Atlantic System after 1450

Introduction to the Atlantic System and Slavery in Modern World History

The transformation of the Atlantic World as part of world system was introduced in the important work of Immanuel Wallerstein’s project, The Modern World System.  Wallerstein who is a sociologist at Binghamton and Yale Universities, wrote a series of volumes describing the rise of a modern world system, dominated by the European core nation-states, that arose around 1450.   In the 15th century, several European nation-states, notably Spain and Portugal, began aggressively exploring the Atlantic in order to establish trade, potential colonies, and to establish overseas empires.  Colonies are defined here as the attempt to establish settlers in areas beyond one’s own territory.  Empire is the system of controlling external territory through a combination of conquest, colonization and occupation.  According to Wallerstein, the European system that dominated the Atlantic created a dependency in which the periphery of the world economy (the Americas, for example) became dominated by Europeans who exploited its resources and labor for the benefit of the European core countries.  This is known as dependency theory.  While this theory was useful as a model during the 1970s for discussing the rise of the Third World in relation to the West, or of the South to the North in the world economy, more recent approaches have suggested that interrelations of capital and development created local alliances and accumulation of power that were retained in the colonies and emerging nations themselves.
In the 15th century, monopolies granted by the state to merchatns and shipping partners dominated capitalism and trade.  Empires are costly and the need for profits to compensate the state’s enteprise arose as an early problem.
Slavery existed in Europe in the Middle Ages, but it was reshaped to unprecedented levels by the expansion of the European Atlantic system in the 16th – 18th centuries.  (Wallerstein, 87) Europeans brought at least eight million black men, women and children out of Africa to the Western Hemisphere. Slavery arose as the solution for profits and the labor problem.
The application of Wallerstein’s approach to the Atlantic was put forth in Barbara Solow,  ed., Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System (Cambridge University Press, 1993).  The essays in this book situate the rise of slavery in the New World and the Atlantic as an integral function of the new international economy.    The impact on Africa was disruptive and tragic. Slaveryr also created a system of interdependence and rivalry among the empires created by the European nation-states of Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain.
The historian, Luiz Felip de Alencastro, saw the use of slavery by the Portuguese as a solution for contentious conditions encountered by the Crown, the clergy and colonists over the labor supply.   The slave trade was an important source of revenue for both crown and clergy.  As the Portuguese colonized Brazil, the extraction of precious metals and slaves from Africa was used to supplement the costs of their mercantile trade in Asia, and to enable a production system of large sugar plantations with the newly imported slaves from Africa.  In return Brazilian sugar and other produce became key exports back to Portugal and to Portuguese markets in Antwerp and the Low Countries.  (Solow, 1993, 151-176)

One of the first studies of how an Atlantic System of exploitation based on slavery arose as a solution for empire was put forth by Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery, (1944).  Williams argued that slavery provided the profits that financed England’s banking and key industries in the home country.  Williams asserted that humanitarian appeals of liberal anti-slavery reformers in Britain were inadequate for their gradualist approach. It was the development of advanced capitalism and industrial production that reduced the need for slavery.  Mature industrial capitalism in turn helped destroy the slave system.Williams showed the exploitation of commercial capitalism and its link to racial attitudes.  In the introduction a new edition of Capitalism and Slavery, the historian Colin Palmer assessed the lasting impact of Williams's groundbreaking work and analyzes the heated scholarly debates it generated when it first appeared.
By the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of scholars emerged who critically reappraised the presumptions of dependency theory, that a follower of Wallerstein’s world systems approach may have advocated.

Rather than accept a simple subordination of the entire Atlantic World to the supremacy of European rule, scholars and critics of cultural studies showed how slaves themselves created a new culture of their own.  Slaves from Africa brought and retained key elements of their culture, language and philosophy.  The Martinique poet Edouard Glissant proposed that creolization, was a process of cultural fusion among slaves who retained key elements of traditions and culture that resonated through religious, social and linguistic formation in the Caribbean and Atlantic colonies.


Thomas Benjamin, The Atlantic World:  Europeans, Africans, Indians and their Shared History, 1400-1900. (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Eduard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse:  Selected Essays (University Press of Virginia, 1989)
Barbara Solow, ed. Slavery and the Rise of the  Atlantic System (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System I:  Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. (Academic Press, 1974)
Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 1994, originally published in 1944).