Urban Slavery

Mariana Dantas

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online August 2011 | | DOI:
Urban Slavery

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
  • History
  • Regional and National History


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The study of slavery in the Atlantic World has been dominated by scholarship focused on the plantation environment. This tendency is not gratuitous; the vast majority of Africans forcibly moved across the Atlantic to work in the New World, and their descendants after them, ended up living, laboring, and dying on the many plantations that sustained the economies of that region throughout the colonial period and much of the 19th century. Some within this population, however, experienced slavery within an urban environment. Their history and historical significance have yet to receive systematic attention by scholars of slavery, and it would be exaggerated to suggest that urban slavery constitutes a distinct track or field within broader studies of slavery. Indeed, for vast regions of the Atlantic World, much of what we know about urban slaves comes from local, regional, or national studies of slavery in general that nevertheless acknowledge the presence of slaves in urban environments. In part, the still incomplete picture of urban slavery derived from the historiography on the topic can be attributed to Richard Wade’s 1964 study, Slavery in the Cities (Wade 1972, cited under General Overviews), which suggested that the difficulties and cost of controlling slaves in the urban South undermined the practice of urban slavery and explained its decline in the region. Wade thus introduced the theory that slavery was incompatible with and thus could not be sustained in urban environments, a notion that many scholars after him have had to contend with in order to justify their pursuit of the topic. Moses Finley’s differentiation between slave societies and societies with slaves, which has been more recently embraced and advanced by Ira Berlin, has posed further challenges to historians of urban slavery. The distinction between societies in which slavery was clearly the dominating system of labor organization versus societies in which it was but one possible system of labor organization has condemned, in a way, cities and towns to the category of societies with slaves. The argument that only in slave societies did the practice of slavery and the presence of slaves shape the overall economic, social, political, and cultural makeup of a region or locality has raised questions about the extent to which slavery and slaves affected the historical trajectory of cities and towns, again forcing scholars of the topic to justify the relevance of their work. Despite these general tendencies, the body of literature that has been produced on the topic, particularly since the 1990s, has successfully demonstrated that any attempt to understand fully the diversity of the practice of slavery, the extent to which slavery informed Atlantic developments, and slaves’ experiences with the institution and the societies that supported it, must take into consideration urban slavery.

Article.  8996 words. 

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

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