Friday, November 26, 2010

Stein on ASLH panel: Slavery, Law, Religion, and Power in the Early Modern Atlantic

Our next guest post about this year's meeting of the American Society for Legal History comes from Joshua Stein, who is a fellow of Pierson College and a Lecturer at Yale University. Here's his report on "Slavery, Law, Religion, and Power in the Early Modern Atlantic":
Chair: Holly Brewer, North Carolina State University

Panelists: Michelle A. McKinley, University of Oregon, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Black): Legal and Cultural Constructions of Race and Nation in Colonial Latin America”; Rebecca Goetz, Rice University, “‘An Act Against Carnall Copullation between Christian & Heathen’: Race, Religion, and the Law in the English Atlantic”

Chaired by Holly Brewer, this panel promised to tackle four extremely broad themes “Slavery, Law, Religion and Power” over the first centuries of the European colonization of the Americas. The boldness and breadth of the panel’s proposed reach could have been problematic. But Rebecca Goetz and Michelle McKinley treated the scholars in attendance to two wonderful papers, works that were given a predictably thorough and incisive analysis by Christopher Tomlins. Though they delivered new insights into the panel’s larger, vital subjects, both historians did so with case studies, putting the macro under a microscope with exciting results. McKinley told the story of Margarita, a slave in seventeenth century Lima, Peru who sued four sisters, her owners, for keeping her enslaved in defiance of the deathbed manumission given to her by her longtime mistress. Margarita’s decade-long struggle for freedom was a soap-operatic adventure, full of legal and personal intrigue. Despite a denouement which resulted in her being returned to the sisters, her story puts the spotlight on the instruments of legal resistance a slave in colonial Latin America had available, including even access to public legal representation. Agency is a pillar of the historical study of slavery; McKinley’s paper shows how the law can be the most rewarding angle in the study of slave resistance and adaptation.

Goetz’s work, like McKinley’s, offers a smaller scale study that results in super-sized revelations. Offering no less than the earliest legal mention of race in the British colonization of the Americas, the statute under examination in Goetz’s paper is a truly remarkable discovery. Even though by 1644 the island of Antigua had not yet begun importing considerable numbers of African slaves, English colonists nevertheless began to act on their “inchoate fears” of racial mixing. The colonial legislation against “Carnall Copulatation between Christian and Heathen” specifically singled out the whiteness of colonists in contraposition to the island’s nonwhite inhabitants, both indigenous and imported. Goetz argues that this first legal mention of “White” in English self-description is a landmark. Given the rich and contentious historiography on the origins of racism that Goetz ably and succinctly addresses, it is hard to argue with her. To be sure, practical concerns drove most of the legislation aimed at regulating slavery, but this preemptive act spoke of a much deeper, more atavistic form of racism than historians who believe race to be a post-slavery construct generally concede existed.

Tomlins directed his most notable observations at Goetz’s conclusions on race. He invoked Shakespeare’s Titus Andonicus – “A joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue / Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad / Amongst the fairest breeders of our clime. IV, ii, 71-73” – to show that even in the sixteenth century the English saw themselves as racially superior to those they intended to subdue, conquer and exploit. In his assessment of the cultural underpinnings of racism, Tomlins seemed to suggest that Goetz should go even deeper in her study of racism’s genesis by exploring the cultural roots of racism in the law. It was yet another reminder that the law is an extension of our humanity – at its best and worst.