Matrimony on the Margins: Migrants, Marriage, and the Making of the Atlantic World

AHA Session 100
Friday, January 8, 2016: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room 303 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Mary Niall Mitchell, University of New Orleans
Slavery, Sex, and the Creation of Political Order in Dutch Brazil
Deborah Hamer, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
Emily Clark, Tulane University

Session Abstract

In an effort to better understand migration in the early modern Atlantic World, scholars from multiple disciplines and with various geographic and periodic specializations have debated the movement of people, both free and unfree. They have looked at various forms of migration including the hundreds of campaigns waged to conquer and hold territory, the Native American populations who were displaced by such campaigns, the thousands of European settlers looking for a new life, and the millions of African slaves forcibly removed from their homeland. These scholars have tried to develop useful frameworks to facilitate their studies of migration. Due to the great diversity of migration in the Atlantic and the many different ethnic groups involved, it has been particularly challenging to create such a uniform framework, leaving much space for discussion on this subject.

This panel engages in this debate, contending that one way to better understand migration is to look at it through the lens of marriage. It is important to examine marriage as part of Atlantic migration because it was often through marriage that marginalized groups integrated themselves into their new homelands, and marriage could be used to define those who did and did not belong to certain societies. Each presenter will explore marriage in an attempt to better understand its role in the history of migration in the Atlantic World, including Dutch Brazil, colonial New York, and eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Panelists investigate what marriage meant in each of these societies and emphasize how matrimony was important to defining communal membership and power relations between locals and newcomers. Andrea Mosterman demonstrates how enslaved Africans in colonial New York used marriage to increase their autonomy, while Jared Hardesty explores black-Indian marriages in eighteenth-century Massachusetts to show how enslaved African males used marriage as a tool to find freedom if not for themselves then for their children. Deborah Hamer’s paper takes a different approach, offering a view on how colonial authorities in Dutch Brazil used the regulation of interracial sex as a way to marginalize the Luso-Brazilian majority and buttress a unique racial and religious hierarchy.

In the end and whether colonial elites and metropolitan authorities approved or not, marriage between, within, and by marginalized migrants was a reality in the Atlantic World. This panel will investigate the circumstances and conditions of these various forms of marriage. Through its comparisons of diverse circumstances, periods, and regions, this panel reveals that the ideas about migrants and marriage in these significantly different societies had many commonalities. Thus, as a panel, these papers challenge common assumptions, such as the idea that African men married Native American women out of desperation in Massachusetts, or that slaves were unable to form meaningful family bonds. By exploring such a broad range of conditions this panel enhances our understanding of interethnic marriage, and consequently it demonstrates how migrants and their spouses were the building blocks of community in the early modern Atlantic World.

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