Review: The Brethren

McConville, Brendan. The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2021. 304 pp. $29.95 Hardback.

As historians seek to uncover the diverse voices of the American Revolution, many have turned their attention to the role of religious identity in the American war for independence. While scholars of American religion have identified the Great Awakening as a source of revolutionary sentiment among colonists, few have addressed the differences between different Christian traditions, especially among lower-class farmers.

Brendan McConville complicates our narrative of Christianity in early America with his study The Brethren: A Story of Faith and Conspiracy in Revolutionary America. McConville focuses on the yeomanry of coastal colonial North Carolina and the murderous conspiracy against a revolutionary government rule that went against the farmer’s religious values. These yeoman farmers saw their new American leaders seeking aid from the Catholic French and practicing a form of Christianity influenced by the Enlightenment, which removed mysticism from Scripture. As revolutionary leaders in North Carolina began allying themselves with the “heretical” Catholics and publicly questioning the legitimacy of the Bible, they became targets for protestant farmers. These farmers formed the “Brethren” and conspired against the state government. McConville argues that the Brethren’s coalition reflected how the understanding of liberty evolved from a moral pursuit into a strictly political one during the American Revolution.

McConville combs through colonial legal records and newspapers to piece together the experiences of the yeoman farmers and their beliefs, focusing on their perspective  rather than the rich political leaders of North Carolina. While many historians consider the zealous practices of Christianity at this time to either be overstated or isolated to a few communities, McConville reveals that these groups were a force large enough to inspire fear in local political leaders. Additionally, these men actively shaped local politics by expressing their beliefs and threatening violence. Analyzing this group of North Carolina farmers through the lens of politics and religion reveals a more complicated story about the founding of the United States.

McConville tells the story of the Brethren through ten short chapters. The first five contextualize the growing distress of ordinary farmers and their suspicion of revolutionary leadership. Due to a crashing economy and the individualization of religion, the yeomanry became sensitive to the social changes brought by the revolution. Growing republican sentiments and compulsory military service challenged the lifestyle of small farmers. The establishment of the Fifth Congress, which consisted of men with “heretical” beliefs, irritated an already unstable society. Destabilized by the war and a new government, North Carolina became contentious and unstable.

In the last five chapters, McConville traces the rise and fall of the Brethren. Examining depositions, legal petitions, and personal papers, McConville documents how the Brethren quickly gained followers on the eastern side of North Carolina. In 1777, their conspiracy gained traction among other yeoman farmers and became a growing concern for political leaders. The author highlights the significance of the Brethren’s uprising in chapter six. He contends that “they created the preconditions for a clash over the meaning of the Revolution itself in the summer of 1777 ” (126). Quickly after their rise, the Brethren reached the turning point of their conspiracy. In a plot to murder North Carolina delegates, John Lewellen planned a slave uprising as a diversion. The small number of yeomen farmers who relied on slave labour and greatly feared retaliation by enslaved individuals, went to the authorities and warned them about the plan. McConville proposes that this event reveals the yeoman farmers’ dedication to the racial hierarchy of their society, even above their religious convictions.

The threat of a slave rebellion was the downfall of the conspiracy, resulting in the swift punishment and dissolution of the Brethren. Lewellen was captured by the North Carolina militia and released on parole in 1777. The author argues that through the punishment of the yeomanry, North Carolina established a government based on values of the enlightenment and pushed its inhabitants to adopt “American” identity. Citizens of the state were to accept a separation between their religious values and the state. Disobedience would no longer be tolerated and patriotism was expected. In the end, he concludes that colonial culture was much more varied than historians have suggested, and that the Brethren serve as an example of how Protestantism complicated the development of a new nation.[1]

McConville’s study is the first to uncover the history of the Brethren, bringing this fascinating story to light. McConville contributes to the historiography of religion in colonial North Carolina, which has focused mostly on other protestant traditions such as the Quakers and the Moravians. Although the author is treading on new territory with neglected sources, his analysis only briefly mentions race and hardly discusses women at all. A budding historian may see an opportunity to elaborate on this interesting event through these lenses. If  scholars consider the experiences of farmer’s wives, we would likely see a complicated response to the rebellion. Women may have supported the Brethren when the war threatened to force their husbands and sons to enlist, but some may have been discontent with their husbands participating in violent activities that could endanger their families. By analyzing the experiences of women, we may see a more complex story of the Brethren.

The Brethren is a great example of how scholars can use sparse sources and some imagination to craft a compelling narrative and argument. As McConville shows, there are plenty of hidden stories in the archives.

Savannah Flanagan

Virginia Tech

Savannah Flanagan is a graduate student in the history department at Virginia Tech. She is currently researching Moravian Women in the 18th century North Carolina Piedmont. Follow Savannah on Twitter @savflanagan.


[1] Claude Van Tyne, The Loyalists in the American Revolution (New York: Peter Smith, 1929); Gerald W. Thomas, Rebels and King’s Men: Bertie County in the Revolutionary War (Raleigh, N.C.: Office of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 2013); Jeffrey J. Crow, “Tory Plots and Anglican Loyalty : The Llewelyn Conspiracy of 1777,” North Carolina Historical Review 55, No. 1 (Jan. 1978).

Review: Schooling the System

Aladejebi, Funké. Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers. Rethinking Canada in the World 8. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021. 304pp. $37.95. Pbk.

Funké Aladejebi’s Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers offers much-needed insight into the world of black female educators in Canada from 1940-80. Aladejebi addresses a gap within not only African Canadian historiography, but the history of education in Canada as well. Schooling the System also provides a striking example of a thorough and thoughtful approach to oral history. By practicing what she describes as “historical listening,” Aladejebi captures the complexities of black female educators’ experiences and the ways in which gender, race, and class informed their stories (11). She also applies a spatial analysis “to understand how black geographic subjects produce space within the context of domination and objectification” (8).

Each chapter begins with an oral history that frames the collective experiences explored in each historical period. Referring to the interviews as “oral herstories,” Aladejebi considers the interviewees as “engaged knowledge producers who made deliberate and conscious choices about the stories they described during the interview process” (9). Her approach to oral history as “insider-outsider” is commendable; rather than assume shared knowledge or experiences as a black female educator herself, Aladejebi built working relationships with each of her twenty-six participants before, during, and after the interview process, meaning that the stories told in Schooling the System centres these women’s agency as they “made deliberate choices to reclaim their dignity and selfhood” (13). 

In chapter one, Aladejebi reviews the period between 1940 and 1960, offering one of the best summaries I have read to date of the history of black education in Canada. Aladejebi’s attentive history lays a foundation in this chapter that is essential to understanding how the education system created and reinforced racial segregation. These early historical experiences “created a system of subordination” that kept blacks in the margins “and continued to characterize their lived experiences into the twentieth century” (20). 

Chapter two explores a period when many black immigrants from the Caribbean arrived in Ontario from 1960-80. Aladejebi asserts, “The forms of racism that faced the black populations beginning in the seventeenth century were simply transformed into twentieth-century state programs that continued to treat African descended peoples as occupying spaces outside of the Canadian nation” (54). This chapter traces the ways in which inherited British and French ideals surrounding blackness meant that black women educators often taught in predominately black areas due to their foreign appearance and “othered” status.  For the same reason, these women were also approached by white school administrators to teach in certain geographic areas because they “believed that because they were nonwhite they could better understand racially diverse student populations, some of whom were black” (54).

Chapter three shows how “othered” experiences placed black women educators as “outsiders-within” the educational system. One interviewee named Meyers pointed out that she lacked black role models, stating, “I was never taught by a black teacher. My whole teaching career. Never. I mean my whole schooling, I was never taught by a black person” (81). Aladejebi notes that the inclusion of black educators only “to satisfy minority mandates reflected a limited and ineffective form of institutional inclusion” (81). Still, black women educators preserved and tried to be the role models they never had. They used their unique place in the educational system to create “distinctive pedagogical approaches that were often reflective of their positions as outsiders-within” (84). One such example of this pedagogy is in interviewee Archer’s story. Archer organized multicultural events, encouraged students to bring traditional items to the classroom, and advocated for black content in the curriculum. As Aladejebi writes, “Archer used her pedagogy to transplant cultural and community knowledge,” which “blurred the lines between her professional occupation and community work.” (105). Aladejebi asserts that the efforts of black women educators to find “ways to combat historical erasures within the curriculum” was a deeply meaningful part of their professional practice (84). 

One interviee named Meyers pointed out that she lacked black role models, stating, “I was never taught by a black teacher. My whole teaching career. Never. I mean my whole schooling, I was never taught by a black person.”

The final two chapters look more deeply into the lives of black women educators through their activism and community involvement. Chapter four examines the lives of black women educators beyond the walls of the classroom. As black militancy grew in the United States, black Canadians began to question their place in Canadian identity. Black activism “shared ideas, organizations, and people” across the border but also demonstrated a distinctively black Canadian political consciousness (114). As Aladejebi writes, “Feeling a sense of alienation from traditional concepts of Canadian identity, black Canadians increased their political activism affirming a heightened consciousness about the black of black bodies in Canadian citizenry” (114). Here, Aladejebi’s contribution makes a big impact in a highly underrepresented historical period. The influences of the US civil rights movement in Canada have not been well-documented, and Schooling the System begins to fill the historiographical gap. 

Continuing the discussion of activism, Chapter five follows black women’s involvement in Canada’s women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In this chapter, Aladejebi “describes the ways in which black women understood themselves as occupying in-between spaces where they built alliances, borrowed discourses, and strengthened identities unique to their personal experiences” (146). This excerpt in particular reiterates the importance of Aladejebi’s contributions; through a spatial lens, she illuminates how both race and gender placed black women in an “in-between” space, and how their occupation of this space “disrupted national narratives of European citizenship and nationhood” (7). Ultimately, black women educators contributed greatly to transforming the education system into a more inclusive space for all.

Within Ontario’s school systems, black female educators “schooled the system” by teaching Africentric content and creating inclusive and equitable policies so that education was accessible to all. As activists, they fought to change historically entrenched ideas around what it meant to be Canadian. In placing black female educators’ voices at the forefront of the narrative, Aladejebi unravels a compelling and crucial history of not only black education in Ontario, but of the broader Canadian historical context as well. This work is a timely intervention into a stale historiography and should quickly find its place as a critical, if not canonical, contribution to African Canadian history.

Stefanie R. Slaunwhite, University of New Brunswick

Stefanie R. Slaunwhite holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Atlantic Canada Studies from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. She is currently a PhD student in History at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton under the supervision of Dr. Sasha Mullally. 

You can find more information about Schooling the System on the McGill-Queen’s University Press website. For more on Dr. Funké Aladejebi, you can visit her website.

Past Tense Summer 2022 Call for Papers

Are you an MA or first- or second-year PhD student looking for your first publication? We invite you to submit your work for the Summer 2022 issue of Past Tense Graduate Review of History.

Past Tense is a peer-reviewed journal run by the graduate students of the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Since publishing its first issue in 2012, Past Tense has been dedicated to providing early career academics experience with anonymous peer-review processes and showcasing high-quality graduate student work. Although subjects must be historical, we welcome articles focused on a broad geographic and chronological range.

We accept original research articles (20-30 double spaced pages), book reviews of recent publications (approximately 700-1000 words), and critical commentaries on issues in the field of history (about 1500 words). The deadline for submissions is November 1st, 2021.

Please review our Submissions page for more information on the types of submissions we accept. Information on style and format requirements can be found on the For Authors and Style Guide pages of our website.

Download a PDF version of the 2022 Call for Papers.

Review: Taming Cannabis

Guba, David A., Jr. Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France. Intoxicating Histories 1. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020. 384pp. $37.95. Pbk.  

Faced with persistent homelessness, pervasive crime, and dogged Algerian resistance, why have North American governors, the Philippine state, and the French Empire pinned their troubles on drugs? Because drugs create a dividing line between us and them. 

Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France is the brilliant first book in Intoxicating History, a new series published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Covering the period between 1798 and 1870, author David A. Guba, Jr. shows how France used the bogeyman of hashish to help conquer Algeria and murder large segments of its population. Guba argues that France accomplished this by othering Arab Algerians and indigenous Amazigh peoples and depicting them as hashish-crazed Muslim extremists. 

In Guba’s first chapter, we learn the differences between the “civilized” Cannabis sativa, used to make the rigging of Europe’s great fleets, and the “oriental” and intoxicating Cannabis indica, used to turn “natives” into madmen. This difference is even reflected in the nomenclature: indica means Indian, signifying the “Oriental.” 

In the second chapter, Guba sets the historical record straight about Napoleon’s conquest of Eqypt in 1798, demonstrating that he did not ban cannabis consumption because his troops were becoming indolent. Instead, Guba writes, Napoleon’s replacement banned it at the request of Cairo’s Sunni Muslim elite. 

Chapter 4 describes efforts by French scientists to find a cure for cholera using cannabis. These experiments failed but the drug would prove quite the analgesic. In Chapter 5, we learn that hashish is later deemed of no medical use. Guba also introduces us here to Charles Baudelaire’s opinions on the drug, which he called “satanic.” Still, it did not stop the poet from indulging at the Club des Hachichins in Paris. 

The sixth chapter finally shifts focus to Algeria. Following the invasion of 1830, Algerian indulgence in hashish became the explanation for all acts of resistance or violence by the subject population. Officers, doctors, and pharmacists with the French Armée d’Afrique published reports of hashish consumption “as a source of Oriental deviancy, barbarism, and resistance to civilization” (192).

Hashish, according to one French artillery captain, caused “tyrannical despotism,” “sexual deviancy,” and “mass delirium and violence” among Algerian locals (192). A military pharmacist argued it caused pederasty, high rates of insanity, a “child-like and irrational mentality, and a propensity for physical violence and pain, all portrayed as innate Oriental anti-virtues produced by the intoxication of hashish” (199). 

The most fascinating part of the book, though, is its treatment of the Myth of the Hachichins in chapter 3. Guba describes how contemporary French intellectuals traced “hashish-ism” back to the medieval – and unlikely – story of hashish-eating “Islamic Assassins” from the twelfth century. Today, we know that the “Assassins” existed but their great feats of suicidal derring-do were not thanks to hashish. This tale was popularized by Marco Polo, and transformed into myth, a story as likely as Scheherazade’s “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” 

But in 1809, French Orientalist Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy declared that he had proof of this mythical connection, citing a single Syrian text from the thirteenth century whose author described the Assassins as “hachichins.” (Assassin and hachichin rhyme in French.) Guba stresses that this was de Sacy’s only evidence for his claim, and that more recent scholars like Marshall Hodgson, Bernard Lewis, and Farhad Daftary have since pointed out that “hachichin” was a common insult for low-born and irreligious outcasts at the time, used especially by Sunnis describing adherents of other strands of Islam, like the Ismaili Assassins. Guba argues that this failure to acknowledge these complexities “transformed biased anecdotes and folktales about hashish and the Nizari Ismailis into facts of history” (95). 

Though the hashish-eating Assassins story has been disproved, the myth sadly lives on. In 2015, French ethno-psychiatrist Tobie Nathan told L’Express newspaper that the Assassins consumed hashish to recruit “suicide bombers” and were “the inventors of modern terrorism,” leading directly to the suicide attacks of today (85). Following the November 2015 ISIS attacks in Paris, the media referred to ringleaders Salah and Brahim Abdeslam as “the Joint Brothers,” in reference to their alleged cannabis addictions (45). After Taming Cannabis was published, a French Muslim man named Kobili Traoré was acquitted for the brutal, antisemitic murder of Sarah Halimi. Why was he acquitted? Traoré was too high on hashish to know what he was doing.  

Meanwhile, Guba reminds us that France consumes the most cannabis in the European Union, while maintaining its strictest anti-cannabis laws. Today, Black and Arab Parisians are six to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. Arabs and Muslims are more likely to be stopped for random checks. And although Muslims make up only eight per cent of French society, they are 50 per cent of its prisoners, in large part thanks to drug laws (4). 

And the myth extends beyond France. Guba argues that Harry J. Anslinger, founder of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics and American drug warrior extraordinaire, also drew the link between the Assassins and cannabis, and brought the hammer down on American Blacks and Chicanos. 

Guba’s book is extensively documented, including materials from the French Archives and the Overseas French Archives. With that said, there are some issues with Guba’s narrative, though none should take away from the work’s importance, nor do they challenge its accuracy. 

Guba spends much of the first chapter explaining how Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are the same species simply grown in different terroirs, and therefore should not have been differentiated by French taxonomists into separate categories – one western and industrious, the other oriental and lazy. 

But he takes the argument too far. As Guba notes, even today many cannabis users believe the branches are separate species (I did.) They look different, as Guba also notes, and without being altered, indica causes intoxication much more easily than sativa does.  

I also do not understand why Guba buries the scientific evidence that sativa and indica are the same species in an explanatory endnote on page 267. There, he notes that scientists at the University of British Columbia have discovered that sativa and indica (and ruderalis) are the same specie with the same genetics: “Therefore, one can argue that the indica versus sativa debate of today is a by-product of the nineteenth-century racial and civilizational division crafted by Europeans to differentiate themselves from ‘Orientals’” (267). I do not think that is right. Today, the debate about these differences is about the kind of high you are looking for. 

Another question is why Guba waited until page 92 to introduce Edward Said, since it is Said’s Orientalism that frames Guba’s theory. As Guba writes, Said directly pointed to de Sacy’s poor scholarship on the Assassins as a key orientalizing myth. It would seem pertinent to mention this at the beginning. 

Finally, Guba writes, rather anti-climactically, that despite the calls for anti-hashish regulations in French Africa, only two minor laws were passed, one in Egypt in 1800, and a second in Algeria in 1857. Neither were enforced. We do not find out when marijuana was finally prohibited in the French colonies or in France itself, although he does highlight that the current law was passed in 1970,. 

This is nevertheless an excellent book and a vital contribution to modern French history and the history of drugs. It explains how cannabis remains so contentious in a country – and a world – where it is so common. 

Dave Hazzan, York University

Dave Hazzan is a PhD (ABD) candidate in the Department of History at York University, specializing in drug history. You can find more information about David Guba’s book, Taming Cannabis, on the McGill-Queen’s University Press website.

New Podcast Alert: Off-Campus History

Off-Campus History, Logo by @nethkaria

Ever wonder what a historian would have to say about that movie, video game, or museum? Well, look no further! On each episode of Off-Campus History, join Louis Reed-Wood (PhD candidate at the University of Toronto) for a conversation with a fellow historian about a public representation of the area of history that they study. This representation might be a movie or TV show, a game, a museum or historic site, the school curriculum, a claim made by a politician, or something else entirely.

On the most recent episode of Off-Campus History, Louis delves into Hearts of Iron IV, a grand strategy video game set during World War Two, with Past Tense‘s very own Sid Sridhar! Together they discuss the game’s depiction and interpretation of the past, paying special attention to Hearts of Iron’s representation of the history of South and Southeast Asia.

You can find the show wherever you get your podcasts, and at https://offcampushistory.podbean.com. Follow Louis and the show on Instagram @offcampushistory and on Facebook for episode announcements, pictures, and more. 

If you’re a historian (grad student, professor, or history professional) interested in being a guest on the podcast, you’re invited to get in touch with Louis! Contact him at offcampushistory[at]gmail.com.

Call for Book Reviews

We are excited to announce that Past Tense Graduate Review of History will be publishing book reviews on a rolling basis on our new web platform, Past Tense Online. We invite graduate students and new scholars to pitch books to review that would be of interest to graduate students in history and related fields in the humanities and social sciences. Reviews should be between 500 and 1000 words in length and should discuss the main arguments, structure, and methodology of the author(s). Reviews should also discuss the particular intervention made by the work in its field and explain its importance to graduate students and new scholars in History. Submissions will be reviewed by the editorial collective of Past Tense and published on our website.

We are delighted to receive pitches for titles from any major publishing house and will try to procure review copies if needed. We have also curated a selection of recent works from the University of Toronto Press and McGill-Queen’s University Press that we would love to see reviewed for Past Tense Online.

Nastasha Sartore and Siddharth Sridhar,
Co-Editors

Past Tense Online Call for Commentaries

We are excited to invite graduate students and early career scholars in history to submit pitches or complete pieces for publication on Past Tense Online, the new web platform for Past Tense Graduate Review of History.

Past Tense Online is seeking commentaries that examine the history of residential schools in Canada, the legacies of settler-colonialism, and the continued presence of colonization in Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. Commentaries are essays of 1000-1500 words that intervene in current scholarly debates, place current events in historical perspective, or share unexpected archival finds. Submissions will be accepted on a rolling basis. Please submit your work to pasttensejournal@gmail.com

We also invite Indigenous, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit scholars to share their work on a range of other topics.

We are excited about the future of Past Tense Online and look forward to reading and sharing your work with historians across the world. We also welcome proposals for collaboration. Please write to us at pasttensejournal@gmail.com.

Nastasha Sartore & Siddharth Sridhar, Co-Editors

Welcome to Past Tense Online!

Welcome to Past Tense Online, a new page managed by the editorial collective of the Past Tense Graduate Review of HistoryPast Tense Online expands the scope of the journal by offering young and promising historians a year-round venue to reflect on and intervene in current debates in the scholarly literature.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 Pandemic, rapidly escalating climate change, and the explosion of social movements across the world challenging persistent patterns of social, political, and economic oppression, have dramatically changed the academic landscape, forcing many of us to rethink the paradigms of our fields while we’re stuck in place and out of the archives.  

Past Tense Online is presentist to its core, calling on new historians to contribute their expertise to the myriad social crises that we face. We seek two forms of contributions: commentaries and reviews. Commentaries are essays of 1000-1500 words that intervene in current historiographical debates, place current events in historical perspective, or share quirky historical narratives or unexpected archival finds. We are also interested in digital exhibits and pieces that utilize audio, cinematic, and photographic materials that can be reproduced in an interactive website. Reviews are succinct pieces of 500-1000 words that share the latest works in the humanities and social sciences and assess their impact on relevant historiography and criticism.

We are excited about the future of Past Tense Online and look forward to reading and sharing your work with historians across the world. We also welcome any and all suggestions or recommendations for improvement, as well as proposals for collaboration. Please write to us at pasttensejournal@gmail.com.

Volume 8 Now Available

We are pleased to announce the release of Volume 8 of Past Tense Graduate Review of History.

This past year has produced unprecedented changes and challenges, which significantly impacted the publication of this issue. However, thanks to the hard work and patience of our authors and editorial team, we are thrilled to be able to share three incredible articles by graduate students.

Billy Sawyers’ article examines Japanese colonial power in Taiwan through a study a collection of commemorative postcards from the Truku-Japanese war of 1914.

Laura Tibi’s award-winning article explores ideas of memory, nationhood, and identity in works by Palestinian artists of the twentieth century.

Anna Wenzel’s article brings attention to how Cuban exile political extremism was portrayed in American Cuban exile newspapers of the 1970s.

Thank you for supporting graduate research in history, and please enjoy the latest issue of Past Tense!

Call for External Reviewers

We have extended our call for external reviewers!

The Past Tense Editorial Board relies on external reviewers for our anonymous peer review process. The ideal candidate is a graduate student in a History PhD program (or closely-related field) who has reached candidate status and has both thematic and geographic expertise. External reviewers evaluate research article submissions with respect to their originality, argumentation, style, and historiographical rigour. The feedback we receive from reviewers is instrumental in determining the acceptance of articles for publication.

The majority of external review work for the 2021 issue will take place in April. The editors assign articles they determine are within a reviewer’s range of expertise, and the number of articles reviewed each issue cycle will vary based on submissions. We typically will not assign reviewers more than two articles per cycle.

The application for external reviewers can be found here, and will be open until March 14th, 2021.