Rushforth opens his monumental study on Atlantic systems of slavery with two tools that performed the same function. He shows us a set of metal shackles, the instrument used by Europeans to control African slaves, and a leather halter, an object perhaps less familiar. This leather halter, it turns out, was a tool used by indigenous warriors to restrain other Natives taken [End Page 129] during raids. Rushforth asserts that this halter “reminds us that slavery took many forms in the early modern Americas,” arguing that the African slave trade has claimed most scholarly attention (8). In fact, European colonies relied on the labor of indigenous slaves to establish footholds in North America. Rushforth notes that between two to four million indigenous peoples were enslaved in North and South America (9). This book focuses on this phenomenon in one specific context: New France between 1660 and 1760. Following on the work of Richard White, historians have viewed the Midwest in the French era, known as Pays d’en Haut or Upper Country, as a space in which the French and indigenous communities formed relationships based on adaptation and cooperation. Rushforth contends that historians have left slavery out of the equation. He asserts: “The slave trade grew from, and indeed offers a strong example of, these intercultural negotiations in the Pays d’en Haut” that were founded on a “shared commitment to violence” (11).
The first two chapters explain the conceptual foundation of slavery for the French and indigenous societies. For Natives, slavery functioned as a “potent symbol” that was “designed to humiliate and control people considered less than fully human by their captors” as well as to exploit labor (8). Indigenous warriors captured slaves from their rivals to balance the taking of life through murder or warfare. Native captors either integrated their slaves into family structures through ritual adoption, in which case the slave replaced dead relatives, or slaves were ritually tortured and executed to exact justice for previous deaths. If allowed to live, indigenous slaves–largely women and children–filled the role and performed the labor of the deceased relatives whom they replaced, but these slaves inhabited a subordinate position in which their new communities could always offer them as gifts in diplomatic rituals.
The French forced slaves to perform labor for their growing capitalistic, transatlantic economy. Rushforth argues that, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the French made a critical distinction between the act of enslavement and slave owning. The French accepted slavery as a legal institution according to the law of nations in which slaves were captured in “just wars”, opposed to the Aristotelian view that certain peoples were natural slaves. While the French disavowed responsibility for enslavement, they accepted the institution itself, which assumed plural forms that replicated the “baroque patchwork of distinct jurisdictions” that characterized France [End Page 130] (77). With colonies dotting the Atlantic, French slave owners adapted the institution to meet local circumstances.
The book then explains tensions that arose as these two overarching systems became entangled with one another. The colonists of New France sought to build a slave society modeled on Caribbean plantations. The French were prevented from doing so, however, as slavery in New France was enmeshed in the alliance structure that connected the French Empire and indigenous nations upon whom the empire depended. Key events in the history of New France reveal this tension. The Great Peace of Montreal in 1701 signaled a critical moment when French administrators recognized that captive exchanges were central to the calumet ceremony that had spread throughout eastern Algonquian communities. Additionally, the Fox Wars in the eighteenth century emerged partly out of Algonquian attempts to control their relation with the French. Diplomacy failed as the Fox’s enemies fed the French a constant stream of Fox slaves, while the French refused to return the Fox slaves to their relations. Similarly, the Sioux killed La Verendrye’s son on an island in the Lake of the Woods in 1734 when the Sioux became the victims of a similar dynamic...