Shackelford on Rushforth, 'Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France'

Brett Rushforth
Alan Shackelford

Brett Rushforth. Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. x + 406 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3558-6; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-1386-4.

Reviewed by Alan Shackelford (University of North Dakota) Published on H-Atlantic (June, 2015) Commissioned by W. Douglas Catterall

Reassessing Slavery in New France

This artfully conceived and engagingly written study presents the reader with a scope worthy of a place as large, varied, and dynamic as the Atlantic world. In its course, Brett Rushforth takes us from slaving expeditions on the Great Plains to trade entrepôts in the Great Lakes, the docks and fields of the St. Lawrence Valley, plantations in the Caribbean, and French slave galleys in the Mediterranean. In a journey lasting from 1660 to 1760, the reader is introduced to the varied meanings and practices of slavery in these disparate contexts and, just as importantly, to the dialogue that emerged from their intersections. The crucible of this dialogue is New France, where continental French, French Caribbean, and American Indian practices of slavery collided and created a contingent world where slavery took many forms and faced even more possibilities. 

In the first chapter, Rushforth presents an interpretation of indigenous slavery that contrasts somewhat with the mourning warfare attributed to Indian peoples in the eastern Great Lakes, most notably the Iroquois and Hurons. To the west, in the Pays d’en Haut, the incorporation of captives was potentially a means of sustaining a community’s population and social order, but just as frequently was a brutal exercise in diplomacy. Captivity obviously signaled enmity to its victims and their communities. It also served to bind allies together as each exchange of captives implicated them in a violent act against a presumptively common enemy. Rushforth makes clear that captives, even those who eventually emerged as fictive or affinal kin through adoption or marriage were vulnerable to abuse and violence. As the French extended alliances with American Indian peoples westward across the Great Lakes and southward down the Mississippi Valley, they frequently accepted such captives and thus built enmities even as they garnered allies. Soon they were enmeshed in this form of diplomatic enslavement. This was a potential challenge to the French, at least those of an intellectual and legal bent. 

In France, there was a popular attachment to the assertion that slavery was incompatible with its national identity. Despite this attachment, France’s connections with the Mediterranean world, and by extension Africa, ensured the French would participate in slavery both as slaves and masters. North African pirates targeted both French shipping and seaside villages in their pursuit of slaves. The French themselves recognized the legitimacy of the practice of slavery, at least in such places as the Mediterranean’s royal galleys and among Iberian merchant communities in various port cities. Thus France’s legal tradition concerning slavery, rather than being uniformly hostile, accommodated it in specific locales and under restricted circumstances. While not consistent with French legal practice, slavery was recognized as legitimate under international law as a consequence of a “just war.” Thus France would not enslave enemies and the status of slaves within continental France would be open to legal challenge, but the possibility of the French entering the slave trade elsewhere in their empire was left open. 

This possibility was eventually exploited in the development of the French Caribbean. The Spanish and Portuguese had already experimented with both Indian and African unfree labor in the region, and early French settlers in the Caribbean were well aware of these precedents, but were initially constrained by limited capital and limited economic opportunities. But in 1654, refugee Dutch planters from Brazil came to the French Caribbean, sparking a boom in sugar production and the use of African slaves. In justifying a practice that was limited in metropolitan France, the French returned to the international law concerning just wars. This required some artful disingenuousness. To justify the purchase of slaves through the West African slave trade, the French asserted that the enslaved were the by-products of just wars waged between legitimate African kingdoms whose culture of war focused on taking captives and livestock. By insisting that slaves were purchased from legitimate monarchs through the French king’s sanctioned Compagnie du Sénégal, the French Crown asserted that its purchases were consistent with the law of nations if not with Gallic legal tradition. And because these slaves were destined for the French Caribbean, the thought was that they would not pose much of a problem for France’s domestic proscriptions concerning slavery. Rushforth emphasizes how these initial French rationales for slavery avoided, if briefly, the kind of justifications associated with debates rooted in natural law and innate inferiority. Such racial justifications were already insinuating themselves in debates concerning its practice in the Atlantic world and would make their way to the French Atlantic. 

As African slavery became entrenched in the French Caribbean, French officials faced with effective resistance and reprisal by Carib Indians pragmatically came to oppose Indian slavery. Enslaving local Indians posed security issues by provoking them, and the intermixing of Indian and African populations threatened to unite the two parties in opposition to the French. In addition, France sought to distinguish itself and win native allies in its competition with French Guiana’s neighbor, Portuguese Brazil. Although Indian slavery did not disappear altogether despite the Crown’s wishes, in 1703 local colonial officials did execute two Frenchmen guilty of committing slave raids. The future of Indian slavery in the French Caribbean appeared to be marginal and illicit for the time being.

Decades following these executions, French colonials in both New France and the Caribbean could imagine their worlds of slavery merging. The first half of the eighteenth century was tumultuous in the North American interior. Despite a desire to extend its alliances with Indian communities westward through the Mississippi Basin, New France found itself embroiled in protracted conflicts with those very groups with whom it hoped to enter into new relationships. Generally Indian peoples already enjoying trade and alliance with the French had no desire to see western neighbors supplant them and fostered these wars. Most notable among these conflicts were those waged against the Mesquakies and Dakotas. As a result of the decades-long struggle among these would-be allies, large numbers of Mesquakie and Dakota slaves made their way into French hands as New France’s indigenous allies sought to make any diplomacy between their enemies and the French problematic. The tactic worked well. In the summer of 1742, a Dakota peace delegation to Montreal became incensed upon encountering enslaved Dakota children. Negotiations foundered as the French governor found himself caught between the property rights of his citizens and the aims of his own foreign policy. Royal officials were quite aware of the quandary such slaves created for French foreign relations and had urged the practice be curtailed. But New France’s labor shortage and the sudden availability of Indian slaves contributed to its flourishing. In fact, by the eve of the Seven Years’ War, colonials in both New France and the Caribbean were contemplating exporting North American Indian slaves to the latter region. The Crown even ruled that the owners of Indian slaves had every expectation that they could take their property with them in safety if they traveled between the two colonies. Of course, the outbreak of war and British naval supremacy ultimately put an end to such dreams. 

In addition to its felicitous writing and frequent changes of scenery, Bonds of Alliance holds its reader’s attention with its methodological ecumenism. At times, Rushforth employs “thick description” to reveal meanings found in the interplay between behavior and context. At other times, he performs the reconstruction of interpersonal ties and local contexts characteristic of social history rooted in notarial, court, and church records. And at yet other times, he delves into the intellectual history of legal theory on slavery in the Western tradition. Perhaps most novel and innovative is his use of American Indian vocabularies collected by missionaries to reveal indigenous practices and perceptions of captive taking and slavery. Because of how well it is written, the variety of methods it employs, and its engagement with a broad range of historiographic concerns, this book will be widely adopted in graduate and upper-division university courses. 

Perhaps Rushforth’s greatest historiographic contribution with this book is his documentation of Indian slaves’ lives in New France and its western outposts. Here we find a varied practice that defies generalization. Indian slaves worked as field hands, freighters, and domestics. Some signed on as assistants to voyageurs to return westward. Within households they on occasion found themselves overseen by Indian or metis mistresses. And while Indian slavery in New France may have been “embedded in a system of kin-based subordination,” Rushforth makes clear that in its practice it was often inhumane and brutal (p. 298). Indian slaves were chattel, subject to the wills and whims of their masters. The overwhelming majority were women and children, and they were vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse as well as material deprivation. Yes, some were able to navigate a system that allowed them or their children to potentially emerge as free people, but those journeys were hardly facilitated by a humane practice of slavery.

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Citation: Alan Shackelford. Review of Rushforth, Brett, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. June, 2015. URL:

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