Slave Narratives


The Atlantic Slave Trade

In the 1450s, the Portuguese and Spanish trade of African slaves to the Americas began, with British, French, and Dutch traders following since the 16th century. Until into the 19th century, the enslavement of black Africans formed an integral part of economic and political interactions among Africa, the Americas, and Europe. It was justified with Africans’ presumed “inferior” civilizations and supposed higher ability to perform hard work in hot climates

The enslaved Africans came from diverse civilizations, varying in languages, world views, and social structures. They preserved some elements of their original cultures, e.g. languages, religions, and music, while adopting others from their enslavers, and also forging entirely new ones.

The Caribbean was the first region in the Americas to employ enslaved Africans as well as formed a major hub in the Atlantic slave trade. Captured Africans were brought there to either labor on one of the Caribbean islands or to be further traded to the American continent, especially the United States. While Brazil was the destination of the largest number of African slaves, the Portuguese slave traders mainly used a shorter, direct transport route from West Africa to Brazil.

African Slavery in the Americas

Most enslaved Africans in the Americas worked as house servants or in labour-intensive agriculture to produce cash crops like sugar, cotton, rice or tobacco. Their daily lives were marked by hard work, poverty, harsh treatment, as well as physical and/or sexual abuse. They had no opportunities for formal education and often could not maintain a family life due to the separation of kin when they were sold to different owners.

Slavery in the Americas was chattel slavery. That means that enslaved individuals were not considered as human beings but rather as movable property without any rights. Unless slaves were freed with their owner’s permission, they were slaves for their entire life. All children of a female slave were automatically enslaved and became the property of the mother’s owner.

Many enslaved Africans resisted their condition in various ways, depending on the opportunities and local and personal circumstances that they faced. Their resistance could be passive (e.g.working slowly or carelessly) or active (e.g. physical self-defense against unfair treatment or organizing a slave uprise). Slaves also sought to escape their lot by running away or committing suicide.

Abolitionist Movements

Enslaved Africans had resisted their enslavement since the early days of Atlantic slavery. Yet, the formation of the Republic of Haiti in 1804 was the only successful independence movement growing out of a black slave uprising in the region.

However, since the late 18th century, movements to abolish slavery and/or the slave trade emerged in the UK, France, and Spain as well as in their colonies in the Americas. In the Spanish Empire, the struggle for independence was often connected with the fight to end slavery.

Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in its colonies in 1834. The successful independence movement across the Spanish Empire in the 1810s and 1820s weakened or even ended slavery in most of the Spanish Americas by that time. France followed in 1848, the USA in 1863, the last Spanish colony, Cuba, in 1886, and Brazil in 1888.


The Black Slave Narrative

The genre of the Black slave narrative was primarily a phenomenon of Anglophone North America and the Caribbean from the mid-1700s and late 1800s. Authored by (formerly) enslaved black people, usually in the first person, slave narratives give first-hand accounts of black chattel slavery in the Americas. They became an important tool in the Anglophone movement to end slavery and the slave trade.

Anglophone slave narratives targeted educated white audiences in Britain and its (former) colonies in the Americas. To inspire these readers’ antislavery sentiment and action, these texts presented vivid, seemingly unmediated narratives of slavery. They sought to elicit sympathy with the plight of the enslaved while relating factual details about their lives that signaled the narrators’ trustworthiness.

Lower literacy rates in France, Spain, Portugal, and their colonies meant not only weaker ties among the different abolitionist movements in these places but also a much smaller audience for slave narratives. Therefore, less than a handful of non-English slave narratives are known today. However, there are other types of documents such as court records or testimonies in Christian missionary periodicals in which (formerly) enslaved black people made their voices heard in these regions. These documents are also being studied today.

Transnational Slave Narratives

The following pages present examples of slave narratives that have a transnational dimension. This is in most cases based on their respective authors’ personal – voluntary or enforced – journeys across the national borders between European colonies and/or their independent successor states in the Americas.

ANGLO-CARIBBEAN SLAVE NARRATIVES were among the first slave narratives from the Americas to be published. This was first made possible when a few enslaved people came from English Caribbean colonies to the UK, where their personal testimonies found resonance and circulation.

The few LATIN AMERICAN SLAVE NARRATIVES that fit the above description of the genre form a small, but distinct group of their own, as they responded both to slavery in Latin America and contributed to the anglophone abolitionist movement. 

When Britain abolished slavery across its colonies in 1833, Canada became a destination of fugitives from slavery in the USA. CANADIAN SLAVE NARRATIVES testify to the experiences of some of them in this northern British colony.


See the pages linked to above for sources specifically on Canada, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

    • Eltis, David, and David Richardson. Atlas of the Atlantic Slave Trade. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
    • Lindsay, Lisa A. Captives as Commodities: The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Upper Saddle River, NY: Prentice-Hall, 2008.
    • Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007.
    • Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
    • Zeuske, Michael. Sklavenhändler, Negreros und Atlantikkreolen. Eine Weltgeschichte des Sklavenhandels im atlantischen Raum. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015.

African Slavery in the Americas

    • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 
    • Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links. University of North Carolina Press, 2005. 
    • Zeuske, Michael, and  Javier Laviña, eds. The Second Slavery: Mass Slaveries and Modernity in the Americas and in the Atlantic Basin. Berlin: LIT-Verlag, 2014.

Slave Resistance and Abolition

    • Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
    • Fradera, Josep, and Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, eds. Slavery & Antislavery in Spain’s Atlantic Empire. New York: Berghahn Books, 2013.
    • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007.
    • Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher. Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

The Black Slave Narrative

    • Aljoe, Nicole N., and Ian Finseth, eds. Journeys of the Slave Narrative in the Early Americas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014.
    • Anatol, Giselle Liza., Wilfried Raussert, and Joachim Michael. “Slave Narratives.” The Routledge Handbook to the Culture and Media of the Americas. Part I: Literature and Music. Ed. Wilfried Raussert, Giselle Anatol, and Joachim Michael. London: Routledge, 2020. 226-238.
    • Ernest, John, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
    • Fisch, Audrey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
    • Taylor, Yuval. Introduction to I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives. Vol. I: 1770-1849, ed. Yuval Taylor, xv-xxxviii. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999.


The following list of resources and links focuses on materials on the Atlantic slave trade, slavery, and abolition.


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