Rethinking Captivity in the Early Modern Atlantic World

AHA Session 154
Friday, January 6, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Ann Little, Colorado State University
Ann Little, Colorado State University

Session Abstract

From millions of Africans trafficked into chattel slavery to King Philip’s nameless son, from Mary Rowlandson to Olaudah Equiano, captivity was ubiquitous in the early modern Atlantic world. Captive peoples were separated from their cultures through violent acts and circulated through local, regional, and/or transatlantic networks of forced migration which facilitated the exploitation of their bodies and labor for economic, social, political, and diplomatic purposes.

While early captivity scholarship focused on literary criticism interested in classifying the captivity narrative genre, and historical studies that privileged the experience of English colonists taken captive, recent scholars have expanded their definition of captivity. The new captivity studies considers unfree peoples across a broad spectrum of unfreedom in the early modern Atlantic, including Indian captives, indentured servants, prisoners of war, enslaved Native Americans, and African slaves.

While sharing recent scholarly interventions from Sierra Leone to the American Southwest, this panel explores the challenges faced by historians of captivity. Particularly vexing are the methodological problems--and opportunities--presented by a more capacious definition of captivity. What types of unfree peoples should be considered captives? How should scholars compare the captivities of men and women, colonizers and colonized, people who were enslaved or adopted, captives who fled their captors and those who willingly remained? What terms should scholars use to describe the circulation of captives through various types of captive trade systems? Considering sources, how should scholars weigh captivity narratives, usually penned by privileged historical actors, with other experiences of captivity much more difficult to uncover in the historical record?

Carla Cevasco uses new approaches from food studies and the history of the body to explore English women’s struggles with breastfeeding in Indian captivity, arguing that concerns about nourishing captive infants was both a source of anxiety and intercultural cooperation among indigenous captors and their English captives. Joanne Jahnke Wegner combines traditional archival research with digital humanities methodology (GIS mapping) to argue that the enslavement of Native Americans resulted in a diaspora of Indian slaves within and between the colonies and into the Atlantic world. Small in comparison to the African slave trade, the Indian diaspora was facilitated by local, regional, and transatlantic systems of human trafficking geared toward the sale and exploitation of captive Indians to facilitate settler colonialism. Rachel Herrmann takes us to Sierra Leone where she argues that colonial struggles for hegemony between the English colony and a powerful Temne ruler known to the English as King Farama were reflected in the captivity of a white English colonist, James Watt. Benjamin Mark Allen examines the methodological issues faced by captivity scholars including how to categorize and define different types of captivity or even what to call captives depending on the nature and duration of their captivity. Taken together, these papers grapple with the cultural, economic, social, and political implications of various types of captivity as well as new methodological approaches that will provide historians with more tools to explore the experiences of a variety of unfree peoples in the early modern Atlantic world.

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