Nicole Maskiell is an associate professor of history and affiliate faculty in African American studies at the University of South Carolina. Her book, Bound by Bondage: Slavery and the Creation of a Northern Gentry (2022 Cornell University Press), examines the institution of slavery in the early American Colonies and how it created lasting ties between families of the elite classes, even across cultural lines, as well as ties among the enslaved people.
Maskiell will appear in C-SPAN's Lectures in History program on Dec. 3, featuring one of her history courses from the Fall 2022 semester. We spoke to her for the fall edition of Breakthrough magazine, the university's research publication.
How did the Northern practice of slavery leading up to the American Revolution impact the formation of the United States?
Growing up I only learned about slavery and the South. The North, I’d been taught, was where enslaved people ran to freedom. But many of the major slave-holding families who ultimately set up in the South got their start in the North and continued to have close ties to their Northern counterparts. For example, the Laurens family of South Carolina originally emigrated to New York in the 17th century and later migrated to South Carolina. My book focuses on a core group of Northern slave-holding families who became quite influential during the American Revolution — specifically the Bayard family, whose progenitors emigrated during the early 17th century to Dutch-controlled New Netherland, and the Livingston family, who arrived in the late 17th century. Their descendants would make a significant contribution to the creation of the United States. Over a century before the founding of the nation, such families would thrive in part through their slave-holding ties.
What is the distinction between the Dutch colonies and the British colonies? How did the Dutch colonies shape American history?
The Dutch have had a key influence in so many of the institutions that we think of as being quintessentially American. The entrepreneurial and multicultural character of Dutch society had a huge imprint on early New York (formerly New Amsterdam), but they covered a lot of ground in early America, even making an imprint as far south as Brazil. And slavery is a huge part of that narrative. Much of the history of the contest between the Dutch and British empires rests on control of trade — and the trade in human beings represents a core part of the story. So, it’s no surprise that when the Dutch are defeated and ultimately overtaken by the English in New York, slavery becomes a central means of continuity and a way of demarcating social and cultural difference between the two empires.
Michael J. McGandy, an editor at Cornell University Press, writes that your book “pushes to find commonality where previous scholarship highlighted diversity.” What kinds of commonalities does your research examine?
My book opens with the fall of New Netherland, an important moment of rupture between the Dutch and English eras. Considering this divisive time, I was shocked to uncover a runaway slave notice which represents an important cooperation between the deposed Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, and his English replacement, Richard Nicolls, as the former tries to track down a group of runaway enslaved people. Much ink has been spilled about how different these two cultures and communities were, and there certainly were differences between the two, but slavery forms a kind of bridge between the two eras. It’s also important to note the centrality of family. In large part my book ends up being about family — not only the slaveholding families that I’m focusing on, but also the multigenerational connections and ties amongst enslaved people.
Your book begins with an introduction entitled “Manhunt” and ends with the conclusion “Gentry,” covering more than a century of early American history in the chapters. What do these titles mean?
In some respects, “Gentry” is where most people start when thinking about the wealthy families that make up the cohort I focus on. There’s even an HBO show devoted to the 19th century wealth of such families. I chose to start my narrative in a less familiar, more tenuous moment for these families to highlight the role of slave holding and slave trading in their rise to power. This is reflected by the chapter titles, such as “Manhunt,” “Neger,” “Bond,” etc. When slavery has been highlighted in past scholarship, it’s usually described in terms of numbers or financial ledgers. I chose to foreground the stories of enslaved people in each chapter to highlight their central role in the story, acknowledging their humanity and their contribution to the shaping of early America.
Of your book and another work in the series, McGandy writes: “States, trading companies, elite families — it was these institutions and entities that took care to tell big stories of their own aims and efforts and then to preserve the records that supported those stories. Lesser-known actors living and working outside the dominant institutions lacked the means to tell and preserve their stories.” How does your work break from traditional scholarship, e.g. history as told by those who held power, to highlight stories that might not have been told before? What are some of the challenges in telling these stories?
Uncovering the stories of enslaved people or lesser-known historical actors is a daunting task of detective work precisely because the surviving documents were not written to preserve such stories. Their lives survive in fragments that are at times scattered across continents and throughout family documents and even oral histories. But the search has been extremely rewarding and has allowed me to make connections to descendant communities and individuals who have generously shared their own family stories.