- Indian Slavery and the Fictions of Empire
As a subject of scholarly inquiry, the “Atlantic World”—a notional community of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans bound together by the Atlantic Ocean—is of relatively recent origin. One of the deans of the field, Bernard Bailyn, traces the origin of Atlantic history to Carleton Hayes’ 1945 A.H.A. presidential address, which urged American historians to set aside their isolationism and devote themselves to the study and defense of the Atlantic community. Most of Hayes’ colleagues were slow to respond, but, over the next few decades, scholars of the slave trade, transatlantic commerce, voluntary migration, and political ideology gradually assembled a portrait of the Atlantic and its periphery as a vast zone of intercultural conflict and exchange. Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Atlantic History and Culture, established in the 1960s, and Bailyn’s own International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, initiated in 1995, helped merge these distinct channels of inquiry into a unified field. By the first decade of the current century, Atlantic History was becoming the flavor d’estime of early American studies, with books, classes, symposia, and online discussion groups devoted to its exploration.1
Meanwhile, a younger but increasingly influential geographical approach to the study of early America, known as “continental history,” had emerged from the interdisciplinary field of ethnohistory and from more traditional American frontier history. Continental historians took the entire North American continent, not just its Anglophone eastern seaboard, as their tableau, and [End Page 600] studied the vast web of human relationships that bound the Native peoples of the continent together. Unlike Atlantic historians, whose studies noted Europeans’ ability to draw Native American lands, products, and even bodies into the maw of Atlantic capitalism, continental historians such as Kathleen DuVal and Pekka Hämäläinen emphasized the ways in which Native peoples resisted European encroachment and marginalized the Europeans who sought to colonize their homelands. There were soon indications that these two schools of interpretation might conflict with one another. In early 2013, Daniel Richter, one of the pioneers of the continental approach, took Bernard Bailyn to task for his recent oversimplification (in The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675 ) of the Native American motives and alliances that shaped early American history. Bailyn, argued Richter, would have better served his readers if he had turned the lens of his authorial camera “from the Atlantic Ocean and the ships that sailed its winds to the Susquehannocks’ country [to identify one prominent Indian polity] and the Europeans who lived there at their bidding.”2
Alan Taylor, another founder of the continental school, has suggested we look instead for ways to reconcile these two interpretive schools. In a 2011 essay, he urged historians to remain mindful both of the mental geography of Native Americans and of the relational connections they might draw between different indigenous communities, but also to integrate those maps with the skein of transatlantic commerce: the conduits carrying people, goods, and ideas between four continents. Atlantic history, he wrote, is a “necessary” though not a “sufficient” guide to the huge demographic and cultural changes in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North America. In future, the most productive lines of inquiry in early North American history will be those that join Atlantic history with a continental approach.3
Brett Rushforth is one of the first scholars to follow such a line, and one may observe his synthetic approach in his new book’s subtitle: “Indigenous and...