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'Bonds of Alliance': Rushforth examines Native slavery

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Natives -- those indigenous to the New World -- were not suited to slavery; they were too free, too untamable.

That is a myth constructed from 100 years of French/Native encounters during the 17th century. It is among those that Brett Rushforth, William & Mary associate professor of history, discredits in his new book "Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France."

“It is a slaveholder’s tale,” Rushforth said. “It was designed to validate African slaveholding.”

The myth was fostered, he explained, among Caribbean slave-masters following the French withdrawal and British pre-Revolutionary ascension in the St. Lawrence region.

Rushforth’s book examines the encounter of French settlers with Natives in the Pays d’en Haut (Great Lakes region) between 1660 and 1760, a period representing the height of the French fur trade and the flowering of key cities, including Quebec and Montreal. Far from presenting a simplistic account of French colonial domination and Native victimization, Rushforth’s book offers a nuanced read that examines Native slaving practices, reveals tensions in the French moral understanding of bondage and follows the on-the-ground encounters that led to what the author terms “a hybrid form of slavery.”

French fur traders exploring the St. Lawrence Valley did not import slavery; they encountered it among the competing nations that populated the region, Rushforth said. These nations, including the Illinois, the Fox and the Ottawa, practiced what he called an “inclusive” form of slavery. Those who were not killed in border disputes or raids often were assimilated into the victorious nation with statuses equivalent to gift or to family dog. Ultimately the nation used this as a means of strengthening its own population as well as extending its regional reputation.

“It happened on a relatively small scale: When you’re living in a world in which you could become the victim, it limits your incentives to want to enslave others,” Rushforth said.

French settlers, who differentiated among various indigenous nations as trading partners and as military allies—hence, it was not “racial” slavery, Rushforth contends— accepted slaves as gifts, made them members of their households, transferred to some the French family names. The alliances helped the French to enter into the indigenous world of captive trading. As their own interests changed—i.e. aspirations toward wealth that were perceived to be limited by a short labor supply—the French transformed the Native practice. The Natives realized they could capture slaves for trade. Ironically, the understanding increased the magnitude of indigenous “slave-raiding” while decreasing its ferocity, according to Rushforth. Indigenous traders realized that a healthy slave was worth more than one who had been ritualistically beaten.

Still, the contrast between slavery evolving under French colonial influence in the Caribbean and that in New France had to, in Rushforth’s words, “have a conversation.”

Caribbean slavery was about labor, about getting bodies and keeping them perpetually enslaved, he explained. Slaves were considered a key to wealth. As that mindset came to bear more influence among those in New France who saw the wealth amassed in the Caribbean as a route to prestige and power both in the New World and on the Continent, the concept of perpetual bondage took hold.  The result was the hybrid slavery that formed. In it, on the one hand, slaves were incorporated into households while, on the other hand, they were bought, sold and forced to labor.

As the decades advanced, slaves in New France always faced the threat of exportation to the Caribbean sugar plantations, a fate whose horrors were well known.  In fact, the fire that burned much of Montreal in 1734 was blamed on a slave who had just learned she would be sent to the Caribbean. Although Rushforth believes she was used as a scapegoat for the fire, the fact that the story persisted gives evidence of the fluidity that came to mark the slave-holding system.

Not to suggest that to be a slave in the St. Lawrence region was a more dignified form of bondage, Rushforth explained. That is another myth he takes on.

“The average age at death of an enslaved Native in Montreal and Quebec City and the St. Lawrence Valley was about 14 years,” he said. “They worked for merchants unloading canoes, unloading warehouses. They were cold. They slept on pallets on the floor. There was a kind of suffering they endured that wasn’t the suffering of working in the cane fields but was suffering none-the-less.”

Indeed, it is the inclusion of multiple personal accounts based on the lives and experiences of Natives who were enslaved that enable Rushforth’s historic account to touch the human nerve, so to speak.

“Ethically it was important for me to create as many human stories as I could, not just because it makes it interesting but because these people lived their lives in a system where they were treated as property, where they were bought and sold, where their children were not their own, and I think they deserve the kind of respect and human attention that I’ve tried to give them in the book,” he explained.

See the publisher's page for more information about this book.