Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


William and Mary Quarterly

Third Series, Volume LXVII April 2010


Abstracts

The Politics of Grass: European Expansion, Ecological Change, and  Indigenous Power in the Southwest Borderlands

By Pekka Hämäläinen

Europe’s biological expansion and other ecological changes were inextricably linked to intercultural power relations in the Southwest borderlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Contrary to what we might expect from the deterministic and declensionist tendencies of macroscale biohistories, the Comanche Indians benefited from transoceanic exchanges to become the dominant force in the region that traditionally has fallen under the rubric of the Spanish and Mexican borderlands. An analysis that moves among local, regional, continental, and transatlantic perspectives and blends environmental history, borderlands history, ethnohistory, and colonial studies can reveal the contingency of intercultural power relations in environments that were being rapidly reconfigured by European exports. This perspective also expands the scope of indigenous agency from the social to the biological sphere. Comanches sustained an imperial order by constantly reenvisioning their relationship with the environment: they migrated from the continent’s center toward colonial outposts to position themselves at the hub of transoceanic exchanges; they propagated, molded, and channeled European biota and technology in ways that served their interests at the expense of those of their European and native rivals; and they protected their homelands by displacing ecological burdens of their expansion onto colonial realms.

Richard Ligon and the Atlantic Science of Commonwealths

By Susan Scott Parrish

Richard Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) has been appreciated by historians for its descriptive thickness and has been critiqued by literary scholars as an unconscious seedbed of imperialist discourse. What has not been understood is the reformist subtext of the History and the ways in which Ligon articulated this reformist vision by incorporating the humanism, empiricism, and naturalism of Desiderius Erasmus, Francis Bacon, Albrecht Dürer, and the sixteenth-century Book of Secrets tradition. Armed with this tradition, Ligon framed his History as a response to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651). Whereas Hobbes used geometry to theorize a market-based European republic and altogether ignored the emergent colonial order, Ligon used empirical natural history to find models of tolerable social organization as well as epistemic membership in England’s new Caribbean colony. The case of Barbados circa 1647–50 offers a way to recognize early modern debates about the establishment of colonial plantation monoculture regimes in the context of a revolutionary Atlantic world, rather than to assume a predestined British imperial order.

Exile on Spruce Street: An Acadian History

By Christopher Hodson

Part microhistory and part mystery, this article explores the rearticulation of personal and collective identity among victims of forced migration in the early modern period. It uses untapped archival sources to reconstruct the life of Charles Leblanc, one of seven thousand Acadian civilians deported from Nova Scotia by an Anglo-American army in the fall of 1755. Deposited in Philadelphia and orphaned before turning ten, Leblanc scraped through adolescence as a cobbler’s apprentice. But in the wake of an unexpected financial windfall, he changed his last name to White; became a grocer, coffee merchant, and landlord; and amassed a fortune that totaled twenty thousand dollars in cash, stock, and property. Strangely, White died intestate in 1816, triggering a decade-long legal battle that pulled in hundreds of Acadians from the United States, Canada, and France. Recalling both the boy who became Charles White and their own harrowing experiences in the aftermath of 1755, the litigants’ testimonies reveal the interplay of fragmented memories and individual opportunities that shaped—in ways that transcend simple cultural persistence—the diasporic lives of Acadian exiles.

“Baptism doth not bestow Freedom”: Missionary Anglicanism, Slavery, and  the Yorke-Talbot Opinion, 1701–30

By Travis Glasson

The 1729 Yorke-Talbot opinion on slavery was an important assessment of English law that slavery’s defenders wielded in and out of court for decades. Historians have attributed the opinion’s issuance to lobbying by economically motivated slave owners and traders. A variety of evidence indicates, however, that the opinion was prompted by the activism of a circle of missionary-minded Anglicans centered on the philosopher George Berkeley. Berkeley’s network procured and publicized the opinion during their attempt to found a college in Bermuda and in an effort to overcome masters’ objections to slave Christianization. This approach coincided with elements of Berkeley’s thought and with longer-term Anglican attempts to use the law and political activity in support of their religious aims. From 1700 to 1729, supporters of missionary Anglicanism repeatedly attempted to secure colonial and English laws that would make it explicit that baptism did not convey temporal freedom. These drives, the key antecedents to the opinion, were based primarily on the belief that such measures would increase missionaries’ access to enslaved people. However, these Anglican endeavors and the Yorke-Talbot opinion itself also helped legitimize slaveholding and contributed to its deeper incorporation into the culture of the British Atlantic world.

Sources and Interpretations

A 1748 “Petition of Negro Slaves” and the Local Politics of Slavery in Jamaica

By James Robertson

Why would a proposal to ease slavery in Jamaica prompt a white physician to adopt a slave’s voice in writing to an assemblyman? A proposed bill in 1748 to authorize Jamaica’s courts to recognize slaves’ testimony was intended to defend slaves against maltreatment. It was a colonial measure drafted when British voters remained uninvolved in efforts to reform slavery. The bill passed its first reading but then encountered local opposition, highlighting a cluster of values that placed the legal privileges of “whiteness” at the center of any colonial discussions about reforming the laws relating to slavery. Examining why such a measure was proposed, along with the arguments made against it, not only shows the rationales for slaveholding already current among Jamaica’s white residents but also illuminates wider assumptions about white freedom and law that then remained central in all subsequent discussions of reforming slavery in English-speaking territories.