- The Alchemy of Slavery: Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730–1865 by M. Scott Heerman
This brisk and elegant book charts what its author calls the "entangled history of human bondage in one region that foregrounds how different iterations of enslavement mutually played out simultaneously" (7–8). The region is the Illinois Country and later the state of Illinois, often especially its southern third. The entanglements are with indigenous presence; transatlantic and internal slave trades; the empires of France, Britain, and the United States; and the bordering empire of Spain for a time. As such, The Alchemy of Slavery is important as a local study of slavery and emancipation and at the same time a significant contribution to transimperial and even borderlands history.
Heerman also offers critical reflections on law and social relations, showing how statutes and litigation did not simply shape practice but became a terrain of struggle between enslaved and enslavers. Paired with Tiya Miles's prizewinning The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (2017), The Alchemy of Slavery announces a new moment in grounding studies of the interpenetrations of slavery with settler colonialism.
Heerman begins with an introduction setting forth the plot, but above all the variety of sorely oppressed and remarkably resistant characters, of his study. He situates them amid histories of slavery, particularly those paying close attention to change over time and across space. In this he follows closely the example of his great mentor, the late and missed Ira Berlin.
The Alchemy of Slavery then moves to the period of French colonization of Illinois. During that long eighteenth-century period, enslaved people came into bondage variously, with the fundamental distinction being between those coming through a trade in American Indian captives, often women, and those coming as a result of trade in African slaves. The former exchanges often cemented relations with Indian tribes, who vastly outnumbered French settlers, but also carried risks of war when members of tribes were swept into slavery. The Catholic Church baptized the variously enslaved energetically, and in some cases intermarriage with settler men occurred. However, especially given the expansion of corn and meat production using slave labor, the emphasis remained on the continuation [End Page 105] of slavery, not its mitigation. The ruling elite was a slaveholding one, setting a pattern lasting through the period of British control and well into the U.S. one.
With the coming of British rule after the Seven Years' War, the legal codes governing slavery changed, but not elite commitment to the system. Indeed, British imperial control began with a new infusion of enslaved African workers. With nominal control over Missouri falling to Spain, Illinois was a borderland in another way, creating new possibilities for planter control and for resistance from below. Most significantly, Heerman shows how changing demographics moved toward African labor and set the stage for collapsing complicated patterns of enslavement into a single "French Negro" category.
Heerman then turns to the post-Revolution period, identifying it, as it must have been experienced by settlers and indigenous people in Illinois, as a third regime of imperial control. Indeed, there was briefly a 2.5 stage in which claims of Virginia to Illinois were enough honored to give it a measure of authority. The new U.S. empire developed the "French Negro" category as it "turned many slaveries into one" (3). The victory over Britain brought to Illinois the seemingly firm antislavery language of legislation organizing the Northwest Territory and new influxes of enslaved people, enslavers, and proslavery commitment.
The very rich last three chapters of The Alchemy of Slavery describe the balance of forces that determined the course of gradual emancipation in a state that lacked any legislation setting a firm end date for slavery and that arrived at a clear position that children of "French Negroes" were free only through protracted struggle and litigation.
Heerman resolutely insists that Illinois remained a slave society, run...