The best books on Britain and Atlantic slavery

Who am I?

I'm a historian of early modern Britain and the British Atlantic world who realized years ago that Britain, like the United States, hadn't yet fully acknowledged or come to terms with its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and African slavery and its global afterlives. Although awareness of Britain's role in the African slave trade and Atlantic slavery has begun to feature more prominently in national consciousness, particularly due to the work of The Movement for Black Lives and calls for an overdue reckoning with the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racial injustice, much work remains to be done. Using the archival record--as flawed as it may be--to piece together Britain's imperial past, confront calculated historical silences, and track the full extent of British participation in the enslavement of millions of Africans will help to ensure that the histories and voices of enslaved people and their descendants aren't distorted or forgotten by current and future generations.


I wrote...

A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica

By Brooke Newman,

Book cover of A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica

What is my book about?

A Dark Inheritance explores how colonial authorities and planters in Jamaica, Britain’s most valuable Atlantic colony by the mid-eighteenth century, used blood lineage to justify hereditary racial slavery and limited rights for free people of African descent. Based on extensive archival work, it highlights the creative ways notions of ancestry and blood enabled white colonists in Jamaica to assert and defend their privileged racial, political, and socio-economic status while simultaneously defining and redefining who was a slave and who was not, and by extension who was “white” and who was not.

At the same time, it shows how enslaved and free people of African and multiple ancestries articulated a counterargument for freedom and equality with white subjects grounded in allegiance to the British Crown and their own understandings of blood lineage.

The books I picked & why

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Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora

By Stephanie E. Smallwood,

Book cover of Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora

Why this book?

Relying primarily on Royal African Company records, Smallwood reconstructs the forced migration and enslavement of approximately 300,000 African men, women, and children who were transported in English ships from the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) to the Americas between 1675 and 1725. She traces their dehumanizing journey from captivity in European forts on the West African coast through commodification at sea to sale in slave markets in the Caribbean and North America.

Through careful analysis of quantitative data, Smallwood tracks the processes of commodification that underwrote the transatlantic slave trade while simultaneously foregrounding the human experience of captivity and migration. This book offers a model example of innovative historical writing.


Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain

By Catherine Molineux,

Book cover of Faces of Perfect Ebony: Encountering Atlantic Slavery in Imperial Britain

Why this book?

A fascinating exploration of how British imperial ambitions influenced popular representations of Black slavery and white mastery during the peak years of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade (c. 1680s to 1807). Using a wide variety of sources—including shop signs, tea trays, product advertisements, portraiture, graphic satires, plays, and more—Molineux argues that British artists, writers, and shop keepers obscured the horrific realities of Atlantic slavery in favor of idealized power relations that supported Britain’s imperial fantasies and developing racial ideologies.

This book helps to answer the question: what role did Africans and people of African descent play in the British popular imagination during the height of the transatlantic slave trade?


The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

By Vincent Brown,

Book cover of The Reaper's Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery

Why this book?

A gripping and inventive study of death’s impact on social life in Britain’s largest, most profitable, and deadliest Caribbean slave colony: Jamaica. Brown shows how staggering mortality rates on the island, where the prospect of an early death awaited enslaved and free alike, profoundly shaped colonial culture, social relations, and spiritual practices. In Jamaica, the vital hub of Britain’s Atlantic slave empire, death was at once destructive and generative; it claimed countless lives sacrificed in the pursuit of British profits and inspired new, politically charged commemorative rituals and forms of enslaved resistance.

The Reaper’s Garden uncovers the interplay between death, wealth, and power in the British Atlantic and does so from the perspective of the African captives who not only endured but also drew power from the horrors of Atlantic slavery.


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

By Olaudah Equiano,

Book cover of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

Why this book?

In 1789, a free Black man living in London published a two-volume autobiography recounting his childhood in West Africa, kidnapping and sale to slave traders, forced migration to the Americas, and bondage under a variety of different British masters, and experiences after he purchased his freedom. The author, Olaudah Equiano, also known during his lifetime as Gustavus Vassa, presented eye-witness evidence that helped Britons to comprehend the brutality and cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and the impact of Britain’s Atlantic slave system on African people.

After the publication of his Interesting Narrative, Equiano traveled throughout Britain lecturing on the evils of slave trading and slavery and became a prominent and outspoken abolitionist. His influential autobiography is still a must-read. 


The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery

By Nicholas Draper,

Book cover of The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery

Why this book?

Based on painstaking analysis of the surviving records of the Commissioners of Slave Compensation, this book provides a comprehensive look at British slave-ownership in 1833, when the British government abolished colonial slavery and paid £20 million to slave-owners as compensation for their loss of human property. After emancipation the enslaved received nothing. Moreover, they were forced to remain on their plantations and continue to labor for their former masters under the apprenticeship system, which was not abolished until 1838. Draper concludes that slave-owning was widespread in metropolitan Britain and that many individuals, businesses, and institutions derived wealth from African slavery.

This book demonstrates that there is indeed a strong case for reparations and it is best read as a companion piece to University College London’s Legacies of British Slavery project, an extensive database tracing the impact of slave-ownership on the development of modern Britain.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Slavery, slaves, and African Americans?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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