Interviews with Historians: Brett Rushforth

Brett RushforthBrett Rushforth is Associate Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, where he teaches courses on the history of early America, American Indians, and comparative race and slavery. He is the co-editor, with Paul Mapp, of Colonial North America and the Atlantic World: A History in Documents (Pearson/Prentice-Hall, 2008), and he currently serves as Book Review Editor for the William and Mary Quarterly. His first monograph, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France was published by University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in 2012, and has won several awards, including the 2013 Merle Curti Award in Social History (Organization of American Historians), 2013 FEEGI Biennial Book Prize (Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction), and 2013 Mary Alice and Philip Boucher Prize (French Colonial Historical Society). It was also recently named a finalist for the 2013 Frederick Douglass Book Prize (Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition). Dr. Rushforth is currently at work, with Christopher Hodson, on a general history of the early modern French Atlantic. Under contract with Basic Books, its working title is Discovering Empire: France and the Atlantic World from the Crusades to the Age of Revolution.

JUNTO: Your book, Bonds of Alliance, was published last year. Can you tell us about the book’s genesis and how it changed over time, as you revised it from dissertation to monograph?

Bonds of AllianceRUSHFORTH: I started research on this project with a fairly narrow question. I knew on the one hand that the French were relatively successful at building alliances with Native peoples, and that New France depended on those alliances for its economic and military security. I also knew that French colonists traded and held Indians as slaves. I wanted to know more about the relationship between these two things. So I wrote a dissertation focused on how slavery shaped French-Native alliances, and how alliance-building shaped the French practice of slavery.

As I began revising my dissertation into a book manuscript, it became clear that my focus had been too narrow. I had been looking so closely at the intersection of Native and French practices that I hadn’t taken enough time to think about what lay beyond that intersection in both Native and French worlds. This became most obvious when my framework failed to contain (or fully explain) the lives of the enslaved people I was studying. It was as if I were trying to map the shaded area of a Venn diagram without knowing enough about the intersecting circles. I realized what should have been obvious form the beginning: that I needed to develop a deep understanding of both Native and French practices of slavery before I could understand how they influenced one another.

Maybe the best way to illustrate the transformation from dissertation to book is to look at the subtitles. For the dissertation: “Indian Slavery and Alliance in New France.” For the book: “Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France.” Although the dynamics of alliance remained important in the book, the larger goal became a conversation between two very different ways of understanding slavery – one evolving among Native peoples in North America, and one evolving in the French Atlantic.

JUNTO: It seems like there’s been a recent (and ongoing) explosion in scholarship on Indian slavery. Why do you think that is, and how does your work fit into that larger literature?

RUSHFORTH: Yes, it’s been really exciting to see it develop. I think Indian slavery has garnered so much interest because the closer we look, the more we realize that it was both more widespread and more important than we previously thought. In some ways, the topic has been hiding in plain sight, scattered throughout very familiar records waiting for historians to ask the right questions. Now that we’ve seen its importance in a few regions, we wonder if that was the case in others. And time after time, we’ve found deep pools of evidence showing that nearly every colony exploited enslaved Indians in one way or another. Across the entire hemisphere and spanning three centuries, Indian slaves performed the back-breaking work of establishing colonies, often building the earliest large-scale plantations later worked by enslaved Africans. I’ll leave it for others to evaluate my contributions to this emerging story, but what I found most rewarding was reconstructing the lived experience of enslaved individuals, whose lives form the heart of the book and structure its contours.

JUNTO: Your book draws on insights gained from extensive research into not only English and French but also several Algonquin-language sources. Do you have formal training in those languages? How did you go about learning them, and what advice would you give other scholars seeking to utilize similar sources?

RUSHFORTH: I have a little formal training in English, but that’s as far as it goes. I learned French in graduate school, mostly through books and small study groups. I familiarized myself with Miami-Illinois (Algonquian) with the help of several linguists, especially David Costa and Michael McCafferty. Darryl Baldwin and others at the Myaamia Project at Miami University were very helpful early on. In the end, though, it was just me, some books, and hundreds of hours studying them. But it was well worth the effort, if only because it allowed me to use Algonquian swear words in my book.

My main advice to graduate students focused on early America is to do whatever it takes to improve your language competency. As Alyssa Reichardt wrote for this blog a few weeks ago, an expanded view of what constitutes “early America” demands that emerging historians develop language skills that are equally broad. Ideally, graduate programs will find ways to support this objective. But if your university can’t pay for your classes or send you abroad, just get some books and study the languages yourself. It’s hard, it takes some discipline, and it will frustrate you for a long time before you’re any good at it, but it’s essential.

JUNTO: What current and future research projects do you have on tap?

RUSHFORTH: I’m currently working to finish a co-authored monograph, with Chris Hodson, surveying the history of the early modern French Atlantic world. It starts with medieval context, then brings Africa, the Americas, and France into conversation from roughly 1400 to 1800. Right now we’re calling it Discovering Empire: France and the Atlantic World from the Crusades to the Age of Revolution. It will be published by Basic Books as soon as we’re all happy with it, probably late next year.

After that, I’m not totally sure. I’ve compiled a primary documents reader on Indian slavery across the Americas, and I plan eventually to write a hemispheric history of Indian slavery. But I have to admit that doing something smaller and more focused as a palate cleanser sounds pretty appealing.

JUNTO: How does your research in Native American and French history affect your approach to “early American history?” More specifically, how does it impact what you do in the classroom?

RUSHFORTH: I studied at UC Davis with Alan Taylor as he was finishing American Colonies, and I’ve always been interested in Native history and the American West, so maybe it’s only natural for me to think of “early American history” in fairly broad terms. The need for a wider angle of vision was only reinforced as I did research for Bonds of Alliance. When I followed the evidence, I found that I couldn’t understand my topic without knowing about places like New York, Barbados, Brazil, Senegal, and South Carolina, which were linked by networks of trade, migration, and the exchange of ideas and information.

One comment on “Interviews with Historians: Brett Rushforth

  1. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    Great job Brett!

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