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Article

Atlantic History  

Alison Games

The field of Atlantic history analyzes the Atlantic Ocean and its four adjoining continents as a single unit of historical analysis. The field is a style of inquiry as much as it is a study of a geographic region. It is an approach that emphasizes connections and circulations, and its practitioners tend to de-emphasize political borders in their interest in exploring the experiences of people whose lives were transformed by their location within this large region. The field’s focus is the period from c. 1450 to 1900, but important debates about periodization reflect the challenges of writing a history that has no single geographic vantage point yet strives to be as inclusive as possible. The history of the United States intersects with Atlantic history in multiple ways, although the fields are neither parallel nor coterminous. Assessing the topics of slavery and citizenship, as they developed in the United States and around the Atlantic, demonstrate the potential advantages of this broader perspective on US history. Although the field emphasizes the early modern era, legacies of Atlantic history pervade the modern world, and individuals and institutions continue to struggle to understand all of the ways these legacies shape legal, social, economic, cultural, and political practices in the first decades of the 21st century.

Article

Early American Slave Law  

Sally Hadden

Slave law in early America may be found in the formal written laws created in metropolitan places such as Paris or Madrid as well as locally within English colonies such as Barbados or South Carolina. These written laws constitute only one portion of the known law governing slave behavior, for individual masters created their own rules to restrict enslaved persons. These master-made rules of conduct almost never appear in print and were conveyed most often through oral transmission. Such vernacular laws provide another element of the limitations all enslaved people experienced in the colonial period. Those without literacy, including Native Americans or illiterate settlers, nonetheless had rules to limit slave behavior, even if they remained unwritten. Customary law, Bible precepts, and Islamic law all provided bases for understanding the rules that bound unfree persons. Most colonial law mandated barbaric punishments for slave crime, though these were sometimes commuted to banishment. Spanish and French codes and local ordinances did not always agree on how slaves should be treated. The numerous laws found in English colonies, sometimes wrongly denominated as codes, spread widely as individuals migrated; the number and variety of such laws makes comprehensive transimperial comparisons challenging. Laws might occasionally ban keeping slaves or trading in them, but most such laws were ignored. Slave courts typically operated in arbitrary, capricious ways that assumed slave guilt and accepted weak evidence to prove it. Runaways might, if they joined strong maroon communities (bands of runaways living together), end up enforcing the laws against slave flight, much as slave catchers and slave patrols did. Laws to prevent manumission by a master frequently required the posting of bonds to prevent those freed from becoming a financial burden on their communities. Later manumission laws often mandated the physical departure of those freed, creating emotional turmoil for the newly emancipated.

Article

Female Slaveholders in British America  

Christine Walker

Women actively contributed to the expansion of chattel slavery in British America. During the colonial era, female inhabitants living in every region claimed by Britain, from the northernmost colonies to the southernmost islands in the Caribbean, held other people in bondage. As enslavers, women exercised their authority over captives in various capacities. Female slaveholders treated enslaved people as personal property that could be bought, sold, or rented out in the marketplace. They commanded enslaved people to perform diverse types of labor. Some worked in households as servants, cooks, and laundresses, while others labored in taverns, shops, fields, and on waterways. Women also bequeathed captives to descendants, often preferring to transfer enslaved people along female lines. Inheritance became an important mechanism for women to maintain control of, and benefit from, slaveholding. Finally, women exercised their authority by subjecting enslaved people to a spectrum of abuses ranging from corporeal punishment, imprisonment, and transportation, to starvation and execution. Early modern gender inequalities intensified women’s participation in slavery, offering them an alternative form of support, profit, and command. By offsetting the economic, legal, and social limitations imposed by patriarchal societies, slaveholding thus empowered women.

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Labor in the Spanish and Early US–Mexican Borderlands (1540–1848)  

Eric V. Meeks

The forced, coerced, and voluntary labor systems of the Spanish and early US–Mexico borderlands were as diverse as the territories where they predominated, and they evolved substantially over the course of three centuries. Spanish borderlands refers to an immense region that encompassed New Spain’s northern “interior provinces.” They were mostly inhabited and controlled by Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, these provinces would become the modern border states and territories of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas to the north; and Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south. Thousands of Indigenous, Black, mulatto, and mestizo people worked in coerced and unfree labor systems that ranged from outright slavery to encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage. New labor forms emerged with expanding global trade, economic reform, and industrialization in Europe and the United States. Compensated labor coexisted alongside forced labor in the colonial period, until it came to rival and, in some cases, replace involuntary labor by the early 19th century. Yet debt peonage and chattel slavery grew in importance during the same period. Workers themselves struggled to maintain autonomy and resisted through means that ranged from flight, malingering, and migration to outright rebellion.

Article

Material Culture in the 18th Century  

Jennifer Van Horn

Material culture refers to human-manufactured, human-altered, or human-used physical things of all sizes and materials, from houses to domestic artifacts to tools to landscapes. Material culture also refers to the study of artifacts and scholars’ use of objects as a form of evidence to ask and answer questions about the 18th century. Material culture studies is not limited to physical examination of artifacts. It also involves consideration of an array of documentary, literary, and visual sources that provide information about material life. In 18th-century colonial America, the meanings and uses of material goods changed radically. Anglo-American colonists obtained greater numbers and novel types of objects through transatlantic and global trade networks. The British manufactures that flooded the colonies fulfilled colonists’ desire to assert social status and to participate in social rituals that demonstrated refinement. Scholars have labeled these changes the “Consumer Revolution” and the system of “gentility.” Artifacts also built communities and buttressed political beliefs, particularly through non-importation or boycotts of British goods during the imperial crisis. Ideas of gender shaped how women’s growing activity of shopping was understood and critiqued, as well as the association of fashion with women. The importation of Asian and Indian goods, primarily textiles and porcelain, fulfilled fantasies of the exotic while enabling American consumers to demonstrate their worldliness and status. Material goods facilitated cultural exchange and trade between those of different races and ethnicities. At the same time, oppression and political and economic disenfranchisement shaped American material culture. Indigenous peoples expressed consumer preferences for manufactured goods during negotiations within the fur trade. They incorporated British manufactures into preexisting material practices. Enslaved African Americans entered the market as both commodities and consumers. Through their purchases and creative use of refined artifacts, bond people expressed individual identity despite their legal status as property.

Article

Motherhood in Early America  

Nora Doyle

Women’s lives in British North America and the early United States were fundamentally shaped by the experiences of childbearing and childrearing and by the ideologies of motherhood that emerged from a range of cultural contexts. Most women in this period became mothers, either through choice or coercion, but their experiences of childbearing and motherhood differed sharply depending on their cultural background, social status, and experience of freedom or bondage. The history of motherhood was marked by significant continuities as well as change over time. For most women, motherhood was fundamentally defined by the physical rigors of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, and these experiences remained central across generations. Motherhood comprised a range of roles, activities, and areas of expertise, and as a result many women enjoyed considerable authority as mothers within their families and communities; this too remained constant. Changes to childbearing, motherhood, and maternal ideology occurred gradually and unevenly and affected women from different backgrounds in distinct ways. The incursions of European settler colonialism and the later expansion of the new United States, for instance, brought growing instability to Native American communities and threatened to undermine Native women’s power as mothers, though they formulated strategic responses to preserve their authority. The second half of the 18th century saw changes to women’s experiences and to feminine ideology in Anglo-American society. Middle-class and elite White women precipitated a fertility revolution that resulted in steadily declining family size; in contrast, enslaved women of African descent generally experienced increasing rates of fertility in the 18th century, and their childbearing experiences were shaped by the commodification of their reproductive labor. At the same time, a gradual transition began in the realm of childbirth as some middle-class and elite white women called on male physicians to manage their births. Meanwhile, this same era also saw a significant ideological shift as motherhood gained new significance in Anglo-American culture, making the image of the ideal white mother the most potent symbol of feminine virtue and influence.

Article

Piracy in Colonial North America  

Mark G. Hanna

Historians of colonial British North America have largely relegated piracy to the marginalia of the broad historical narrative from settlement to revolution. However, piracy and unregulated privateering played a pivotal role in the development of every English community along the eastern seaboard from the Carolinas to New England. Although many pirates originated in the British North American colonies and represented a diverse social spectrum, they were not supported and protected in these port communities by some underclass or proto-proletariat but by the highest echelons of colonial society, especially by colonial governors, merchants, and even ministers. Sea marauding in its multiple forms helped shape the economic, legal, political, religious, and cultural worlds of colonial America. The illicit market that brought longed-for bullion, slaves, and luxury goods integrated British North American communities with the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Pacific and Indian Oceans throughout the 17th century. Attempts to curb the support of sea marauding at the turn of the 18th century exposed sometimes violent divisions between local merchant interests and royal officials currying favor back in England, leading to debates over the protection of English liberties across the Atlantic. When the North American colonies finally closed their ports to English pirates during the years following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), it sparked a brief yet dramatic turn of events where English marauders preyed upon the shipping belonging to their former “nests.” During the 18th century, colonial communities began to actively support a more regulated form of privateering against agreed upon enemies that would become a hallmark of patriot maritime warfare during the American Revolution.

Article

Plantation Life in the British West Indies, 1650–1850  

Jenny Shaw

Over two million enslaved people labored on cash crop plantations in the British West Indies in the almost two hundred years between the development of sugar plantations on Barbados in the 1650s and the age of emancipation in the 1830s. Although both the sizes of plantations and the crops produced varied across the Caribbean, generally the system of enslavement and therefore the plantation life generated within that system, did not. The contours of enslaved lives were shaped by myriad forces—the violence of the institution of slavery, the strictures of gender, reproduction, and patriarchy, the racial animosity engendered by whites, the hierarchies of the enslaved community, and the demographic reality of the colonies. The labor enslaved women, men, and children performed, the violence they endured, the familial and kinship ties they forged, the cultural practices they engaged in, and the strategies they employed to challenge their bonded status, were the constituent elements of their enslavement and their daily lives. But once slavery ended, the demands of the plantation did not fade. Neither did the racist attitudes of whites about people of African descent, or elite assumptions about what constituted a good subject in Britain’s burgeoning empire. As they forged new lives in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, former slaves grappled with how to set limits on their labor, build families, and live lives free from white scrutiny and oppression.

Article

The Posse Comitatus Doctrine in Early America  

Gautham Rao

Courts and legislatures in colonial America and the early American republic developed and refined a power to compel civilians to assist peace and law enforcement officers in arresting wrongdoers, keeping the peace, and other matters of law enforcement. This power to command civilian cooperation was known as the posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Rooted in early modern English countryside law enforcement, the posse comitatus became an important police institution in 18th- and 19th-century America. The posse comitatus was typically composed of able-bodied white male civilians who were temporarily deputized to aid a sheriff or constable. But if this “power of the county” was insufficient, law enforcement officers were often authorized to call on the military to serve as the posse comitatus. The posse comitatus proved particularly important in buttressing slavery in the American South. Slaveholders pushed for and especially benefited from laws that required citizens to assist in the recapture of local runaway slaves and fugitive slaves who crossed into states without slavery. Though slave patrols were rooted in the posse comitatus, the posse comitatus originated as a compulsory and noncompensated institution. Slaveholders in the American South later added financial incentives for those who acted in the place of a posse to recapture slaves on the run from their owners. The widespread use of the posse comitatus in southern slave law became part of the national discussion about slavery during the early American republic as national lawmakers contemplated how to deal with the problem of fugitive slaves who fled to free states. This dialogue culminated with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which the US Congress authorized officials to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus” and declared that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” During Reconstruction, the Radical Republican Congress used the posse comitatus to enforce laws that targeted conquered Confederates. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states pushed Congress to create what would come to be known as the “Posse Comitatus Act,” which prohibited the use of federal military forces for law enforcement. The history of the posse comitatus in early America is thus best understood as a story about and an example of the centralization of government authority and its ramifications.

Article

Slave Conspiracies in the British Colonies  

James F. Dator

Slave conspiracies in the British colonies developed alongside the institution of slavery. They were terrifying events for colonists and enslaved people alike. For historians, they are complicated events to study because white British authorities left behind an archival record written from the perspective of the ruling class, which usually comprised slaveholders who were anxious to maintain their power and interpreted alleged plots in ways that accorded with their racialized view of the world. Nonetheless, studying these conspiracies tells us a considerable amount about the social climate of the period. Thus, studying them illuminates not only the emotions of fear and terror that haunted these societies but also the role that culture, economy, and political values played in their development.

Article

West Africa and US Foreign Relations  

Mark W. Deets

Since the founding of the United States of America, coinciding with the height of the Atlantic slave trade, U.S. officials have based their relations with West Africa primarily on economic interests. Initially, these interests were established on the backs of slaves, as the Southern plantation economy quickly vaulted the United States to prominence in the Atlantic world. After the U.S. abolition of the slave trade in 1808, however, American relations with West Africa focused on the establishment of the American colony of Liberia as a place of “return” for formerly enslaved persons. Following the turn to “legitimate commerce” in the Atlantic and the U.S. Civil War, the United States largely withdrew from large-scale interaction with West Africa. Liberia remained the notable exception, where prominent Pan-African leaders like Edward Blyden, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey helped foster cultural and intellectual ties between West Africa and the Diaspora in the early 1900s. These ties to Liberia were deepened in the 1920s when Firestone Rubber Corporation of Akron, Ohio established a long-term lease to harvest rubber. World War II marked a significant increase in American presence and influence in West Africa. Still focused on Liberia, the war years saw the construction of infrastructure that would prove essential to Allied war efforts and to American security interests during the Cold War. After 1945, the United States competed with the Soviet Union in West Africa for influence and access to important economic and national security resources as African nations ejected colonial regimes across most of the continent. West African independence quickly demonstrated a turn from nationalism to ethnic nationalism, as civil wars engulfed several countries in the postcolonial, and particularly the post-Cold War, era. After a decade of withdrawal, American interest in West Africa revived with the need for alternative sources of petroleum and concerns about transnational terrorism following the attacks of September 11, 2001.