Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Brett Rushforth's "Bonds of Alliance"

Brett Rushforth is associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, and reported the following:
What was the relationship between slavery and racial ideology in the early modern world? The answer, as I explain in Bonds of Alliance, is not what you might expect. The book looks at three different slave systems in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: one indigenous to North America, one in the French colonies of the Caribbean, and a hybrid of the two that emerged in New France (Canada and the Great Lakes region). It finds that each of these societies justified slavery in very different ways, and their rationales often had nothing to do with slaves’ supposed racial inferiority.

On page 99, for example, we see French writers in the seventeenth century justifying slavery not in spite of Africans’ right to sovereignty, but because of it. As independent kingdoms with standing under the law of nations, the French reasoned, African societies had every right to enslave their enemies and sell them. As I write at the bottom of page 99: “Enslavement…was a recognized aspect of the law of war in this part of the world, practiced by sovereigns against the subjects of competing kingdoms with recognizable patterns and predictable reciprocity.” This idea inspired a system of treaties between France and several West African kingdoms that became the basis of France’s Atlantic slave trade.

In the Caribbean, the French developed ideas of racial exclusion to keep people in slavery, or to prevent former slaves from rising into full acceptance among the Europeans. Bonds of Alliance explores the conversation between these ideas and those of Native North Americans, who justified slavery as a system of forced assimilation rather than one of perpetual racial exclusion. As colonists in New France bought thousands of enslaved American Indians, they developed their own way of navigating these questions that borrowed from both indigenous and Atlantic approaches.

There are, of course, many other themes in Bonds of Alliance. I discuss the effects of slave raiding, the role of slavery in French-Native diplomacy, the evolution of slave law, and – perhaps most important – the lived experience of enslaved individuals. But each of these subjects, in its own way, shows that understanding slavery as a racial institution is more complicated – and often less useful – than we sometimes believe.
Learn more about Bonds of Alliance at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue