Frontiers of servitude

Slavery in narratives of the early French Atlantic

Based on original research into little-examined printed and archival sources, this book explores the fundamental ideas behind early French thinking about Atlantic slavery by asking three central questions. What, in theoretical and social terms, did the condition of a slave mean? What was unique about using the human body in Caribbean labour, and what were the limits to this use? What can the strategic approaches described in interactions with slaves tell us about early slave society? Arguing that the social and cultural context of the Caribbean colonies from c. 1620-1750 was marked by considerable instability, this book explores the transformations in the theorisation and practice of slavery. Authoritative discourses were confronted with new cultures and environments, and the servitude thought to bring Africans to salvation was accompanied by continuing moral uncertainties. Slavery gave the most fundamental forms of ownership from labour up to time itself, but slaves were a troubling presence. Colonists were wary of what slaves knew and even hid from them, and were aware that the strategies used to control slaves were imperfect, and could even determine the behaviour of their masters. Commentators were conscious of the fragility of colonial society, with its social and ecological frontiers, its renegade slaves, and its population born to free fathers and slave mothers. Slavery, this book argues, was fundamentally, anti-social. With wide use of eye-witness accounts of slavery, this book will be of interest to specialists, and more general readers, interested in the history and literature of the early Atlantic and Caribbean.

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