Divided Loyalties: Slaves, Slavers, and Institutions in the 17th- and 18th-Century Atlantic World

AHA Session 111
Friday, January 4, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Waldorf Room (Hilton Chicago, Third Floor)
Tessa Murphy, Syracuse University
Heather Miyano Kopelson, University of Alabama

Session Abstract

This panel, consisting of three papers, focuses on issues of loyalty to a variety of institutions both from the point of view of slaveholders and enslaved people. Building on recent scholarly interpretations of slavery that emphasize and explore regional variations and the lived experiences of enslavement, these papers emphasize the agency and complex motivations of enslaved people and slavers. How did institutions – churches, the British Royal Navy, and Dutch West India Company – seek to promote obedience or loyalty when personal or economic incentives fostered other behaviors? How did enslaved people use the rhetoric or signs of loyalty in pursuing their own objectives? In answering these questions, these essays contribute to a comparative and nuanced understanding of Atlantic slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries. In particular, each paper takes a different approach to show how loyalty was problematized for both enslaved people and slaveholders.

Jared Hardesty focuses on state-owned slaves used by the British Royal Navy in Jamaica. Contested loyalties are at the center of this story; these slaveholders may have undermined their obedience to the chain of command in purchasing slaves whose allegiances were not well matched with the institution that sought to benefit from their labor. Andrea Mosterman moves the discussion earlier and into questions of economic versus institutional motivation. Mosterman explores how the Dutch West India Company sought to persuade or control employees involved in the African slave trade. How did slavers literally navigate when the Company instructed them to sell slaves in New Netherland but a sale in another location could be more profitable? Finally, Richard Boles problematizes religious obedience and slavery in northern British colonies. Slaveholders often believed that Christianity could make slaves more dutiful, but enslaved African Americans had complex loyalties, including sometimes to particular churches and religious tradition. Slaves used the rhetoric of religious duty to pursue goals contrary to slaveholders’ interests. Together these papers suggest that the meaning of loyalty among slaves and slavers was contested and contingent among local circumstances, uneven power balances, and individual decisions.

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