Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World by Michael Guasco (review)
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Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World. By Michael Guasco. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 315. $45.00 cloth; $45.00 ebook)

For most historians of early America, discussions of slavery in the English colonies focus on the development of plantation slavery, emphasizing the transition of the primary labor force from English indentured servants to African slaves and the emergence of slavery as a legal institution after 1660. The story normally begins with the arrival of “20. and odd Negroes” in Virginia in 1619 and often portrays the English as having little knowledge of or experience with slavery, slaves, or enslavement prior to their arrival in the Americas (p. 3). In Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World, Michael Guasco challenges this narrative and takes a fresh look at what sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English men and women actually knew and thought about slavery as they ventured into the Atlantic world. As he notes, the number of scholars who have examined human bondage apart from debates over the origins of plantation slavery or of modern racism is small. Guasco “seeks to redress this oversight by demonstrating that slavery was not only central to how the English interacted with people and places throughout the Atlantic world,” but also shaped English colonialism during the first fifty years of settlement (p. 5).

Slavery was everywhere in the early modern world, according to Guasco, and “Englishmen knew a great deal about slavery, were curious about its different manifestations, and were able to characterize it with considerable nuance” (p. 231). They gained their knowledge from their own nation’s history with human bondage, from textual sources, and especially from firsthand experience in the Mediterranean and Iberian Atlantic. He draws his evidence from travel narratives, slave narratives, national and regional histories, political and promotional tracts, correspondence, court records, and legal statutes, convincingly demonstrating that the English discussed slavery’s varieties and accepted its uses, particularly in maintaining social order [End Page 740] and stability. Ultimately, before 1650, English concerns about slavery focused on how English men or women could be enslaved and for what reasons. Slavery had to be “purposeful, punitive, and potentially even rehabilitative” (p. 232). Yet in the Americas, even as early Anglo-Americans recognized that slavery could serve different purposes in different contexts and pragmatically adapted existing forms of Atlantic plantation slavery for their own purposes, they found it increasingly difficult to juggle different slave systems “variously conceived and rationalized to preserve Englishness, redefine Indianness, and . . . isolate Africanness” (p. 194). By 1660, demographic and economic changes forced English colonists to enact ever more rigid slave laws “to buttress what they had already been doing as a matter of custom” for more than a century (p. 223). In the end, the transatlantic plantation complex, Guasco argues, made the survival of other forms of slavery difficult, if not impossible.

Guasco’s deceptively readable “big picture” history challenges everything we thought we knew about the English and slavery (p. 313). He provides a rich and deeply nuanced context for future considerations of slavery in the English Atlantic world and convincingly argues that early English colonialism and the emergence of race-based plantation slavery cannot be understood without studying English knowledge of and encounters with slavery during the preceding century. As Guasco makes clear, slavery was indeed important to early modern English men and women as they entered into the Atlantic world; in fact, slavery was central to the project of establishing stable colonies and, ultimately, defining Englishness in the Americas. Future students and scholars of the Americas, the Atlantic world, and Atlantic slavery and the slave trade can learn a lot from Guasco’s broad exploration of human bondage in the early modern Atlantic world and ignore the complex intellectual pre-history of Atlantic slavery only at their peril. [End Page 741]

Nancy L. Hagedorn

NANCY L. HAGEDORN teaches history at the State University of New York at Fredonia. She is the author of several articles on interpreters and cultural brokers among the Iroquois during the colonial period and is currently researching cultural interaction on Atlantic port city waterfronts, focusing...