Deserting Empires

AHA Session 29
Thursday, January 3, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Keila Grinberg, Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro
Christian Ayne Crouch, Bard College

Session Abstract

All throughout the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, individuals of the colonial Americas ran away from imperial authorities with regularity. Enslaved Africans, indigenous peoples, soldiers, criminals, husbands, wives, and other fugitives, crossed geopolitical borders or carved spaces within them to escape or challenge colonial oppression, evade the law, negotiate autonomy, profess different religions, or avoid conscripted service. The presence of multiple European powers in close geographic proximity facilitated distinct patterns of movement across political lines, providing fugitives with the possibility of anonymity, a clean slate, the protection of a new sovereign, or even freedom. In short, deserting an empire could prove advantageous in many ways.

This panel interrogates loyalty and disloyalty within the framework of empires in the Americas, with a multi-regional perspective that considers the reasons that led people to escape from one empire to another. Panelists draw on new and original research to examine different aspects of desertion, such as the goals and intentions of those running away, the broader context informing or shaping their decision to abscond, the impacts of their escape on local dynamics and in shaping imperial legislation and international diplomacy, among others. Discussion is intended to contribute to the conference theme by paying attention to the ways in which dis/loyalty can be used as an analytical tool to simultaneously consider agency and subjectivity and the broader political dynamics of empires. Tabetha Ewing analyses the language of desertion among French colonial administrators as well as its practice among soldiers, slaves, servants, wives in the colony of Guyane. While zooming in on a specific territory, this paper serves as an entry point to think broadly about how, through myriad forms of abandonment, subjects of colonial France qualified and realigned the human and political geographies of betrayal, inciting localized challenges to the principles of and paths to extrication and freedom, extradition and reincorporation. Fernanda Bretones Lane’s paper approaches the topic through the lens of imperial rivalry and religion, looking at how loyalty to a Catholic monarch—through conversion and baptism—could provide a path to freedom for slaves who escaped from Protestant masters seeking refuge in Spanish islands in the Caribbean. Christina Villarreal traces the changes in desertion laws and practices following the incorporation of Louisiana in the New Spain’s northern frontier through the movement of soldiers, revealing how colonial officials thought about the northernmost American territory and its relationship to colonial Mexico and the Caribbean. Keila Grinberg examines the movement of enslaved individuals across the southern border of Brazil into Uruguay and its consequences for the development of international relations with Uruguay during the nineteenth century. Her paper argues that this movement of people across the Brazilian-Uruguayan border, first between the Portuguese and the Spanish empires and then between independent nations, established unprecedented diplomatic tensions that eventually led to the Paraguayan War (or Guerra Grande, 1864-1870).

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