Slave Owners in the British Atlantic

Nick Draper

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:
Slave Owners in the British Atlantic

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The recent historiography of slavery in the Atlantic world has, for entirely understandable reasons, been weighted toward recovering the histories of enslaved people. But an understanding of the slave owners is central to an understanding of Atlantic slavery and of many specific controversies within its history. The role of Atlantic slavery in forming modern Europe, the timing and magnitude of the “decline” of the slave economy, and the reasons for the triumph of abolitionism all can be illuminated through the examination of the slave owners, the tensions among them, and their relationships with enslaved people and with non-slave-owning compatriots. Nevertheless, colonial slave owners did not represent a single socioeconomic category but, rather, comprised a series of subgroupings differentiated by the scale of their ownership, their economic function, their location relative to the enslaved people, their race, and their gender. Slave owners could be proprietors of large estates with a coerced labor force of several hundred enslaved people, or they could own no land but instead own smaller gangs of laborers whom they hired out to estate owners, or they could own one or two enslaved people who worked as domestic servants or artisans in urban environments. Slave owners could be pioneers who cleared land and established themselves as producers of tropical crops, or merchants and financiers who had arrived at slave ownership through money lending and subsequent foreclosure. They could live and work among the enslaved people or live thousands of miles away from “property” in the enslaved people whom they never saw. They could be white, or, increasingly over the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they could be people of color. They could be men or women: in the British Caribbean, women owned a higher proportion of slave property than any other single category of property for which systematic ownership information exists. What they had in common were that they themselves were free (enslaved people were forbidden from owning “slave property” in most jurisdictions), that they had property rights to other human beings, that they accessed the fruits of the expropriated labor of those people and, as the 18th century wore on, that they experienced increasing friction with the forces of antislavery operating in the metropolitan centers in Europe and in the northern states of the United States. Even more importantly, beyond their role as historical actors, these “masters” and “mistresses” shed light on the essence of chattel slavery (and its distinction from other forms of labor organization that are sometimes presented as in some way contiguous): the untrammeled power of men and women over other human beings held as property.

Article.  10341 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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