California, a Slave State contends that slave labor drove California's rise to prosperity, a vicious legacy that binds together the Spanish Empire's eighteenth-century missions to sexual trafficking in the twenty-first century. Jean Pfaelzer demonstrates that California is the culmination of Spanish, Mexican, Russian, and US systems of forced labor. She positions California at the nexus of Washington, DC, Saint Petersburg, Mexico City, and Seville (although scholars of colonial Latin America will find her grasp of the Spanish Empire's long debates about unfree labor, missionization, and caste system shaky). But California is also heir to a liberatory legacy, she argues. Enslaved people have seized their own emancipation, again and again. Their struggle puts the lie to California's claims to be a free state.

This book's chronological ambition is its greatest strength. Pfaelzer traces four waves of conquest to show that diverse systems of forced labor (a term that is never fully...

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