Slavery, Intimacy, and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic

AHA Session 121
Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Madison Room A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Karin Wulf, College of William and Mary
Brett Rushforth, College of William and Mary

Session Abstract

All of the papers in this panel interrogate the surprising and complicated human intimacies forged by hideous and inhumane systems of transatlantic slavery.  This panel thus places such domestic relations, from those between husbands and wives to those between enslaved women and their lovers to those between mistresses and enslaved women, at the center of the analysis.  The papers in the panel also probe the ways in which appeals to domestic life and affections worked for individuals in systems of slavery: whether for mistresses who cited their love for enslaved women and their offspring in legal cases, or for Afro-Caribbean women seeking to establish households even in the absence of a white lover who had left them behind, or for managers, masters, and mistresses who made claims about the family lives of their bondsmen and bondswomen.  It particularly focuses on women and their experience of slavery and freedom. It thus places gender and households in tandem with slavery and race, in considering how individuals navigated complicated colonial situations. 

The panel also delves into the ways in which ideals, whether the law or general expectations, came into conflict with the lived experience of slavery, considering what one panelist terms “ the emotional bonds of bondage.”  White men in Jamaica were not supposed to forge long-term partnerships with enslaved women, yet they did.  Mistresses were not necessarily supposed to love the offspring of their bondswomen, yet sometimes, evidently, they did.  Enslaved people in British mainland North America were not supposed to marry, especially not in polygamous unions, yet they did, in ways which even masters, mistresses, and managers recognized as “marriage” at some level. 

This panel places these issues in a broader comparative vista, seeking to contrast time and place in the ways these intimacies, and appeals to them, worked, especially for women.  It thus contributes to recent work in Atlantic history. Papers cover colonial Peru under Spanish (and Bourbon) authority in the eighteenth century; late eighteenth-century colonial Jamaica under British rule; and early eighteenth-century colonial Virginia.  The commentator is an expert in French colonial slavery in a range of contexts.  We expect that the audience will include those interested in slavery in the Americas, as well as those concerned with gender and sexuality in the early modern Atlantic.  We hope that this broadly comparative perspective will help to illuminate the ways in which wider political and legal regimes helped to shape, and were in turn shaped by, the closest of domestic relations.

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