Review of Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France by Brett Rushforth University of North Carolina Press
Brett Rushforth’s Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France is a comparative history that examines the magnitude of 17th and 18th century slavery in the French colonies of the Americas with particular emphasis on slavery in the Pays d’en Haut. The slave trade between the Natives and the French in this Great Lakes region became increasingly complex and violent. Rushforth traces both the native institution of slavery and the expanding French market for the trade, a market that connected the Pays d’en Haut with the Caribbean and with the Atlantic slave trade. Bonds of Alliance demonstrates the complex historical weave of cultural accommodation that connected people’s lives across thousands of miles, and in the process created an array of syncretic relationships.
Rushforth provides a vital corrective to the popular notion of a relatively congenial relationship between the French and Native peoples in the Pays d’en Haut. Indeed, the reality of the slave trade adds yet another dimension to the intercultural negotiations that combined to create a world that was neither French nor Indian. When the French first entered the region, they were greeted with gifts that included the enslaved enemies of their hosts, and from this “developed a sustained slave trade built upon decades of small-scale exchanges of bodies, goods, and ideas.”
Rushforth argues that an essential misconception was made by early French colonials in the region: they mistook the multitude of language, complex kinships, and regional settlement patterns as evidence of widespread upheaval caused by Iroquois wars, and this notion has been perpetuated in Pays d’en Haut scholarship. He criticizes Richard White’s The Middle Ground on this point, claiming that his “refugee interpretation” overlooks that fact that only a small population of Hurons fled to the interior of the Pays d’en Haut in the late 1640s; “all of the region’s other peoples maintained ethnic and regional divisions broadly similar to those of the early seventeenth century.” Rushforth further argues that even the Huron dislocation did not force a cultural reorientation, since long-established cultural and trade relations existed between them and the Anishinaabes and other Algonquian-speakers. One suspects that this issue will remain particularly fertile ground for controversy.
The Siouan and Algonquian peoples that the French encountered in the Pays d’en Haut maintained a brutal slave-centered war culture. Unlike the world of plantation slavery in which human beings were kept in bondage for the production of commodities, Rushforth contends that indigenous slavery was an expression of symbolic dominion, one in which an enemy’s power and productivity were appropriated by the taking of captives in battle. The slave generally held a marginal and precarious position within the community. Furthermore, in an apparent contradiction, native slavery both disrupted and facilitated trade and intermarriage throughout the Pays d’en Haut. Rushforth explains that “among allies, the sharing of enslaved enemies cemented alliances and created the bonds of fictive kinship [. . .]. Among enemies, enslavement provided outlets for violent expressions of enmity that stopped short of total destruction and provided mechanisms of repopulation and enhanced productivity.”
Rushforth also examines the contradictions in French law regarding slavery, and he identifies the distinct legal geographies that came to exist in France and the Americas. In short, legal pluralism defined slavery in the French empire. In France itself, there had been a long standing commitment to free soil principles, but in the Caribbean the plantation economy depended on slavery, and in the Pays d’en Haut indigenous slavery could not be separated from its cultural imperatives, the bonds that existed there between Native alliances and slavery and that also affected French designs on the trade. Regional distinctions in the practice of slavery in the French world is seen by Rushforth as a diologue that was attempting to justify the institution morally and economically, and at the same time attempt to identify a logic in the legal contradictions within the empire.
For world historians, this book will be of particular interest. It demonstrates the intersection between Native slaving practices in the Pays d’en Haut and the slave trade of the broader French Atlantic world. The plantation economies that arose on Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Christophe, and eventually Saint Domingue were dependent upon slave labor. The export of enslaved Indians to the Caribbean meant that individual Native slaves contributed to the cultural diversity of the islands. Pays d’en Haut colonials, and especially colonists in the Saint Lawrence Valley, attempted, and failed, to replicate the success of the Caribbean Plantation models. Complex localized slave cultures differed widely between the Pays d’en Haut and the Saint Lawrence Valley. Furthermore, individual slaves could live in a variety of very different places. An illustration of this given by Rushforth is that they could be “enslaved wives of metis traders in Detroit, cooks in a Montreal hospital, [and] plantation workers in the sugar fields of Martinique.” Bonds of Alliance provides a compelling world history narrative, one made particularly worthy of attention by the not insignificant talent that Rushforth demonstrates as a writer. This book is essential reading for all who have an interest in Native American history and in the History of French colonialism in the Americas.
Reviewed by Paul Jentz, Founding President of Midwest World History Association, 2009-2011. North Hennepin Community College.
Edited by Tracy C. Barrett
(c) 2012 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 5, Fall, 2012. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.[Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]