The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade

The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade

The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade

The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade


During the era of the Atlantic slave trade, vibrant port cities became home to thousands of Africans in transit. Free and enslaved blacks alike crafted the necessary materials to support transoceanic commerce and labored as stevedores, carters, sex workers, and boarding-house keepers. Even though Africans continued to be exchanged as chattel, urban frontiers allowed a number of enslaved blacks to negotiate the right to hire out their own time, often greatly enhancing their autonomy within the Atlantic commercial system.

In The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade, eleven original essays by leading scholars from the United States, Europe, and Latin America chronicle the black experience in Atlantic ports, providing a rich and diverse portrait of the ways in which Africans experienced urban life during the era of plantation slavery. Describing life in Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Africa, this volume illuminates the historical identity, agency, and autonomy of the African experience as well as the crucial role Atlantic cities played in the formation of diasporic cultures. By shifting focus away from plantations, this volume poses new questions about the nature of slavery in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, illustrating early modern urban spaces as multiethnic sites of social connectivity, cultural incubation, and political negotiation.

Contributors: Trevor Burnard, Mariza de Carvalho Soares, Matt D. Childs, Kevin Dawson, Roquinaldo Ferreira, David Geggus, Jane Landers, Robin Law, David Northrup, João José Reis, James H. Sweet, Nicole von Germeten.


Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Matt D. Childs, and James Sidbury

In 1763 a young enslaved man who went by the name Gustavus Vassa went to sea in the British Caribbean. Like most sailors, he soon began to engage in petty commerce to make a bit of money. Over the next four years he built up his small savings by transporting goods from one island port and selling them in another. Around 1767 he invested all of his savings in limes and oranges that he took on a voyage to Santa Cruz (present-day Saint Croix). When the ship arrived in port, probably at Frederiksted, he and a friend lit out for the city to sell their fruit. Almost immediately “two white men” stopped them and openly stole their three bags of fruit. The two young slaves pleaded for the return of their trade goods, but the robbers “not only refused to return” the citrus, they cursed their two victims and threatened “to flog” them as well if they did not leave them alone. Thus, at the “very minute of gaining more by three times than” he had ever had “by any venture” in his “life before,” the young enslaved petty merchants was “deprived of every farthing” he “was worth.” Port cities created opportunities for enslaved Africans, but they also held dangers.

Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, lived an amazing life in the Black Atlantic. According to his 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself, he was born in 1745 in a small Igbo village called Essaka. Kidnapped as a young boy, he was sold into American slavery. More fortunate than most victims of the slave trade, he ultimately won his freedom and became an antislavery advocate and author. His account of enslavement, the Middle Passage, his life as a slave, and his careers as a free man offers the most powerful . . .

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