Race and Slavery in the Americas: from the Age of Revolution to the Emancipation

Module code: HS3661 

Module co-ordinator: Dr James Campbell 

Module Outline

For nearly 400 years from the early-sixteenth century until the late-nineteenth century, slavery was a defining institution in the political, cultural, social and economic development of the Americas, Africa and Europe. At its core, slavery was a brutal system of labour exploitation based on race that was responsible for the uprooting, forced migration, and murder of millions of Africans and their descendants. Its history comprises extraordinary personal stories of enslaved people that are marked by suffering and tragedy, but also mixed with heroic tales of survival and resistance. The study of slavery, however, is also critical to explaining the experiences of indigenous peoples and white colonists and their descendants in the Americas, as well as the merchants, investors and politicians in Europe who had valuable stakes in the slave trade and colonial plantations. In sum, slavery’s history and legacy is essential to an understanding of the economy, power structures, social conflicts and cultural tensions of the modern world.

This module takes an in-depth look at the history of two of the largest and most powerful slave societies in the Americas: Jamaica and Virginia. Focusing on these two locations allows us to get to grips with the complex experiences of slave life and the nuances of political, economic and cultural changes over time. It also allows us to ask how and why slavery developed in different ways in different locations, tapping in to a rich body of scholarship on the comparative history of slavery. We will also make use of a range of intriguing primary sources, including slaveholders’ diaries, legal records documenting rebellions and interviews with former slaves.

Topics covered

The module starts with an overview of the Atlantic slave trade and the diverse slave societies that developed across the Americas. Brazil, the Caribbean and the southern United States were the largest slave societies, but slaves were transported to almost every American colony. We then examine the very different origins of slavery in Jamaica and Virginia, focusing on early experiments with different forms of unfree labour in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (such as Native American slavery and white indentured servitude) and the importance of racial ideologies and economics in the emergence of Africans as the primary source of forced labour. We will also interrogate the political and legal structures that underpinned the slaveholders’ rule, the development of the plantation system, and the growing diversity of slave labour by the nineteenth century.

Slaveholders exercised fearsome power, but slaves nonetheless had varying degrees of autonomy over their own lives. In the middle weeks of the module, we will take up important questions about the development of slave families and communities, the independent economies that slaves developed, the distinct gender roles and identities of enslaved men and women, and the survival and adaptation of African cultural influences in the Jamaican and Virginian contexts. We will also look at the work that slaves performed, systems of white domination and control, the lives of free people of African descent who escaped or were born outside of slavery, and forms of rebellion and resistance, including running away, the creation of maroon communities and large scale rebellions that threatened slavery’s very foundations.

The abolition of slavery was a slow and halting process that stretched from the 1780s in parts of North America to the 1880s in Brazil and Cuba. In Jamaica it occurred in 1834, when slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire, and in Virginia it survived for a further three decades until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. These events had many causes, including slave resistance, the emergence of new revolutionary ideologies, anti-colonial struggles, popular political campaigns (often led by religious groups and former slaves), and developments in the global economy and international politics. These were wide-ranging historical processes, but they were the product of individual experiences and local events and Jamaica and Virginia provide striking contrasts in how they played out in practice.

In the final week of the module, we will focus on the meaning and practical realities of abolition in the everyday lives of the former slaves. For hundreds of thousands of former slaves across Jamaica and Virginia, emancipation brought freedom in name alone. In practice, it was often accompanied by violence and repression that aimed to sustain white political and economic supremacy and which, in much of the Americas, was bound up with questions of colonialism and nation-building. Emancipation nonetheless also created new opportunities for former slaves and we will examine the varied ways in which they adjusted to the new political, economic and cultural realities of the late-nineteenth century. 


The module is taught through ten lectures and ten seminars. The lectures introduce key themes, topics and historiographical debates and the seminars provide an opportunity to explore the issues in greater depth. All of the seminars include analysis of diverse and engaging primary source materials and are based on student contributions.


There are three assignments on this module. First, you will write a 2,500 word report (worth 25% of the total module mark) analysing slavery at a time and place of your choosing. The report will be similar in style to modern-day human rights investigations so it will require you to research and write about the topic in different ways from a regular university essay. Second, a short essay of 2,500 words (25%) selected from a list of 8 questions that cover the full range of topics on the course. Third, a 2-hour exam (50%).


  • Trevor Burnard, Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and his Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (2004).
  • T. Stephen Whitman, Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775-1865 (2007).