Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links

Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links

Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links

Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links


Enslaved peoples were brought to the Americas from many places in Africa, but a large majority came from relatively few ethnic groups. Drawing on a wide range of materials in four languages as well as on her lifetime study of slave groups in the New World, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall explores the persistence of African ethnic identities among the enslaved over four hundred years of the Atlantic slave trade.

Hall traces the linguistic, economic, and cultural ties shared by large numbers of enslaved Africans, showing that despite the fragmentation of the diaspora many ethnic groups retained enough cohesion to communicate and to transmit elements of their shared culture. Hall concludes that recognition of the survival and persistence of African ethnic identities can fundamentally reshape how people think about the emergence of identities among enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, about the ways shared identity gave rise to resistance movements, and about the elements of common African ethnic traditions that influenced regional creole cultures throughout the Americas.


This slave trade and slavery spread more human misery, inculcated more dis
respect for and neglect of humanity, a greater callousness to suffering, and
more petty, cruel, human hatred than can well be calculated. We may excuse
and palliate it, and write history so as to let men forget it; it remains the most
inexcusable and despicable blot on modern human history.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro (1915)

Americans throughout the Western Hemisphere owe a vast, but rarely acknowledged debt to Africa. Our national and regional cultures arose from the process of creolization: the cross-fertilization of the most adaptive aspects of the knowledge and traditions of the diverse peoples who met and mingled here. Throughout the Americas, Africans and their descendants played a major role in this process. Much of the wealth of the major nations of Europe and America was built on the labor and the suffering of many millions of Africans. Nevertheless, Africa remains the Dark Continent. Its peoples are largely invisible as concrete human beings. Its descendants in the Americas are almost invariably referred to as blacks and/or slaves or former slaves or at best as generic Africans. This book seeks to go beyond these abstract concepts and make those Africans who played a crucial role in the formation of cultures throughout the Americas more visible. It takes only a few steps in this vast and complex task.

The Atlantic slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa began in 1444, more than half a century before Columbus “discovered” the Americas. These early Portuguese voyages down the Atlantic coast of West Africa were motivated above all by the search for gold. The Atlantic slave trade began almost incidentally when free Africans were attacked, kidnapped, put aboard a Portuguese ship, dragged to Portugal in chains, and sold. Enslaved Africans quickly increased in value, and the market for them grew.

After the conquest and colonization of the Americas, the demand for enslaved Africans intensified, and the transatlantic slave trade escalated. It brought many millions of Africans to the Americas. Although the numbers . . .

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