Early Modern Empires, Ethnicity, and Citizenship

AHA Session 138
Friday, January 7, 2022: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Preservation Hall, Studio 9 (New Orleans Marriott, 2nd Floor)
Max Deardorff, University of Florida

Session Abstract

Citizenship has primarily been treated as a modern phenomenon, the product of a return to representative models of government following the Atlantic Age of Revolutions (1776-1848). Yet citizenship did, indeed, exist in a variety of forms throughout the early modern world. Norms surrounding vassalage and subjecthood in relation to a monarch overlapped and coexisted with citizenship conferred at the municipal level. The interplay between these two elements was often further complicated by imperial dynamics of time, space, and distance. Norms and practices that tended toward homogeneity in the metropole sometimes transformed under this set of stresses. The papers in this panel draw together examples of citizenship from different imperial frames (Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese). Together they re-examine the forms and contours of early modern norms of enfranchisement, in an attempt to throw into relief elements that might have transcended cultural and political boundaries. As such, they attempt to identify commonalities in the early modern Atlantic World, as well as identifying a basis for comparative studies of empire.

As cosmopolitan spaces filled with diverse peoples, early modern empires offer a fascinating laboratory for exploring how citizenship interacted with ethnicity and social difference in law, in culture, and in society. In the phase of consolidation, early modern empires faced the question of whether to enfranchise new subject peoples, and if so, to what degree such enfranchisement might connote freedom of movement, the enjoyments of rights and privileges, and the use of courts of law. And whether constructed through conquest or commercial expansion, empires were heavily dependent on the development, dissemination, and routinization of bureaucratic processes. Such administrative and archival processes, aimed at identification and categorization, not only documented, but also sometimes exacerbated the sense of difference and division in colonial milieus.

The papers in this panel are especially attentive to how power relationships contributed to the materialization and shaping of ethnic categories, which were subsequently parlayed into discourses about citizenship. The unevenness of empire complicated citizenship regimes. Fluctuating power dynamics, colonial battles over resources, and inter-imperial competition worked to destabilize categories. Deardorff’s paper examines areas of early modern Spanish jurisprudence that justified native and Afro-descendant citizenship in Spanish colonial settlements despite obstacles of prejudice. Cardim focuses on eighteenth-century Brazil, examining the fallout when royal Portuguese representatives transferred the Amerindians of Bahia from ecclesiastical to civil jurisdiction. Though the Amerindians had hoped for increased civic rights, Cardim examines the significant obstacle to enfranchisement posed by ethnic discrimination. Finally, Roitman’s presentation focuses on the Jews of eighteenth-century Suriname and Curacao, who sought to legitimize their citizenship in colonial spaces by forwarding a narrative that identified them as “true settlers.”

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