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Exiles and Fugitives: Labor, Mobility, and Power in French Colonial Louisiana, 1699-1769

Terrien, Erwan (2021) Exiles and Fugitives: Labor, Mobility, and Power in French Colonial Louisiana, 1699-1769. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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“Exiles and Fugitives” examines the eighteenth-century colonization of the Mississippi Valley and the mobility of the unfree workers who built French Louisiana. In a vast area that largely remained Indian country, limited arrivals of enslaved Africans and European settlers, servants, and soldiers resulted in chronic labor shortages. Nowhere did France claim so much territory with so few people to defend and exploit it. As imperial officials and colonial elites sought to control the movements of a scarce but mobile multiracial workforce, malcontent laborers frequently resisted by running away. Escaped convicts, deserters, and fugitive slaves of African and Indigenous descent defied French authorities and employers, compelling them to revise their ambitions and metropolitan notions of sovereignty. By 1700, France was the most populous and powerful state in Europe. By contrast, its Northern American empire, which collapsed in 1763, appears as a shocking failure. Focusing on labor and geographic mobility illuminates this discrepancy through a case study of how empires operated on the ground. While the King’s sovereignty was far from absolute in France, overseas it relied fully on improvisation, accommodation, and negotiation—including with lower-class whites, slaves, and indigenous communities.
In the tradition of history from below, this dissertation highlights the agency of ordinary, often anonymous workers who shaped policies and institutions as they reclaimed their mobility. Although military desertion or marronage (slave flight) were viewed as isolated acts of desperation, a close reading of judicial records reveals that runaways relied on the cooperation of multiple actors to provide otherwise powerless workers with tools of collective negotiation. Fugitives rarely managed or even attempted to escape to freedom, but they often “petitioned with their feet” to assert customary rights. While recent scholarship portrays Louisiana as a slave society founded on a rigid racial hierarchy and a brutal labor regime similar to the Antilles, I examine the interaction of workers of various origins and legal status to conclude that race and class formation occurred along a complex and moving spectrum of unfreedom. Despite the rapid racialization of work, shortages of manpower continued to present Afro-Louisianans with opportunities for spatial and social mobility.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Terrien, Erwanert20@pitt.eduert20
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairRediker,
Committee MemberPutnam,
Committee MemberRoge,
Committee MemberWarsh,
Committee MemberEllis,
Date: 20 January 2021
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 1 December 2020
Approval Date: 20 January 2021
Submission Date: 4 December 2020
Access Restriction: 2 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 2 years.
Number of Pages: 369
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Louisiana Slavery Desertion Runaways Resistance
Date Deposited: 20 Jan 2021 19:14
Last Modified: 20 Jan 2023 06:15


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