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Rushforth captures 2013 Merle Curti Award

William & Mary’s Brett Rushforth, author of “Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France,” was awarded the 2013 Merle Curti Award for the best book published in American social history Saturday night by the Organization of American Historians (OAH).

Associate professor of history and director of Graduate Studies for the History Department, Rushforth said he was “absolutely thrilled to win the prize.”

“The book took a great deal of time to research and write,” he said. “And, frankly, I was thrilled because so many of the historical works that I deeply admire are Curti winners and I’m honored to now be in that special group.”

Rushforth spent 12 years researching and writing “Bonds,” beginning in 1999. Information was gleaned from 20 different archives in Canada, France, the United States and the Caribbean. He translated manuscripts from French, developed a working knowledge of Algonquin and pored through the centuries-old recordings of Jesuit missionaries.

The Curti awards committee was understandably impressed.

The  book “provides a stunning reconstruction of the Indian slave trade and slavery in new France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” they wrote. “Bursting with archival richness and interdisciplinary insights from historical linguistics and anthropology, ‘Bonds of Alliance’ shows how the French and their Indian allies hammered out a unique hybrid of indigenous and Atlantic slaveries over decades of war, diplomacy, commerce, and social fusion.

“Rushforth significantly expands the conventional historical geography of slavery in colonial North America from the eastern rim into Indian country, and he integrates this larger world into a broader transatlantic context of ideas and practices encompassing Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. He populates a vast canvas with unforgettable human stories of brutality and resilience, shattering and adaptation, told with meticulous care and clarity.”

One of Rushforth’s favorite stories, he said, appears in the final chapter. It traces the lives of four people, all enslaved in Montreal, and it “blurs a lot of the boundaries we think about when we think of slavery.”

One of those is race. One of the four, named Joseph, defies our conventional thinking on slavery as he was owned by a man who had both French and Indian ancestors. Although his master owned a farm, Joseph’s only use of the land was a barn he turned into the  headquarters for the master’s smuggling operation.

“He would move smuggled goods around the island for his master, who would hire him out to other smugglers,” Rushforth said. “Joseph became a very important part of this ring of smugglers and traders who would sell illegal things, like alcohol, to native people. They’d also sell unlicensed goods to circumvent taxes and monopolies.

Joseph was handsomely rewarded for his role, but warned that if he were caught, the master would accuse him of stealing and swear that Joseph was acting on his own. That’s exactly what happened. French authorities attempted to convince Joseph to turn on his master, but he never did.

“His life is completely different from the type of slavery we imagine,” Rushforth said. “We think of slavery as plantation labor, producing crops for sale. He was a slave, but he was fairly free to move around the city. He had a fair amount of autonomy. He had jobs that were typically urban, running errands around town, engaging in trade. It’s not how we think of the institution.”

Rushforth is the third W&M faculty member to capture the award in the last seven years, following Scott Nelson (“Steel Drivin’ Man,” 2006) and Cindy Hahamovitch (“No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor,” 2012).

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