Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance; Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France

Dr Brett Rushforth is an associate professor of history and Director of Graduate Studies at the College of William and Mary in the United States. Brett has written a new book Bonds of Alliance that reviews the interactions between the settler society of New France and the Indian tribes with whom they traded.  While generally not know to the general public, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French colonists and their Native allies participated in a slave trade that spanned half of North America, carrying thousands of Native Americans into bondage in the Great Lakes, Canada, and the Caribbean. The book looks a vast geographic and chronological scope carefully dissects the lives of various enslaved individuals and masters, this book gives voice to those who lived through the ordeal of slavery and, along the way, shaped French and Native societies.


Rather than telling a simple story of colonial domination and Native victimization, Brett argues that Indian slavery in New France emerged at the nexus of two very different forms of slavery based on different political needs: one indigenous to North America and the other rooted in the Atlantic world. The alliances that bound French and Natives together forced a century-long negotiation over the nature of slavery and its place in early American society. Neither fully Indian nor entirely French, slavery in New France drew upon and transformed indigenous and Atlantic cultures in complex and surprising ways.

We discussed the large slave trade that existed in Indians in New France’s territories, the ideas surrounding different types of customary adoption, sexual violence, children and slavery, the marking of bodies, the terms used to describe slave (I make you my Dog), secondary wives, the political consequences (alliances) of owning Indian slaves, the idea that Indians make for bad slaves versus Africa-American slaves etc…

The book was published by the University of North Carolina Press.

To Learn More (interview & podcast)


Ouellette, Robert-Falcon. (Director) (2012. May 29). At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research. Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance; Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.attheedgeofcanada.com  
Ouellette, Robert-Falcon, dir. "Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance; Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France." At the Edge of Canada: Indigenous Research.. N.p., 29 2012. web. 29 May 2012. < http://www.attheedgeofcanada.com ›


  1. I have taken courses on Canadian history, even at the post-secondary level and yet the information presented by Dr. Brett Rushforth was mostly new to me. I remember studying Canadian history in high school and learning about the different groups of Aboriginal people that lived in the territory comprising present-day Canada. The way we learned about these unique cultures generally followed a similar routine. The teacher explained where the group was located, what they ate, the type of dwellings they made, and possibly touched on a distinct ceremony that was practiced, such as the Potlatch or Sun Dance. Overall, there was always a linear, very structured way of teaching about First Nations. Even after European contact, the little we had learned was hardly expanded on. The topic of slavery, both from an Aboriginal and European view, would be a great topic for discussion and debate. In some cases, Aboriginal warriors would mark their captives with a tattoo or even practice mutilation similar to that of early European slavers. Equally shocking, is that Aboriginal slaves existed in large numbers in certain cities of New France, such as Montreal. At one time the governor even held upwards of twenty slaves! I find this corner of Canadian history very interesting and I know that students would too. I don’t know if teachers are wary of discussing issues of Canadian slavery or if they themselves have not heard about this period, but if I ever teach Canadian history, I will be sure to include stories like this to get the students interested and give them a deeper look into the past.

  2. As a prospective teacher of Canadian History, I have come to realize that Canada has some deep, dark secrets that are rarely spoken about. This is especially evident in the Manitoban public education system in regards to the teaching of history, as well as in the various Canadian history courses is have taken throughout my time at the University of Manitoba. I was aware that slavery did indeed exist in Canada (or pre-Confederation Canada which is still part of Canada’s history), but the majority of the knowledge I had on this subject pertained to the enslavement of Black peoples. I was aware that First Nations peoples were enslaved in some instances (inter-group slavery, if you will), but had nowhere near the knowledge base of the information that is shared in this interview.

    There were several points made by Dr. Rushforth in this interview that I found particularly interesting. First off, the fact that New France had a thriving slave trade is something that I never learned about in high school history, let alone post-secondary history courses. Secondly, the dehumanization of slaves, for example “I make you my dog,” was particularly interesting as a way of looking at the master-slave relationship. I would assume it was this process of dehumanization that allowed for the sexual violence and “marking” of slaves through tattooing, scarring, and bodily mutilation. Dehumanizing the victim places the victim outside our “universe of moral obligation,” allowing despicable things to happen to the victim (Waller, 2007). Also, it was interesting to finally get an explanation regarding the different terminology used in the United States in place of First Nations or Aboriginal.

    Dr. Rushford states that “every country wants to believe the best about its past,” which I feel is one of the driving forces as to why I was not taught this information in high school. Essentially, it is what the status quo have interpreted as history that is presented in classrooms and deemed as the real history, as opposed to being labelled as one of many interpretations/perspectives. Thus history is misrepresented and a group of people are marginalized to make Canada’s past look “cleaner” (Stanley, 2006). “Purging the curriculum of topics that raise concerns for young people, or focusing discussion only on ‘safe’ areas, are not options except for making classrooms more sterile places” (Werner, 2008). Essentially, students learn nothing when teachers do this. We need to teach the true history of Canada, even if darker information will be revealed. This leads to critical thinking, and a greater overall comprehension of Canada’s history.