Unfreedom: A Roundtable—Constructing Race and Class in the Early Modern Atlantic World

AHA Session 13
Labor and Working Class History Association 1
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Justin L. Roberts, Dalhousie University
Malick Ghachem, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Jared Ross Hardesty, Western Washington University
Allison Madar, California State University, Chico
Michelle McKinley, University of Oregon
Andrea Catharina Mosterman, University of New Orleans

Session Abstract

Unfreedom: A Roundtable--Constructing Race and Class in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Unfreedom, or the varying degrees of legal and customary dependence meant to extract labor and create social hierarchy, is a constant theme in the history of the early modern Atlantic world. Various forms of bondage, such as servitude, apprenticeship, and, of course, African slavery characterized the societies built by European colonizers, Native Americans, and Africans following their encounter in the fifteenth century. Nevertheless, little attention has been paid to how these forms of bondage interacted and unfreedom’s importance for understanding racialization and class formation, despite Simon Newman, a leading scholar of labor in the early Americas, arguing that “the difference between slavery and other forced labor systems was more a matter of degree than of kind” and that slavery was “within a broad spectrum of other systems of labor.” As Newman suggests, people of the Atlantic experienced freedom and unfreedom along a continuum.[1] There was no one definition for what it meant for people to be either “free” or “unfree,” although ethnicity, class, and gender often played a significant role in determining status, degrees of freedom or unfreedom, and racial caste systems.

This roundtable seeks to investigate unfreedom in the early modern Atlantic world and its relationship to race, class, and gender formation beyond the boundaries of an individual nation before the modern era. Participants will reflect upon various unfreedoms across the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish Atlantic worlds, explore different labor regimes in both plantation settings and urban spaces, and examine the importance of bondage to the creation of social order in a multitude of settings. By bringing together scholars who study wide-ranging topics underneath the larger umbrella of “unfreedom,” and who do so within and across different imperial borders, we will engage in a conversation about how unfreedom functioned and its influence on the construction of racial and class identities.

In line with this broad perspective, Justin Roberts, the chair, will offer an introduction to the concept and historiography of unfreedom. Allison Madar will explore the experiences of servants in eighteenth-century Virginia to better understand the functioning of unfreedom in the British Atlantic. Andrea Mosterman will then consider the many typologies of freedom and bondage imposed upon Africans living in the colony of New Netherland by the Dutch West India Company. Michelle McKinley will discuss domestic slaves in an urban context and the fractions of freedom those women accrued over a lifetime in the households of Iberoamerican masters. Turning the panel’s focus to colonial states, Malick Ghachem will explain how settlers in Saint-Domingue defined their own vision of unfreedom in relation to corporate mercantilism, Jesuit missionaries, and maroon resistance. Jared Ross Hardesty will round out the panel by examining the coercive military labor regimes used by imperial states to construct fortifications and other infrastructure across the Atlantic world.

[1] Simon P. Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 3, 13.

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