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Davidson Historian Explores Evolving Concepts of Slavery in Early New World

Slaves and Englishmen
Englishmen were fascinated by escape narratives, such as the one illustrated on the cover of Guasco’s book that depicts Captain John Smith’s capture by Ottoman Turks.

Ask most Americans about slavery and they'll describe the system of mass subjugation of Africans on southern American plantations. Although this impression is largely accurate for the 18th and 19th centuries, the early history of slavery is much more complicated. In his new book, Slaves and Englishmen: Human Bondage in the Early Modern Atlantic World, Davidson College Associate Professor of History Michael Guasco explains how Englishmen and Anglo-Americans thought about and embraced a variety of forms of slavery in the years before race-based plantation slavery became commonplace in the colonies.

Guasco said he was attracted to the study of slavery through his consideration of the continuing contentiousness of race in American society. He grew up in Tacoma, Wash., a region with few black residents where the history of the United States before the Civil War was rarely discussed. However, he found a completely different attitude when he moved to Philadelphia in 1990 for his graduate study.

"I found myself almost obsessing about race when I moved to Philly," he said. "I kept wondering why I thought about it so much, and those thoughts about myself and my civic and personal responsibilities in an area charged with racial strife stirred my curiosity about slavery and its legacy."

Theory and Practice

Most books about slavery in the English Atlantic world begin in the 1650s, largely because of the absence of significant numbers of African peoples in the new colonies. But that's the end point of Guasco's book. "I wanted to show that even before slavery became legal, the English were always talking about it, writing about it and discussing it," he said.

Michael Guasco
Guasco’s investigation of slavery has led him to another book project on the history of dissent in colonial America.

In his book, Guasco explains that slavery was practiced around the world in myriad forms before the middle 1600s. But prior to that time, people were most commonly enslaved through capture in warfare or piracy, or conviction as criminals. It also was practiced to different degrees in different places. Slavery could be central to the social organization of a given society, or it could be incidental.

In theory, slavery did not exist in England at this time, and the English knew little about the subject. Guasco reports, however, that the subject of slavery fascinated Englishmen. They encountered it everywhere-in the Bible, in the popular press and even in Shakespearean plays like "Titus Andronicus." Guasco cites the observations of Fynes Moryson, who published in 1617 a travelogue that documented slavery in Poland, galley slaves in Naples, the miserable treatment of captives taken by the Turks, and women being enslaved as concubines.

Tales of Englishmen who had been captured and sold into slavery were increasingly common in this early period. The "escape narrative" was a particularly important part of this new genre. Stories circulated about how enslaved Englishmen outwitted their captors or used their expertise to engineer dramatic escapes from captivity. The front cover of Guasco's book illustrates one such tale. It depicts the famous English sea captain John Smith being led off to captivity by an Ottoman Turk. However, Smith later escaped and was instrumental in establishing Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in "the New World."

The reports about slavery frightened English readers. "You didn't have to be slave owner on a plantation in Barbados for slavery to be meaningful to you," Guasco said.

Guasco continued, "The English knew that slavery could be an institution, a condition, an idea, or even a labor system. It could be permanent or impermanent, harsh or benign, geared toward punishment or improvement, concerned with ensuring the social order or fulfilling labor demands. It could even just be about sex."

Since England generally set itself in opposition to slavery and claimed to be committed to personal liberty, the absence of legal slavery strengthened the English resolve that they were a truly exceptional people. But the English routinely overlooked their own transgressions. Slavery pervaded the early modern English world. English pirates and privateers routinely enslaved Africans, Indians and others for ransom or trade, treating them as commodities.

As English, Dutch and Spanish began settling in the Caribbean region and creating large agricultural operations that required masses of laborers, the need to legally categorize slaves grew more important. The first laws legalizing it in English colonies were made in Barbados as sugar plantations were established there. The lucrative cultivation of tobacco led Virginians to create piecemeal regulations surrounding slavery in the 1660s, and the first comprehensive slave code in 1705. Guasco explained, "A system of slavery had to be created because, in the absence of law there were conflicts over whether people could be enslaved or not."

Legislators passed new laws in all of the American colonies between 1661 and 1705 to facilitate the practice of enslaving both Africans and Native Americans. Race-based plantation slavery was one of the defining characteristics of the English Empire in America by the early 1700s. Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were imported into the colonies by non-English traders, bound into a state of perpetual slavery by planters whose profits depended on their work. All of this, however, came on the heels of more than a century of English experimentation with slavery in the Atlantic world.

Seven or eight years in the writing, Slaves and Englishmen was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. A work of thorough scholarship, Guasco devotes the final 70 pages of the 310-page book to extensive page notes, an index and acknowledgements. He offers thanks to many, many scholars who offered help with the work, and dedicates the book to his historian-spouse, Suzanne Cooper Guasco, who published her own book, Confronting Democracy: Edward Coles and the Rise of Antislavery Politics in Nineteenth-Century America (Northern Illinois University Press), just last year.

Guasco is spending the current school year on sabbatical working on another book-a multi-generational study of the Pleasants family of Virginia. His study of family patriarch John Pleasants and his descendants, some of whom became prominent planters, Quakers, antislavery advocates, and prominent political figures, serves as an illustration of the tradition of dissent in colonial America.

Guasco attended the University of Portland in Oregon. He earned a master's degree from Villanova, and his doctoral degree from the College of William and Mary. He joined the Davidson faculty in 2001 as a specialist in early American history, the American Revolution, the colonial Atlantic world, piracy and the history of slavery. This coming summer he will lead about 15 Davidson students enrolled in the college's semi-annual eight-week study abroad program in Ghana, West Africa.