1791 of a rebellion that would become a revolution, mulatto slaveholders may have outnumbered white slaveholders.8

Yet with all the variegating factors shaping slavery, slaveholding societies in the hemisphere held a good deal in common. The idea that both practice and theory interwove human bondage together inextricably with freedom prevailed among slaveholders from Buenos Aires to Boston. The wedding of slavery and freedom had an ancient genealogy in Western civilization. Slavery in various forms flourished throughout antiquity and in no way compromised the idea of social freedom. Nor was Edmund Burke the first Western thinker to conceive that slaveholders regarded freedom more preciously than other men, that “a vast multitude of slaves” made “the spirit of liberty still more high and haughty” in Virginia than in Massachusetts.9 One need only look at Justinian's Digest of Roman Law and the citations of, say, Gaius, Florentinus, or Marcian on human status to appreciate the extent to which in Western culture the ideas of slavery and freedom proved mutually constitutive.10 Only members of antiquity's “fringe” groups, like the “occasional eccentric Stoic,” called into question slavery as a viable and, indeed, necessary and desirable institution. “It is no accident,” Orlando Patterson has explained, that the “first and greatest mass democracies of the ancient and modern worlds” were ancient Athens and eighteenth‐century America, both nourishing a “profound commitment of both cultures to the inspired principle of participative (p. 8) politics” from the soil of slavery. Political freedom, then, could and did demand the existence of bondage.11

The experience of the enslaved throughout the Americas suggests the intricacy of the relationship between bondage and freedom. More than ten million slaves arrived in the Americas through such major slave trading ports as Cartagena (New Granada), Salvador (Brazil), Cap Français (Saint‐Domingue), Bridgetown (Barbados), Havana (Cuba), Kingston (Jamaica), and Charleston (South Carolina). These and other towns and cities exported a wide variety of profitable plantation staples: sugar, rice, coffee, hemp, cotton, tobacco, cacao, and indigo. But these very urban areas so dependent on plantation slavery tended to muddle it by granting the enslaved room for maneuver. They enhanced opportunities to earn money, acquire property, obtain manumission, communicate with friends and patrons, and plug into information from the outside world. Although masters and government officials were prone to exaggerate the dangers posed by urban environments to slavery, slaves from Spanish‐controlled Buenos Aires to French‐controlled New Orleans to English‐controlled Richmond gambled, fought, conspired, engaged in illicit as well and licit economic trade, cultivated distinctive forms of cultural expression, consorted with free blacks and poor whites, and used the relative anonymity of the city to press their bounds and “normalize” their claims to quasi‐independence. Although authorities fought back, the peculiar economic and social structure of cities animated the tension between slavery and freedom and, indeed, fostered ambiguity in the conditions of bondage.12

Even as racial slavery was being consolidated in the Americas and increasingly underwritten by slave codes in maturing slave societies, slaves found ways to carve out degrees of freedom from their bondage by working the system, by negotiation, and, on occasion, by violence. As slaves attained a degree of autonomy, they gathered, met, paraded, and achieved a public presence. Slave assemblages and mobilizations, always a concern for slaveholders, continued despite harsh laws designed to restrict them. Legal and statutory efforts to control the behavior of the enslaved were only partially effective and did not foreclose the creation of new patterns of African‐American culture as generations passed.13 Crackdowns and repression rolled back gains at any given moment. But enforcement of the laws had seasonal temperatures, and slaves took advantage of lax times and issued renewed challenges in the fields, in fraternal organizations, in places of worship, and in the marketplace to the masters' visions of plantation political economy and social order. To be sure, masters got much of what they wanted, but a good deal less than the abstract, absolutist dominion of their dreams. Although “a degree of order was obtained” it was necessarily fragile because “the culture of power rested uneasily upon a continuous dialectical process of contention and concession” between master and slave.14 Slaves' involvement with market transactions, for example, their ability to sell crops they had grown and circulate goods they had acquired, enabled them to garner a degree of autonomy that was, theoretically at least, (p. 9) inconsistent with the practice of bondage. Slaves' participation in the market was empowering and exposed the dependency masters had developed on slave labor.

Slave resistance took many forms, passive and active, and bloody insurrections occasionally broke the surface calm, exposing swirling undercurrents of unrest and discontent for all to see. Masters, however, did not usually discern what they saw, and blamed outside agitators for an uprising that was home‐grown in the shadows. From one point of view, the whole question of why slaves rebelled, as the Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker declared a half century ago in a classic study of slave revolts in the United States, has a rather simple, blunt answer: slavery. “The fundamental factor provoking rebellion against slavery was the social system itself, the degradation, exploitation, oppression, and brutality which it created, and with which, indeed it was synonymous.”15

Since the publication of Aptheker's book painstaking research configured by imaginative minds has deepened and broadened the debates about slave resistance in the Americas and the nature of the master–slave relation. Specialists have identified conditions that favored slave revolts; they have discovered the importance of rumor and shifting troop movements in precipitating them; they have illuminated the broad array of tools at the master's disposal to enforce the terms of bondage; they have distinguished between ethnic revolts of African slaves and those dominated by creole slaves; they have examined the problems of rebellious slave leaders in recruiting and mobilizing followers and coordinating their movements; they have probed the role of ritual and religion in binding rebels into collective solidarity; they have noted the timing of slave revolts to take advantage of darkness and heightened moments of white distraction; they have explored the slaves' weapons and modes of warfare; they have scrutinized the identity of rebellious slaves, soldiers, and chieftains, to account for origin, occupation, ethnicity, status, gender, and color; and they have speculated about the goals of the insurgents (since most slave plots were betrayed or preempted and most slave insurrections were crushed within a day or two of their outbreak, scholars have had to speculate).16

By definition, slaves lived tenuous, vulnerable lives. Sometimes they did what they wanted to do; most of the time they did what they had to do. Although Plato's ideal slave eluded masters like the will‐o'‐the‐wisp, they did wield a monopoly of force that when applied on a plantation in a closely managed, tightly supervised system of gang labor typically yielded a handsome return on investment. Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations delighted subsequent generations of antislavery advocates by pronouncing the labor of slaves to be “the dearest of any,” a costly relation rooted in the “pride of man” and his “love to domineer.” But in a neglected passage in the very same section on agriculture Smith also observed without a trace of explanation that profits on British West Indian slave‐based sugar plantations were “generally much greater than those of any other cultivation that is known either in Europe or America.”17 That said, the slaves' accommodation to gang labor or any other imposition by the master neither implies acceptance of slavery nor denies (p. 10) resistance to it. That privileged slaves—drivers, artisans, preachers, domestics—led many of the largest slave insurrections in the history of the Americas speaks to the point.

Insurrections in the United States or what became the United States broke out less frequently and with a generally lesser magnitude than those in Brazil, Cuba, or Jamaica. But insurrections anywhere revealed powerfully the tension between freedom and order and the universality of resistance to enslavement. In colonial South Carolina, for example, the Stono Rebellion, the largest slave revolt in the history of the colonial British North American mainland, erupted in a slave society burgeoning under the impetus of rice cultivation. The revolt involved up to one hundred slaves, some of whom had already converted to a syncretic form of Kongolese Catholicism years before their enslavement in West‐Central Africa. Inspired by a thirst for religious and social freedom, the rebels attempted to reach St Augustine, in slaveholding Spanish Florida, and claim freedom under a welcoming decree, designed to undermine foreign rivals, from Spanish officials. Although unsuccessful, the Stono rebels nevertheless highlighted the determination of the enslaved to enjoy a particularist kind of liberty, the freedom from forced labor that they experienced on a daily basis in South Carolina.18

Resistance to slavery as a social system, a historically specific phenomenon, registered a qualitative leap, a crossing of a threshold, in the patterns of slave resistance. However much particularistic grievances mobilized the mass of Saint‐Domingue's slaves, African and creole, to pick up the sword against their masters in the colony's sugar heartland during the summer of 1791, the revolution that created Haiti, a modern black nation‐state, bore witness to an age of democratic revolution. Inflammatory ideas about the universal rights of Man circulated in transatlantic trading networks like combustible freight. In this “age of possibilism,” to borrow the historian Robert Darnton's telling term for this period, the adoption by a former slave like Toussaint Louverture of the word “citizen” to prefix his name or the use by one of his literate lieutenants of stationery embossed with the words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” spoke not just to resistance to enslavement, a fact of life wherever slavery existed, but to a historically specific crusade against the system of slavery itself: something wrong for anyone, anywhere.19

Supporters of plantation slavery, on their part, persistently argued in their defense that some of the most impressive civilizations of the past, notably Greece and Rome, had rested on mass enslavement. Glimmers of the positive‐good argument could be seen in the eighteenth‐century transatlantic world, decades before antebellum southern thinkers in the United States articulated a full‐blown proslavery argument. Slaveholders throughout the Americas could draw on ample pre‐nineteenth‐century Western precedent.20 “The idea that there is something wrong with [slavery],” observes Orlando Patterson, “is one of the peculiar products of Enlightenment rationalism.”21 But the specific nature of the tension between bondage and freedom has challenged the best historical minds. Christianity (p. 11) remained largely indifferent to slavery for nearly two millennia or at best had a modest ameliorating influence. Why beginning in the eighteenth century did certain evangelical Protestant denominations rise to fore and begin to understand the institution as not just an evil but a sin? How did religious influences conjoin with Enlightenment rationalism and other secular modes of thinking to animate deadly criticism of such an ancient and pervasive institution? Why was slavery evermore an affront to liberty, progress, democracy, and civilization?

The Quakers deserve pride of place as the first religious denomination to come out systematically against the institution. The seeds of abolitionist immediatism, like the seeds of the positive‐good proslavery argument, began to germinate long before the United States Civil War. Wrestling with the problem of slavery in a letter to other Friends in 1767, a rather nondescript Pennsylvania Quaker named Thomas Nicholson nicely encapsulated for posterity four lines of attack that would be exploited under changing political circumstances with different emphases by future generations of emancipationists throughout the Americas: First, Nicholson believed that the slave trade and slavery were “wicked and abominable” practices “contrary to the natural Rights and Privileges of all mankind, and against the Golden Rule of doing to others as we would be done unto.” Second, the relation itself, full of “evils and difficulties,” functioned to corrupt the master, nurturing in him “pride, Idleness and a Lording Spirit over our Fellow Creatures” that could easily augment with any provocation into brutalization of the slave. Third, since many acts of enslavement originated in violence—war, kidnapping, brigandage, and the like—slavery appeared to Nicholson to contradict Quaker principles of pacifism and benevolence toward their fellow men. Robbing fellow human beings of “their own free will and Consent” would naturally lead slaves to rise and rebellion, forcing Quakers to violate their own faith in acting to subdue them or in helping others to do so. Fourth, since enslavement by its very nature breeds discontent and resistance to bondage, it impedes the slaves' own salvation; degraded and unhappy slaves do not easily admit “the Principles of true Religion, Piety and Virtue.”22

Several intellectuals, including Montesquieu, Francis Hutcheson, and especially Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), popularized the idea that benevolence and capitalism promoted “sympathy” among distant strangers and, in turn, rendered the idea that slavery and freedom were incompatible. Christian religion, especially its Protestant variant, alerted some intellectuals to the tension between slavery, morality, and emerging notions of individual liberty.23 But the triumph of the emancipation was by no means certain. Slavery and unfree labor, whether in the Americas or around the world, looked by 1800 and after to most observers as very much part and parcel of the human condition, something that had always existed and always would exist. Britain—itself home to some of the most articulate and strident opponents of slavery—did not begin its emancipation project until the 1830s. By the mid‐nineteenth century slavery was still (p. 12) economically robust in places like Peru's Chicama Valley and other agricultural zones scattered about South America. Cuba's slave‐based sugar boom continued apace, generating a demand annually for thousands of illegally imported African slaves. Southeastern Brazil was receiving African slaves in record numbers to satisfy the demand for labor on coffee plantations. At least some proslavery southerners in the United States were contemplating reopening the Atlantic slave trade and restoring slavery in certain tropical areas where it had been abolished. Serfdom and various forms of bonded labor abounded in nineteenth‐century Europe.24

Analysis of emancipation must proceed at several levels. At one level, slaveholding countries traveled different roads to achieve a common end: A slave revolution ended slavery in Saint‐Domingue; bloody sectional warfare at the cost of more than 600,000 lives brought slavery to an end in the United States; slavery unraveled in Cuba in the context of a lengthy anti‐colonial rebellion against Spanish rule; Great Britain legislated emancipation in its colonies gradually and with compensation to slave owners; France's slaveholding colonies had two emancipations legislated from the metropolis, one in 1794 and one in 1848. At another level, the ending of slavery everywhere in the Americas represented a seismic shift in moral sensibility. If, as T. S. Eliot maintained, “The culture of a people [is] an incarnation of its religion,” then the point bears repeating that over millennia all of the world's great religions had given slavery authoritative sanction.25 By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a momentous breakthrough had occurred in the West. Preachers began preaching the sinfulness of slavery. Political commentators increasingly spoke of freedom as a natural right of man. Economic thinkers labeled slavery inferior to wage labor. Nationalists proclaimed slavery a barbarism and an impediment to human progress and greatness as a civilization. Few scholars now believe that slavery died a market death anywhere in the Americas. Slavery remained a profitable investment at the time it was abolished regardless of country. Thus, the more sophisticated scholarship on emancipation has focused on the interplay of economics, morality, politics, and ideology in explaining why the slave trade and slavery ended in the Americas.26

In the United States, some of the most clearly articulated positions on the relationship between liberty and bondage derived from those who formally supported slavery as well as from those who formally did not, and both groups began framing the intellectual coordinates of their argument in the eighteenth century. Eighteenth‐century opponents of slavery and their antebellum abolitionist heirs were a diverse group, to be sure. Some were convinced of innate black biological inferiority and championed black “freedom” by advocating their colonization outside of the United States. Others, especially in the antebellum period, embraced a more racially egalitarian philosophy and lobbied for the immediate and unequivocal emancipation of American slaves. Some objected to slavery on moral grounds, some in the context of Enlightenment ideals promoting the importance of individual liberty, still others, especially during and after the 1840s, on the grounds that (p. 13) slavery was economically deleterious to the economic welfare of the United States. But whatever their differences, they tended to agree that slavery was regressive and archaic and should be ended.27 Slavery did, of course, end in the United States in 1865 thanks to the first of the constitutional amendments passed after the northern triumph in the Civil War. Masters in Cuba and Brazil looking on had no intention of fighting a death struggle for the institution but wanted essentially an ordered, gradual, compensated process that at the end of the day would guarantee a cheap and reliable labor force in a coercive form other than slavery.

During the last four decades or so, the profession of history has witnessed a remarkable outpouring of scholarship on slavery, remarkable not only in quantity but in quality. The field brims with distinguished practitioners, boasts some of the world's best‐known historians, and continues to attract some of the most talented younger scholars working today. A glance at award‐winning books reflects both the deep pedigree of the field and its continued esteem. By our count, since 1976, sixteen books dealing with some aspect of slavery and freedom in the New World have won the Bancroft Prize. Eight books on the topic have won the Pulitzer Prize for History in the same period. The essays that comprise The Oxford Handbook of Slavery in the Americas reflect the enduring importance of the topic and offer various blueprints for its future elaboration. We hope the Handbook will serve as a source consulted by the next generation of historians working on the history of slavery and by teachers who must deal in their classrooms with a complex subject that has a painful legacy and defies easy generalization.

In initiating the project, we handed our contributors an impossible assignment: In about 8,000 words describe in the richest possible terms the key historical and historiographical issues related to the assigned topic with an eye also to playing Sherpa in the field by guiding readers to fruitful areas of future inquiry. In their essays, some contributors leaned more toward the historiographical; other contributors leaned more toward the historical. While each topic has its riches, not all historical and historiographical traditions have equal wealth. Instead of imposing a rigid set of guidelines on our contributors, we preferred to allow their creative juices to flow. In an effort to reflect the scope, depth, breadth, and trajectory of old and new work on slavery in the Americas, we have divided the Handbook into two parts with an epilogue: Part I focuses on slavery in specific locations. Part II focuses on themes, methods, and sources in the study of slavery. The epilogue looks at the aftermath of slavery and its legacy in a number of post‐emancipation societies.28

We have enlisted some of the most distinguished historians in the field and attracted some of the best young talent to write the essays. While obviously and necessarily indebted to the foundational works of the 1960s and 1970s, current writing on the history of slavery and forms of unfree labor in the Americas has taken decidedly original, new, often ingenious turns. The Handbook seeks to explain the enduring importance of the earlier historiography, identify current trends and developments, and offer suggestive but informed commentary on (p. 14) future developments in the field. A younger generation of scholars has shown a healthy respect for that tradition while also posing new, often interdisciplinary, and theoretically informed questions concerning, for example, the nature and definition of slave resistance throughout the New World, evolving meanings of gender and race under slavery, the complicated nature of class formation in unfree societies, the elaboration of proslavery and antislavery ideologies, the origins and subsequent elaboration of race‐based slavery, and mechanisms of emancipation, to identify just a few key developments. In other words, each essay and author, in his or her own way and with varying degrees of emphasis, attempts to trace the historiographical genealogy of their subject while, at the same time, remaining sensitive to the preeminent importance of historical context.

In scope, scale, and organization, the Handbook attempts to detail sensitively with historiographical trends and to map out future trajectories within the pages of a single (if large) volume. We make no claim to utter comprehensiveness. Like Thomas R. R. Cobb and José Antonio Saco, we find any attempt to write the American side of the story, much less the global history of slavery, humbling. But we believe that the Handbook offers good coverage and thoroughness and will contribute to further advances in the field.


(1.) Thomas R. R. Cobb, An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America. To Which Is Prefixed, An Historical Sketch of Slavery (Philadelphia, 1858), pp. xxxv–xxxvi.

(2.) José Antonio Saco, Historia de la esclavitud desde los tiempos más remotos hasta nuestros días, 6 vols. (2nd edn. Havana, 1936–45), i. 5–6 (Paquette's translation). The first three volumes of the first edition were published in Paris from 1875 to 1877.

(3.) The comparative calculations and many others can be readily performed by consulting “The Trans‐Atlantic Slave Trade Database,” put together over the last several decades by a team of specialists headed by David Eltis of Emory University.

(4.) Finley and Patterson, in a sense, are probably the most notable twentieth‐century heirs of the global project undertaken by Cobb and Saco. See, for example, M. I. Finley, “Slavery,” in David L. Sills (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 17 vols. (New York, 1968), xiv. 307–13; M. I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (New York, 1980); Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, 1982); Orlando Patterson, Freedom, i: Freedom in the Making of Western Culture(New York, 1991).

(5.) For a thick compendium of primary and secondary sources that provide insight into these questions from a hemispheric and global perspective, see Stanley Engerman, Seymour Drescher, and Robert Paquette (eds.), Slavery (Oxford, 2001).

(6.) On the mixed opinion about filibustering in the pre‐Civil War South, see Elizabeth Fox‐Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, Slavery in White and Black: Class and Race in the Southern Slaveholders' New World Order (Cambridge, 2005), 221–3; and William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion, ii: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854–1861 (New York, 2007), 145–67.

(7.) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common‐wealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (London, 1651), 95.

(8.) Philip Curtin makes this point in The Rise and Fall of the Plantation Complex: Essays in Atlantic History (Cambridge, 1990), 160. During the slave revolution, mulatto and white slaveholders in battling each other made the mistake of arming their slaves.

(9.) Edmund Burke, Burke's Speech on Conciliation with America, ed. Hammond Lamont (Boston, 1897), 22.

(10.) The Digest of Justinian, ed. Theodor Mommsen, Paul Krueger, and Alan Watson, 4 vols. (Philadelphia, 1985), i. 16.

(11.) Patterson, Freedom, 321, 405.

(12.) The literature on urban slavery and American port cities within the transatlantic plantation complex is large and growing. See, e.g., Frederick P. Bowser, The African Slave in Colonial Peru, 1524–1560 (Stanford, Calif., 1974); Thomas N. Ingersoll, Mammon and Manon in Early New Orleans: The First Slave Society in the Deep South (Knoxville, Tenn., 1999); Claudia D. Goldin, Urban Slavery in the American South (Chicago, 1976); Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820–1860 (New York, 1964); Mary Karasch, Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1850 (Princeton, 1987); Franklin W. Knight and Peggy Liss (eds.), Atlantic Port Cities: Economy, Culture, and Society in the Atlantic World, 1650–1850 (Knoxville, Tenn., 1991); Anne Pérotin‐Dumon, La Ville aux Iles, la ville dans l'île: Basse‐Terre et Pointe‐à‐Pitre, Guadeloupe, 1650–1820 (Paris, 2000).

(13.) Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, 1998), 60–1, 369–70. For ethnic backgrounds of American slaves, see Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas (Chapel Hill, NC, 2005); Linda M. Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (New York, 2007). For evidence suggesting that new, albeit highly attenuated, cultural relationships were formed among a variety of Africans from quite different societies even on slave ships and during the Middle Passage, see Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, 2007); Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York, 2007).

(14.) Robert Olwell, Masters, Slaves & Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790 (Ithaca, NY, 1998), 13.

(15.) Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1943), 139.

(16.) Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro‐American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge, La., 1979) remains the only volume analyzing slave plots and insurrections in the Americas within a comparative framework. See also Robert L. Paquette, “Revolts,” in Seymour Drescher and Stanley L. Engerman (eds.), A Historical Guide to World Slavery (New York, 1998), 334–44.

(17.) Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 2 vols. (London, 1776), i. 471–2.

(18.) Mark M. Smith, “Remembering Mary, Shaping Revolt: Reconsidering the Stono Rebellion,” Journal of Southern History, 67 (3) (August 2001): 513–34;John K. Thornton, “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion,” American Historical Review, 96 (4) (October 1991): 1101–13;Darold D. Wax, “‘The Great Risque We Run’: The Aftermath of Slave Rebellion at Stono, South Carolina, 1739–1745,” Journal of Negro History, 67 (2) (Summer 1982): 136–47; Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York, 1975).

(19.) Genovese argues for the Saint‐Domingue Revolution as “The Turning Point,” in chapter 3 of From Rebellion to Revolution, 82–125. David Patrick Geggus has extended the discussion in a number of articles and anthologies. See, e.g., David Barry Gaspar and David Patrick Geggus (eds.), A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean (Bloomington, Ind., 1997); David Patrick Geggus (ed.), The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (Columbia, SC, 2001); David Patrick Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington, Ind., 2002); David Patrick Geggus and Norman Fiering (eds.), The World of the Haitian Revolution (Bloomington, Ind., 2009). See also Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, 2004), which is now the best single‐volume treatment in English of the revolution. On the age of “possibilism,” see Robert Darnton, “What Was So Revolutionary about the French Revolution,” New York Review of Books, January 19, 1989, p. 10.

(20.) Larry E. Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America 1701–1840 (Athens, Ga., 1987). For a study that stresses the continued economic importance of race‐consciousness and slavery to New England, see Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation in New England 1780–1860 (Ithaca, NY, 1998). For a reminder as to the meaning of Western precedent in early encounters with African slaves in colonial Spanish America, see Alonso de Sandoval De instauranda aethiopum salute: historia de Aethiopia: naturaleça, policia sagrada y profana, costumbres, ritos y cathecismo evangelico de todos les aethiopes (Madrid, 1647), a must read, especially now that Enriqueta Vila Vilar has ably edited a new Spanish edition Un tratado sobre la esclavitud (Madrid, 1987). Sandoval, a Jesuit priest in Cartagena, baptized and otherwise tended to Africans debarking slave ships.

(21.) Patterson, Freedom, 4. See also David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, NY, 1966); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770–1823 (New York, 1999), 46–7, esp. 255–468. See also Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975); David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York, 2006); David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York, 2004).

(22.) Thomas Nicholson, “To any judicious and enquiring Friend,” June 1, 1767, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Miscellaneous Collection, Box 11a, file 16.

(23.) Davis, “The Perils of Doing History by Ahistorical Abstraction,” in Thomas Bender (ed.), The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (Berkeley, 1992), 290. See also Elizabeth B. Clark, “Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights,” Journal of American History, 82 (September 1995): 463–93. Davis's interpretation has not gone unchallenged, and it is worth noting competing—if sometimes not altogether incompatible—interpretations. See Thomas L. Haskell, “Capitalism and the Origins of Humanitarian Sensibility, Parts I and II,” American Historical Review, 90 (April and June 1985): 339–61, 457–566; John Ashworth, “The Relationship between Capitalism and Humanitarianism,” American Historical Review, 92 (October 1987): 813–28. See also David Brion Davis, “Reflections on Abolitionism and Ideological Hegemony,” American Historical Review, 92 (October 1987): 797–812.

(24.) Peter Kolchin, “In Defense of Servitude: American Proslavery and Russian Proserfdom Arguments, 1760–1860,” American Historical Review, 85 (October 1980): 809–27; Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, 1987); Shearer Davis Bowman, “Antebellum Planters and Vomarz Junkers in Comparative Perspective,” American Historical Review, 85 (October 1980): 779–808; Mark M. Smith, “Old South Time in Comparative Perspective,” American Historical Review, 101 (December 1996): 1432–69; Manuel Moreno Fraginals (ed.), Between Slavery and Free Labor: The Spanish‐Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore, 1985); Michael Twaddle, The Wages of Slavery: From Chattel Slavery to Wage Labour in Africa, the Caribbean and England (London, 1993); Franklin W. Knight, Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century (Madison, 1970); Rebecca J. Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton, 1985); Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore, 1992); Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (Madison, 1986); Rebecca J. Scott, Abolition of Slavery and the Aftermath of Emancipation in Brazil (Durham, NC, 1988); Robert Brent Toplin, Freedom and Prejudice: The Legacy of Slavery in the United States and Brazil (Westport, Conn., 1981).

(25.) T. S. Eliot, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (New York, 1949), 32.

(26.) A good starting point for comparing emancipations would be David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Ithaca, NY, 1975); Davis, Inhuman Bondage, 231–322; Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York, 1989), 201–417; Seymour Drescher, “Brazilian Abolition in Comparative Perspective,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 68 (1988): 429–60; Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge, 2009); Rebecca J. Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery (Cambridge, 2005).

(27.) On abolitionist movement in the United States, see Ronald G. Walters, The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism after 1830 (Baltimore, 1977); William Lee Miller, Arguing about Slavery: John Quincy Adams and the Great Battle in the United States Congress (New York, 1998); Julie Roy Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998); John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, 2002). Also see Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro 1550–1812 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1968).

(28.) In addition to the thirty‐three essays in the volume, we designed to have two others (on the yeomanry and on the Danish Virgin Islands) as well. But lacking the monopoly of force inherent in slavery, we ultimately could not extract from certain free laborers delivery of the promised goods.