- Desertion in the Early Modern World: A Comparative History ed. by Matthias van Rossum and Jeannette Kamp
Matthias van Rossum and Jeannette Kamp, eds.
New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016
x + 213 pp., $26.96 (paper); $21.56 (e-book)
Desertion in the Early Modern World: A Comparative History provides a fresh look at history from below—in this case, runaways. The book focuses almost exclusively on the Dutch Republic and its overseas territories. In addition to an introduction by the editors, there are two overview essays (by Alessandro Stanziani and Marcel van der Linden, respectively) that frame the issue of desertion more generally and six case studies. The individual chapters cover desertion of European and non-European workers in Germany and the Dutch Republic, the Dutch Atlantic (especially Suriname), Eurasia, South Asia, and the Cape. Obviously, the editors and contributors do not consider desertion a moral problem or an issue of deviancy but rather treat it as an expression of agency on the part of exploited and disenfranchised early modern workers.
The editors explain that the volume arose out of a simple wish to bring together people usually studied in isolation: deserting soldiers and navy sailors, by military scholars; fugitive Africans and maroons, by historians of slavery; absconding merchant seamen, by maritime historians; runaway apprentices and servants, by labor historians—you get the picture. In so doing, the book not only brings into conversation the histories of a variety of workers—soldiers, slaves, maroons, tributary workers, sailors, domestic servants, and convicts—but it shows just how much these various groups had in common, for all their particular differences in situation, location, national origin, ethnicity, and type of bondage.
But the volume does more than that. Three crucial points stand out. First, the book contributes to a recent trend in early modern global history of expanding our understanding of unfree labor. Rather than seeing slavery sui generis, scholars are documenting and theorizing a continuum of bound labor, from criminal convictions and part-time labor obligations (corvée) to multiyear contracts and indentures to actual chattel slavery. Second, it is precisely, as the editors and other contributors stress, because early modern work was characterized as service, meaning that all one’s time belonged to one’s “master,” that leaving work was considered a criminal act. And lastly, the book forces us to question the master narrative, especially prevalent in the case of the Dutch Republic, that the early modern period witnesses the steady development of a free-labor market. In fact, the opposite was true. Global capitalism was in large measure built on coercion and force well into the twentieth century.
Lest readers wonder how many deserters there may in fact have been, let us start with some numbers, as some essays include estimates. In eighteenth-century Germany, for instance, “armies were characterized by an annual desertion rate of 5 per cent in peacetime” (9). Yet annual desertion rates do not equal “the total percentage of soldiers lost through desertion, because one cannot account for the average duration of service. Since the majority of soldiers were in service for longer than a year, the number of deserters [End Page 143] grows in proportion to the number of soldiers that remained in service” (57). This meant the “total calculated loss through desertion” was much higher than 5 percent. In Prussia, 20 to 30 percent of its troops deserted, while in some other German areas it was as high as between 40 and 50 percent. As Jeannette Kamp puts it, for many men “desertion was just as much a part of their military service as recruitment” (61). In the Dutch Republic during the same time period, 40 percent of all soldiers ran off. And for a different kind of statistic, consider the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), a global conflict pitting Britain and France against each other. During that war, an astounding three hundred thousand soldiers deserted worldwide (32). In fact, desertion trumped death in diminishing early modern armies.
While soldiers were the most likely to bolt, other workers ran too. The Middelburg Trading Company, a Dutch outfit in Zeeland, recorded...