Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (review)
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Slavery, Transatlantic trade routes, Maps

Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. By David Eltis and David Richardson. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. 307. Cloth, $50.00.)

In the Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, David Eltis and David Richardson have produced a beautiful book on an ugly subject—the forced migration of millions of African men, women, and children across the ocean for sale throughout the Americas. The book’s 189 full-color maps present estimates and analysis of this largest coerced transoceanic migration in history in a visual format, drawing data from the web site Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (to which both [End Page 152] authors were key contributors).1 Some maps illustrate the trans-Atlantic trade as a whole, while others are more specific, tracing the American destinations of captives departing a single African port or showing the African regions frequented by slave traders of a particular national background. As such, the Atlas offers a compendium of estimates of the forced migration parsed many different ways.

In that sense, the Atlas provides a crucial update to Philip Curtin’s pioneering The Atlantic Slave Trade; it offers a new census, incorporating the rich historiography of the intervening forty years.2 (Indeed the Atlas is dedicated to Curtin, crediting him with inspiring the database that undergirds the volume.) The Atlas differs from Curtin’s census, however, by eschewing his monograph format in which estimates were explained and defended, opting to leave such discussion to the online database. In exchange for this loss of explication, readers get vivid maps, covering many more routes and subjects, each captioned to highlight key trends or patterns. These maps appear in six topical sections, each with a useful introduction. Overall, the Atlas synthesizes a vast body of scholarship into a handy and visually striking reference work.

Although not organized around an argument, the Atlas does emphasize several key patterns. First, it highlights sugarcane cultivation as “the economic foundation” of the Atlantic slave trade (1). With arrows of varied widths proportionally representing the forced migration to various American regions, the primacy of sugar-producing areas (and the relative insignificance of the United States) is glaringly apparent in numerous maps. The Atlas also captures the division of the Atlantic slave trade between two fairly distinct systems. In the North Atlantic, triangular voyages predominated, linking European ports of organization with African ports north of the equator and American markets in the Caribbean or on its littoral. The South Atlantic traffic, by contrast, was bilateral—organized from Brazilian ports that were also the markets for captives. Typically these Brazilian ventures remained in the Southern Hemisphere, acquiring captives in the Congo–Angola region of West Central Africa.

Of particular interest to historians of the early republic period, the Atlas presents the period after 1775 as one of flux for the slave trade. [End Page 153] The Age of Revolution and the rise of abolitionism altered longstanding patterns, as Saint-Domingue ceased to be a market for slaves, as Cuban slavery expanded to fill the void, and as various slave-trading powers withdrew from the commerce in human beings. Just as gradual emancipation in the northern United States shifted the weight of slavery southward in the new republic, the Atlas illustrates a similar southward shift in the Atlantic world as a whole. As northern European powers and the United States withdrew from the slave trade in the early nineteenth century, the northernmost regions of supply in Africa also declined in importance, and many American markets north of the equator closed to slave arrivals. (Cuba offers a glaring exception to this trend of decline in the northern hemisphere.) Meanwhile, Brazil increasingly dominated the nineteenth-century traffic, as did its preferred regions of African supply south of the equator. This southward shift in markets of supply and demand should not suggest the northern slave traders were disinterested, however. Map 47, in particular, shows that U.S. ports continued organizing slaving voyages even after the United States barred importation of African captives in 1808. Other highlighted trends for the period after 1775 include increasing proportions of men and children in...