The Origins of American Slavery

Antecedents and Models

Slavery is often termed "the peculiar institution," but it was hardly peculiar to the United States. Almost every society in the history of the world has experienced slavery at one time or another. The aborigines of Australia are about the only group that has so far not revealed a past mired in slavery—and perhaps the omission has more to do with the paucity of the evidence than anything else. To explore American slavery in its full international context, then, is essentially to tell the history of the globe. That task is not possible in the available space, so this essay will explore some key antecedents of slavery in North America and attempt to show what is distinctive or unusual about its development. The aim is to strike a balance between identifying continuities in the institution of slavery over time while also locating significant changes. The trick is to suggest preconditions, anticipations, and connections without implying that they were necessarily determinations (1).

Significant precursors to American slavery can be found in antiquity, which produced two of only a handful of genuine slave societies in the history of the world. A slave society is one in which slaves played an important role and formed a significant proportion (say, over 20 percent) of the population. Classical Greece and Rome (or at least parts of those entities and for distinct periods of time) fit this definition and can be considered models for slavery's expansion in the New World. In Rome in particular, bondage went hand in hand with imperial expansion, as large influxes of slaves from outlying areas were funneled into large-scale agriculture, into the latifundia, the plantations of southern Italy and Sicily. American slaveholders could point to a classical tradition of reconciling slavery with reason and universal law; ancient Rome provided important legal formulas and justifications for modern slavery. Parallels between ancient and New World slavery abound: from the dehumanizing device of addressing male slaves of any age as "boy," the use of branding and head shaving as modes of humiliation, the comic inventiveness in naming slaves (a practice American masters continued simply by using classical names), the notion that slaves could possess a peculium (a partial and temporary capacity to enjoy a range of goods), the common pattern of making fugitive slaves wear a metal collar, to clothing domestic slaves in special liveries or uniforms. The Life of Aesop, a fictional slave biography from Roman Egypt in the first century CE, is revelatory of the anxieties and fears that pervade any slave society, and some of the sexual tensions so well displayed are redolent of later American slavery. Yet, of course, ancient slavery was fundamentally different from modern slavery in being an equal opportunity condition —all ethnicities could be slaves—and in seeing slaves as primarily a social, not an economic, category. Ancient cultural mores were also distinctive: Greeks enslaved abandoned infants; Romans routinely tortured slaves to secure testimony; and even though the Stoics were prepared to acknowledge the humanity of the slave, neither they nor anyone else in the ancient world ever seriously questioned the place of slavery in society. Aristotle, after all, thought that some people were "slaves by nature," that there were in effect natural slaves (2).

Africa and the Slave Trade

Arabs and their Muslim allies were the first to make use of large numbers of sub-Saharan black Africans. They developed a long-distance slave trade, which began in the seventh century and lasted into the twentieth. It delivered many millions of Africans across the Sahara Desert, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean to North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Persian Gulf. Although over a much longer period of time and comprising far more females, the number of Africans exported via these trans-Saharan or Indian Ocean slave trades probably equaled, or even outmatched, those of its transatlantic counterpart. The preexistence of these export trades facilitated Atlantic trade: systems of slave marketing were already in place. So numerous were black Africans at certain times and in certain places that they were able to launch massive slave revolts—in 869, for instance, in what is now southern Iraq, where the so-called Zanj (who came from the Swahili Coast and lands further north) worked in large gangs draining marshlands. While the Quran and Islamic law were essentially color-blind and while Muslims enslaved many so-called "white" people, medieval Arabs came to associate the most degrading forms of labor with black slaves. The Arabic word for slave, `abd, came to mean a black slave. Many Arab writers had racial contempt for black people, and the racial stereotypes of the medieval Middle East were probably transmitted to the Iberian Peninsula (3).

As the long-standing trans-Saharan slave trade reveals, slavery existed in sub-Saharan Africa long before the Atlantic slave trade. In some —perhaps most—places, slavery tended to be a minor institution, with the slave able to pass in time from alien to kin member; in others, most notably a number of Islamicized regimes, slavery was more central, with violence, economic exploitation, and lack of kinship rights more evident. In large part because Africa was underpopulated, a broad spectrum of dependent statuses, with slavery as just one variant, existed; and slaves played a wide range of roles from field workers to soldiers, from domestics to administrators. The ethnic fragmentation of sub-Saharan Africa meant that there were few states strong enough to prevent opportunistic African kings or merchants profiting from slave raiding. Those kingdoms that opposed exporting slaves did not have the means to stop the traffic. Lacking an overall religious or political unity, Africans could enslave other Africans because the concept of "African-ness" had no meaning. Accustomed to tropical climates, inured to agricultural labor, and reared in a harsh epidemiological environment, sub-Saharan Africans made productive slaves (4).

As Europe's economy began to expand in the tenth and eleventh centuries, attention focused on the rich Mediterranean region. By the twelfth century, various Crusader states had been established at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Venetian and Genoese merchants pioneered the development of these conquered Arab sugar-producing regions and began supplying them with slaves. They first victimized the Slavic inhabitants of the Dalmatian Coast and then transported Circassians, Georgians, Armenians, and the like from the Black Sea region. At this time, the Latin word for people of Slavic descent, sclavus, became the origin of the word slave in English (and in French esclave, in Spanish esclavo, and in German sklave) and replaced the non-ethnic Latin term servus. In Europe in the Middle Ages, then, the slave population was predominantly "white." Sugar production gradually spread from the eastern Mediterranean, through Cyprus and Sicily, to Catalonia in the west, and the white slave trade followed in its wake. This trade mirrored the later transatlantic version, with its complex organization, permanent forts, and long-distance shipment by sea to multinational markets. When in 1453 the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, Christian Europe was cut off from its major source of slaves. The only available alternative became sub-Saharan Africans (5).

Two sources of African labor were then available. First, the Arab caravan trade across the Sahara, long in existence, gathered impetus to provide more black slaves to Libya and Tunisia and then to the western Mediterranean region. Second, Genoese capital and technology augmented Portuguese sea power, and from the 1440s onward the Portuguese began importing significant numbers of black African slaves into Lisbon via the Atlantic. Still, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, North African and Muslim slaves exceeded black slaves in Iberia. Nevertheless, by the early seventeenth century black slaves numbered about 15,000 or 15 percent of Lisbon's population. This influx of African slaves into Iberia owed much to a transfer of personnel and knowledge from the Black Sea-Mediterranean slave nexus to that of an emerging Atlantic system (6).

The Atlantic Slave System

Sugar production meanwhile was making its way westward in search of fresh lands. Thus by the late fifteenth century the Iberians began colonizing the Atlantic islands off their coasts, first using as slaves Guanche natives of the Canary Islands. The Spanish and Portuguese enslavement of the Berber-like Canary Islanders is a prelude to the later fate of Caribbean, Mexican, Central American, and Brazilian Indians. Furthermore, the Atlantic islands of Madeira and São Tomé became forerunners for the spread of racial slavery and sugar plantations in the New World. Admittedly, Madeira's slave forces were limited, its properties were often small, and small farmers and sharecroppers supplied much of its cane.

Nevertheless, by the end of the fifteenth century it was Europe's largest producer, and its model would be the one later followed by Brazilians, who soon became the Atlantic world's major suppliers of sugar and who drew directly on the expertise of Atlantic Islanders. From the late fifteenth century to the mid-sixteenth century, São Tomé—situated in the Gulf of Guinea—imported more African slaves than Europe, the Americas, or the other Atlantic islands combined. Particularly in the universality of slave labor, São Tomé was the nearest approximation to an American prototype (7).

As slavery underwent a resurgence in southern Europe, it gradually disappeared from the northwestern part of the continent. Economic changes help to explain this development, but perhaps more important were cultural constraints. Over the course of the Middle Ages, Christians always committed awful atrocities on each other, but increasingly they avoided enslaving one another. Apparently, a sense of unity had emerged in Christian Europe that effectively barred the enslavement of those deemed fellow Europeans. Christianity's long struggle with Islam no doubt played a major role in this development. That from 1500 to 1800 Muslims enslaved well over a million Western Europeans, many of whom were subsequently ransomed and celebrated as symbols of freedom, was a major element in the growing sense that Europeans should never be slaves. Nevertheless, these so-called free labor nations would develop some of the harshest slave regimes in the Americas. As David Brion Davis puts it, "it is an astonishing paradox that the first nations in the world to free themselves of chattel slavery—such nations as England, France, Holland, and even the Scandinavian states—became leaders during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in supporting plantation colonies based on African slave labor." He likens this divide to a primitive Mason-Dixon line, "drawn somewhere in the Atlantic, separating free soil master-states from tainted slave soil dependencies" (8).

This paradox illumines the unpredictability of events in the Americas. No European nation embarked on New World ventures with the intention of enslaving anyone. They had no blueprint but rather proceeded haphazardly and pragmatically. Their first resort was to forced Indian labor (the encomienda, or a semifeudal system of tributary labor), as the Tainos found to their cost on Espanola. To make up for the rapid decline of these earliest Indian laborers, over the course of the sixteenth century Spanish conquistadors first raided islands such as the Bahamas and then shipped more than fifty thousand Indian slaves from Central America to Panama, Peru, and the Caribbean. Similarly, from roughly the 1530s to the 1580s, the Portuguese in Brazil relied on Indian slave labor to produce sugar. Early South Carolina resorted to Indian slaves who, in the first decade of the eighteenth century, comprised one-third of the colony's slave labor force. From 1670 to 1715 an active Indian slave trade saw as many as 50,000 Indians from the Carolinas and Florida sold to the West Indies and to the Northern mainland colonies. There were basic problems, nevertheless, with using Indians as slaves. First, Indians regarded any kind of agriculture as work fit only for women. Second, European opinion was decidedly ambivalent about enslaving Indians, as the famous debate in Spain in 1548 between Juan Ginés Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de las Casas revealed. Most important, Indians were remarkably susceptible to Old World diseases. Indian slaves were not able to survive long enough to be profitable. Suffering catastrophic losses, Indian labor literally wasted away. On Hispaniola, the Taino Indians, numbering perhaps 500,000 precontact, were almost extinct a half-century later; in central Mexico perhaps 15 million Indians in 1500 fell to just 1.5 million a century later. The scale of the disaster is staggering (9).

Consequently, Europeans faced a huge labor shortage. The Ottoman Turkish empire blocked access to Black Sea or Baltic captives. European nations no longer enslaved Christian prisoners of war. Some dreamers talked of enslaving the poor or other marginal groups, but the practical and principled problems of reviving European slavery were considerable. Another expedient was the transportation of convicts, but their numbers were never sufficient. Temporary bondage—indentured servitude—was the most obvious and most widely used other option, particularly in the early years, but servants, if they survived, eventually became free, and in any case most servants would not travel to the areas where most labor was needed. Thus, almost by default, African slaves proved by far the best available labor supply. Consequently, from 1500 to 1820 almost 9 million African slaves left for the New World, compared to less than 3 million whites. In terms of migration, the New World was more black than white (10).

The center of gravity of slavery did not, however, immediately shift to the western shores of the Atlantic. Not until 1700 did Africa earn more from the export of its slaves than it did from precious metals and spices. In addition, not until the late seventeenth century did black slaves in the New World outnumber white slaves in the Old World (then located primarily in the Islamic Middle East, North Africa, and Russia). White slaves in the Maghrib became so numerous that they mounted serious rebellions—in 1763 in Algiers four thousand Christian slaves rose and killed their guards, making it "perhaps the largest slave revolt in the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds between the end of the Roman Empire and St. Domingue rebellion" (11).

If the sheer availability of African slaves and the lack of available alternatives is the primary explanation for the development of racial slavery in the New World, did racism have nothing to do with it? Did antiblack racism or protoracism point particularly to African slaves to supply the immense labor demands of the New World? Or did racism intensify only after long-term interaction with black slaves had occurred? Was it there from the beginning, or was it a consequence? This is a complicated subject, and space will not permit a full accounting here. Ancient Greco-Roman art and writing offers caricatures of black Africans, although their relative scarcity is perhaps most telling. Medieval images of Africans ranged from the black magis to agents of the Devil. In various settings—in medieval Europe where peasants were often depicted as "black" because of working in the sun and in close proximity to dirt, or in modern Russia where noblemen even claimed that Russian serfs had black bones—blackness and debasement had a long connection. In western culture the color black evokes a highly negative symbolism, conjuring up images of death and sin. While these pejorative associations existed, European ambivalence toward sub-Saharan Africans seems the dominant response. Medieval Europeans did not, for example, automatically associate the biblical Ham with Africa; Asia was often identified with Ham, and his "Curse" was also used to justify European serfdom and the enslavement of Slavs. Nevertheless, however it happened, slavery became indelibly linked with people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere. The dishonor, humiliation, and bestialization that were universally associated with chattel slavery merged with blackness in the New World. The racial factor became one of the most distinctive features of slavery in the New World (12).

New World slavery's other most distinctive aspect was its highly commercial character. While it is true that plantations—that is, large agricultural enterprises, managed for profit, producing a crop for export, with a hierarchically stratified labor organization—existed outside the New World, they reached their apogee there. The economies of scale, the expansion in unit size, the almost exclusive use of black slaves, a highly regimented and commodified labor force, and a system of close management all raised profit levels significantly. Such a productive system placed enormous demands on its laborers. As early as the 1630s a visitor to a Jesuit-owned sugar plantation in Brazil vividly described the unbearable horror of what had transpired: "People the color of the very night, working briskly and moaning at the same time without a moment of peace or rest, whoever sees all the confused and noisy machinery and apparatus of this Babylon, even if they have seen Mt. Etna and Vesuvius will say that this indeed is the image of Hell" (13).

Patterns of New World Slavery

Variations over time and space existed within New World slavery. Three stand out. First, although all New World regions imported more African men than women (thereby in part explaining the harshness of New World slavery because of the policing problems associated with large gangs of men), over time the gender ratio among New World slaves became increasingly balanced. In that regard, the North American slave population is most notable, because, as its number of slave women increased the most rapidly, so it became one of the few self-reproducing slave populations in world history. This early and rapid natural increase explains why North America received such a small percentage of the overall transatlantic slave trade—about 5 percent. Second, North America was also distinctive in being much less tolerant of racial intermixture than Latin America or the Caribbean. Once again demography—particularly the ratio of white men to white women (more balanced in North America than in Latin America and the Caribbean) and the availability of black women—was a crucial part of the explanation, but also important were the role of the Church and cultural mores, based as much in Old World patterns of racial coexistence or segregation. The Spanish had mixed with Muslims for centuries; the English had created a Pale in their settlement of Ireland. Only in North America did the extremely arbitrary concept of "Negro"—denoting anyone with allegedly visible African ancestry—assume such a marked stigma. Third, the chances of gaining freedom varied from one society to the next. Except for the period surrounding the American Revolution, the North American colonies, and later the states, imposed the severest restrictions on the chances of a slave becoming free. Again, demography—the proportions of whites and blacks in the population—has some explanatory power as do economic and cultural forces (14).

North American slavery itself was hardly of a piece. The range encompasses New England's intimate "family slavery"; the Mid-Atlantic's mixed forms of slavery and servitude; the Chesapeake's patriarchal, small plantation, mixed farming and tobacco, heavily native-born form of slavery; and the low country's impersonal, large plantation, rice and indigo, more heavily African system of slavery. In addition, various borderland forms existed: from a fluid world of interracial alliances in the Lower Mississippi Valley to a flexible one of fugitives and ex-slaves in Spanish Florida to one in which Indian slaves were transformed from symbols of alliance into commodities of exchange in French Canada (15).

Racial slavery played an intrinsic and indispensable part in New World settlement. The institution was no abnormality, no aberration, no marginal feature; rather, its development is the grim and irrepressible theme governing the development of the Western Hemisphere. The truly distinctive features of North American (and to varying degrees, New World) slavery were its racial bedrock and its thoroughly commercial character. Increasingly, the stark polarity between freedom and bondage became glaringly evident, for the debasement of slaves liberated others to take control of their destiny and to dream of liberty and equality. This profound contradiction lay at the heart of the United States, a country conceived in freedom but based on slavery. The American dream always had its dark underside. Yet the dreamers would eventually try to rid themselves of the nightmare—with considerable prodding from the victims, it might be added. Unlike other previous forms of slavery, the New World version did not decline over a long period but came to a rather abrupt end. The age of emancipation lasted a little over one hundred years: beginning in 1776 with the first antislavery society in Philadelphia, through the monumental Haitian Revolution of 1792, and ending with Brazilian emancipation in 1888. An institution that had been accepted for thousands of years disappeared in about a century. One last watershed, therefore, is the unprecedented novelty and speed of the abolitionist moment (16).


  1. The term "peculiar institution" became commonplace among Southerners in the nineteenth-century United States: Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South (New York: Knopf, 1956).

  2. Moses I. Finley, "Slavery," International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills and Robert King Merton (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 14: 307-13; Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, reprint (Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983, 1980), 9, 96, 102, 111, 113-14; Keith Hopkins, Conquerors and Slaves: Sociological Studies in Roman History, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978); Hopkins, "Novel Evidence for Roman Slavery," Past and Present 138 (1993): 3-27; Keith Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 12-13, 87; Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). For studies that explore the classical legacy over a long sweep of time, see David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966), especially 29-90, and William D. Phillips Jr., Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985). In addition to the sanctions for slavery that the classical literature of antiquity provided and that assumed new force during the Renaissance, the religious undergirding for slavery evident in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles ideally should be explored.

  3. Ralph A. Austen, "The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade: A Tentative Census," The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. Henry A. Gemery and Jan S. Hogendorn (New York: Academic Press, 1979), 23-76; Austen, "The Mediterranean Islamic Slave Trade out of Africa: A Tentative Census," Slavery and Abolition 13 (1992): 214-48; and his most recent, "Slave Trade: The Sahara Desert and Red Sea Region," Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, ed. John Middleton (New York: Scribners, 1997), 4: 103; Pier Larson, "African Diasporas and the Atlantic" (unpublished paper, 2004); Ghada Hashem Talhami, "The Zanj Rebellion Reconsidered," International Journal of African Historical Studies 10 (1977): 443-61; Alexandre Popovic, The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the IIIrd-IXth Century, trans. Léon King (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1998); Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990). For newer works on Ottoman and Islamic slavery, see Ehud R. Toledano, Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998); Shaun E. Marmon, ed., Slavery in the Islamic Middle East (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 1998); Minra Tora and John Edward Philips, eds., Slave Elites in the Middle East and Africa: A Comparative Study (London: Kegan Paul International, 2000); John O. Hunwick and Eve Trout Powell, eds., The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2001); and Paul Lovejoy, ed., Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2004).

  4. Suzanne Miers and Igor Kopytoff, eds., Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977); Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life: Occidental, Oriental, and African Slave Trades (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

  5. Charles Verlinden, "L'Origine de 'sclavus-esclave,'" Archivum latinitatis medii aevi 17 (1943): 97-128; Verlinden, L'Esclavage dans l'Europe médiévale, vol. 1, Pénisule Ibérique—France (Bruges: De Tempel, 1955); vol. 2, Italie, Colonies Italiennes du Levant, Levant Latin, Empire Bysantin (Ghent: 1977); and Verlinden, The Beginnings of Modern Colonization: Eleven Essays with an Introduction, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1970). For newer work on medieval slavery, see Ruth Mazo Karras, Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988); David A. E. Pelteret, Slavery in Early Mediaeval England: From the Reign of Alfred Until the Twelfth Century (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1995); Steven Epstein, Speaking of Slavery: Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001); and Sally McKee, "Inherited Status and Slavery in Late Medieval Italy and Venetian Crete," Past and Present 182 (February 2004): 31-53.

  6. A. C. de C. M. Saunders, A Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal, 1441-1555 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 21-24, 48-86.

  7. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, The Canary Islands After the Conquest: The Making of a Colonial Society in the Early Sixteenth Century (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1982); Stuart B. Schwartz, ed., Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), especially 1-26, 42-84, 201-236. For more on São Tomé, which requires more study, see Tony Hodges and Malyn Newitt, São Tomé and Príncipe: From Plantation Colony to Microstate (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1988), and Robert Garfield, A History of São Tomé Island, 1470-1655: The Key to Guinea (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992).

  8. David Brion Davis, "Looking at Slavery from Broader Perspectives," American Historical Review 105 (April 2000): 458, and his Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 14; Robert C. Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003). For more on the development of freedom and slavery, see David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and Sue Peabody, There Are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Régime (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

  9. Carl Ortwin Sauer, The Early Spanish Main (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), and Irving Rouse, The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992); William L. Sherman, Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979); Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550-1835 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002); Joyce E. Chaplin, "Enslavement of Indians in Early America: Captivity Without the Narrative," The Creation of the British Atlantic World, ed. Elizabeth Mancke and Carole Shammas (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 75-121. For a recent discussion of Indian population decline, see David S. Jones, "Virgin Soils Revisited," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 60 (October 2003): 703-42.

  10. David Galenson, White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Timothy Coates, "Convict Labor in the Early Modern Era," The Cambridge World History of Slavery, ed. David Eltis and Stanley L. Engerman (forthcoming); David Eltis, "The Volume and Structure of the Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Reassessment," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 58 (January 2001): 17-46. Two good microhistories of the transatlantic slave trade are Robert Harms, The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade (New York: Basic Books, 2002), and Randy J. Sparks, The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004).

  11. David Eltis and William G. Clarence-Smith, "White Servitude," The Cambridge World History of Slavery, ed. Eltis and Engerman (forthcoming). For slavery compared to other forms of coerced labor, see M. L. Bush, ed., Serfdom and Slavery: Studies in Legal Bondage (London: Longman, 1996); Stanley L. Engerman, ed., Terms of Labor: Slavery, Serfdom, and Free Labor (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Bush, Servitude in Modern Times (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2000).

  12. Frank M. Snowden Jr., Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970); Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983); Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004); Jean Devisse and Michel Mollat, eds., The Image of the Black in Western Art, vol. 2, From the Early Christian Era to the "Age of Discovery" (Cambridge, Mass.: Menil Foundation, 1979); Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1999), 133-73, 300-03; Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 170-73; Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968); Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996); the essays in "Constructing Race: Differentiating Peoples in the Early Modern World," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 54 (January 1997): 3-252; David M. Goldenburg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003). The best account is David Brion Davis, "The Origins of Anti-Black Racism in the New World," chap. 3 in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of New World Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

  13. Robert Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New York: Norton, 1989); Schwartz, ed., Tropical Babylons, 3.

  14. Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946); Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1971).

  15. For some examples, see William D. Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988); Graham Russell Hodges, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613-1863 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Daniel H. Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Jane Landers, Black Society in Spanish Florida (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); and Brett Rushforth, "'A Little Flesh We Offer You': The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France," William and Mary Quarterly 3rd ser., 60 (October 2003): 777-808. To this list might be added other forms of aboriginal slavery: see Theda Perdue, Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1866 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979); William A. Starna and Ralph Watkins, "Northern Iroquoian Slavery," Ethnohistory 38 (Winter 1991): 34-57; and Leland Donald, Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

  16. Slavery, however, continued in Africa until about the 1930s. There the abolitionist moment was rather prolonged, and slavery underwent what has been termed a "slowdown."


  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London: Verso, 1997. Covers all the European slave systems in the Americas and connects them to the advent of modernity.
  • Brooks, James F. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Reveals the importance of slavery and slave-raiding to the intercultural exchange networks that emerged in the early American Southwest.
  • Carretta, Vincent, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996. Features such black voices as Briton Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, Benjamin Banneker, and Venture Smith.
  • Conrad, Robert Edgar, comp. Children of God's Fire: A Documentary History of Black Slavery in Brazil. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. An excellent source book for the American slave society that received the most Africans.
  • Davis, David Brion. Challenging the Boundaries of Slavery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. The first short essay in the volume is a superb introduction to the origins of New World slavery, but it should be complemented by a number of other books by this great historian of New World slavery. I particularly recommend his Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of New World Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
  • Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. A useful reminder that slavery arose and flourished in the Mediterranean world at the same time as across the Atlantic. Explores the dimensions of white slavery and slave life.
  • Drescher, Seymour, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. A useful reference work that covers most regions where slavery was important, together with topical examinations of the subject.
  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A stimulating exploration of the paradox that the northern European countries most renowned for their commitment to individual freedom created the harshest systems of slavery in the New World.
  • Eltis, David, et al., eds. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. CD-ROM. Cambridge University Press, 1999. Contains information on 27,233 transatlantic slaving expeditions. An expanded, online version (with information on 35,000 voyages) should be available by 2008.
  • Finkelman, Paul, and Joseph C. Miller, eds. Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery. 2 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1998. Another useful reference work that covers similar ground to the volume edited by Drescher and Engerman but is more comprehensive in nature.
  • Finley, M. I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. Reprint. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983, 1980. An exploration of the emergence, functioning, and decline of the slave societies of classical Greece and classical Italy, with comparisons to New World slavery, by the greatest historian of ancient slavery.
  • Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. An authoritative introduction to the subject.
  • Handler, Jerome S., and Michael L. Tuite Jr. "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record." Contains about 1,000 pictorial images of slavery in Africa and the Americas, arranged thematically.
  • Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. A good general account by a historian alert to comparative history.
  • Lewis, Bernard. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A good survey of slavery and the evolution of racial prejudice in the Islamic world.
  • Miers, Suzanne, and Igor Kopytoff, eds. Slavery in Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977. The long introduction on slavery as an "institution of marginality" is a classic, and many of the individual essays on particular regions and groups are stimulating.
  • Miller, Joseph. C., ed. Slavery and Slaving in World History: A Bibliography, 1900-1996. 2 vols. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1999. The most comprehensive work of its kind. Annual updates are available in the journal Slavery and Abolition. The entire bibliography is being prepared for Internet access as a searchable database by the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.
  • Morgan, Philip D. "African Americans." In A Companion to Colonial America, edited by Daniel Vickers. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003, pp. 138-71. A concise, up-to-date survey of the black experience in early America, with an extensive bibliography.
  • Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. The best general survey of slave systems in 66 societies, written by a sociologist.
  • Phillips, William D. Jr. Slavery from Roman Times to the Early Transatlantic Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. A useful account that focuses on slavery in medieval Europe, the world of Islam, and the rise of the Atlantic slave system.
  • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. A provocative account that emphasizes African agency in the development of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

Philip D. Morgan is the Sydney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the American Revolutionary Era at Princeton University. He is the author of Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) and coeditor (with Sean Hawkins) of Black Experience and the Empire: The Oxford History of the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). He would like to acknowledge in particular the assistance of David Brion Davis, who generously sent him two early chapters from his forthcoming manuscript, "Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of New World Slavery."

Authored by

Philip D. Morgan
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey