Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Synopsis

Technically speaking, slavery was not legal in the English-speaking world before the mid-seventeenth century. But long before race-based slavery was entrenched in law and practice, English men and women were well aware of the various forms of human bondage practiced in other nations and, in less systematic ways, their own country. They understood the legal and philosophic rationale of slavery in different cultural contexts and, for good reason, worried about the possibility of their own enslavement by foreign Catholic or Muslim powers. While opinions about the benefits and ethics of the institution varied widely, the language, imagery, and knowledge of slavery were a great deal more widespread in early modern England than we tend to assume.

In wide-ranging detail, Slaves and Englishmen demonstrates how slavery shaped the ways the English interacted with people and places throughout the Atlantic world. By examining the myriad forms and meanings of human bondage in an international context, Michael Guasco illustrates the significance of slavery in the early modern world before the rise of the plantation system or the emergence of modern racism. As this revealing history shows, the implications of slavery were closely connected to the question of what it meant to be English in the Atlantic world.

Excerpt

Perhaps it is best to begin with the familiar: in 1619, a Flemish privateer called the White Lion dropped anchor off Point Comfort at the eastern extremity of the English settlement in Virginia. Captain Jope and his men had suffered greatly on their return voyage from the West Indies and when the ship arrived in the Chesapeake the pirates were short on palatable food and potable water. It may be that Jope and his men had been at sea longer than anticipated or that his provisions had spoiled as a result of exposure to rough weather or rotted as a result of improper storage. These things happen. of course, Jope and his men could also have been unusually hungry and thirsty because of the extra mouths they had stored away somewhere in the belly of their ship, for one Englishman reported that on board were “not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Marchant bought for victualle.” By the time he departed, Jope had fresh provisions and water and had reduced the number of mouths on board by striking a bargain with the leaders of the English settlement, an exchange that resulted in the first documented arrival of African peoples in Virginia. For Captain Jope and his men, it was clear sailing as they set out for familiar European waters. For the colonists and the newly purchased Africans, not to mention the historians who have studied both, matters quickly became much more complicated. Almost a generation later, another story unfolded: in the wake of the Pequot War in New England in 1637, Massachusetts officials ordered seventeen Pequot Indians—fifteen boys and two women—to be sent out of New England. English Puritans had taken hundreds of captives in the wake of their triumphs in battle at Mistick and the Great Swamp. Subsequently, they . . .

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