ScholarWorks Spotlight: Celebrating the Human Side of Research - Dr. Nicole Dressler

Posted on April 21, 2021

By Mary Oberlies - Instruction & Research Librarian

In this series, we are spotlighting researchers who have contributed to W&M ScholarWorks, our institutional repository. We asked each researcher to identify a scholarly work and share the “human story” behind it. Who are the people behind the data and theory, and how were they affected by the scholarship?   

We hope you will enjoy learning more about what happens “behind the scenes” of research, and that it encourages you to explore the collections in W&M ScholarWorks. 

If you are interested in being part of the series or contributing to ScholarWorks, please contact your librarian liaison.


An interview with Dr. Nicole Dressler  

Article: “Enimies to Mankind: Convict Servitude, Authority, and Humanitarianism in the British Atlantic World” 

Explain your article in a tweet OR explain your article to a five-year-old. 

This article explores the role that British convict transportation and American penal servitude played in the early history of humanitarianism. It argues that emerging ideas of punishment, morality, and unfreedom evoked by convict labor created new moral responsibilities, influenced rhetoric regarding slavery, and inspired novel denunciations of suffering in Anglo-American culture. 

What inspired you to study this research question?  

In a graduate research seminar, I explored servitude and slavery in the eighteenth century, and the moral rhetoric surrounding convict servants from all sorts of backgrounds and statuses seemed puzzling. British courts banished over 50,000 convicted men, women, and children to the American colonies in the eighteenth century, many of whom served as convict servants. If these malefactors committed crimes and were subsequently punished, why was there a need to justify the process with moral language? The attitudes and practices at the early stages of the relatively new movement of sensibility seemed to be out of line with recent work on the history of humanitarianism. Particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century, records show how people used sentimental accounts to define offenders’ humanity (or lack thereof) and discussed coerced labor practices, which sometimes overlapped rhetoric emerging from the antislavery campaign. So, I began exploring how did attitudes toward the convict trade evoke sensibilities and shift over the long eighteenth century? How exactly did penal reform, anti-slavery, and the concomitant humanitarian sentiments, emerge at the same time as society turned increasingly capitalistic? Learning more about the ethical tensions and the successful or failed actions surrounding past forms of coerced labor systems will not only create a wider historical consciousness regarding human rights issues on unfreedom and human trafficking today, but it can also help us make more careful and informed decisions within the modern antislavery movement. 

How does your research connect with/to the courses you teach?

My teaching, like my research, helps student to understand circumstances surrounding freedom and human rights as well as the historical contingencies regarding labor, resistance, and cultural developments. In the classroom curiosity is key. Students come to college because they have dreams and aspirations for self-improvement. I want them to understand that not only did eighteenth-century people hold beliefs and hopes for better lives, but we are a product of those choices today. It is important for me to show learners the significant social, political and cultural changes in early America and the broader Atlantic world as well as the experiences of ordinary folks and marginalized people. Examining convict labor in the classroom gives us a window into how authority and identity evolved over the decades. It also offers us a variety of perspectives, including those of servants, enslaved people, common farmers, women, and children. Ideas of social order and cultural outsiders were not monolithic and had critical consequences for how people imagined and organized their communities. My goal then is to facilitate students’ broader command of historical scholarship and encourage a development of understanding – as well empathy – for people whose lives may be difficult to conceptualize otherwise.  

What didn't make it into the article that's interesting?  

While historians know that British authorities transported thousands of felons to the Americas in the eighteenth century, they have implicitly understood them as largely English, Irish, or Scottish. We know far less about the few who were nonwhite. I stumbled on the accounts of black convict transportation quite by accident when I was working on my dissertation. To my knowledge there is not a single study that gives this subject substantial attention. Their accounts have slipped through the records, are scattered, and admittedly few compared to white convicts, yet their stories deserve to be told. Convicted and transported people of color sent to the New World, where the brutal system of African chattel slavery continued to expand, had to navigate colonial spaces carefully. I found that they resisted the system of coerced labor in revealing ways. Transported black convicts’ knowledge about transatlantic networks powerfully informed the navigation of their unfreedom while shaping colonists’ ideas about power, labor, and mastery in Anglo-American culture. I am revising a manuscript about this topic currently, and I explain that these accounts challenge rigid conceptualizations of servitude, slavery, the law, and race in the British Atlantic world.  

Articles and book chapters archived in ScholarWorks are findable through Google and can reach a larger audience. Find out how to add your works to the institutional repository by talking to your liaison librarian.