Families and Communities in the Early Modern Atlantic Empires

AHA Session 242
Conference on Latin American History 55
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Kristen Block, University of Tennessee at Knoxville
Bianca Premo, Florida International University

Session Abstract

This panel reassesses the connections between family and empire. Over the last forty years, historians of the trans-Atlantic empires of Spain, France, and Britain have analyzed diversity and change within three broad categories of families: white settler families, "in-between" families that included Europeans and Native Americans and/or Africans, and the African and Native American families who bore the brunt of colonialism. These analyses, however, have largely remained separate from one another, fragmenting our understanding of family and empire. Following a recent resurgence in interest in the history of the family, this panel re-integrates family with empire, focusing the questions on those colonies that were central to their respective administration's projects: Mexico, Saint-Domingue, Jamaica, and Virginia. Discussing different types of families together, including their varied navigations of colonialism and empire and their respective quests for stability, paints a more detailed portrait of Atlantic communities, the reformulation of race in the late eighteenth century, and the everyday workings of colonialism.

The panelists use research in previously unexamined notary and administrative records and insightful reconsiderations of political texts to re-connect family and empire in the study of the early modern Atlantic. Andrews explores how officials in Bourbon-era Mexico sought to track and direct orphans of color for the maintenance of the social order. Their efforts to place these casta children in the proper tax category and to encourage patriarchal marriage led to detailed investigations into the orphans' kin and community connections. Orphans, in turn, shaped this process for their own purposes. Palmer examines how the booming plantation economy of Saint-Domingue created, and the flexibility of French property law allowed, a transformation in the abilities of white women to own property. Rights to inherited land and slaves made colonial-born white women particularly attractive marriage partners and, at least sometimes, prospective husbands paid a dowry to their spouse. Taber explores how slaves, free people of color, and whites in Saint-Domingue established their children as owners of slaves and land. The divergent strategies to achieve this--expressed in business contracts, marriage agreements, and wills--exacerbated tensions over Dominguan identity and the colony's future that exploded at the end of the 1780s. Finally, Livesay shows how the figure of the aged slave shaped the political discourse around abolition in Jamaica and Virginia. Abolitionists’ scrutiny of slave families produced a fascination with elderly slaves as ostensible examples of slavery’s brutality as well as its supposed humanity. In each of these cases, Enlightenment ideas about society and hierarchy conflicted with the local reality of family life, a collision that furthered the formation of "American" or "creole" political identity.

By drawing the discussion of different types of families together with empire, this panel sheds light on the grassroots relationship between colonialism and family life in the Caribbean and North America, with important implications for understanding shifts in gender roles, the origins of the Age of Revolutions, slave emancipation, and European understandings of America. It addresses questions that will be of interest to scholars of gender, politics, capitalism, and race and slavery.

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