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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
January 2022
Print publication year:
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Creative Commons:
Creative Common License - CC Creative Common License - BY Creative Common License - NC
This content is Open Access and distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC-BY-NC 4.0

Book description

Unraveling Abolition tells the fascinating story of slaves, former slaves, magistrates and legal workers who fought for emancipation, without armed struggle, from 1781 to 1830. By centering the Colombian judicial forum as a crucible of antislavery, Edgardo Pérez Morales reveals how the meanings of slavery, freedom and political belonging were publicly contested. In the absence of freedom of the press or association, the politics of abolition were first formed during litigation. Through the life stories of enslaved litigants and defendants, Pérez Morales illuminates the rise of antislavery culture, and how this tradition of legal tinkering and struggle shaped claims to equal citizenship during the anti-Spanish revolutions of the early 1800s. By questioning foundational constitutions and laws, this book uncovers how legal activists were radically committed to the idea that independence from Spain would be incomplete without emancipation for all slaves.


'Lucid and engrossing, Unraveling Abolition spotlights the enslaved people who spearheaded Colombia’s antislavery legal culture alongside jurists and politicians. This sweeping account brims with insights for historians of republicanism and its limits in the revolutionary Americas.'

Caitlin Fitz - Northwestern University

'Unraveling Abolition is a masterful retelling of the struggle over emancipation at the dawn of the Colombian republic. Edgardo Pérez Morales ably shows the significance of the enslaved and free people who engaged in 'legal tinkering'. By fighting to end legal bondage through the judicial sphere, they remade the law itself. This book will no doubt be a valuable contribution to the fields of slavery and emancipation, legal history, and the Age of Revolutions.'

Jason McGraw - Indiana University

'Unraveling Abolition is a welcome addition to the scholarship on enslaved litigants in Latin America who forged new paths to freedom using the courts. Pérez Morales skillfully demonstrates how enslaved people envisioned emancipation and pushed for abolition far beyond the cautious contours of gradual emancipation in the transition from colony to the republic of Gran Colombia.'

Michelle McKinley - University of Oregon School of Law and author of Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima, 1600-1700

'This book rightly centers the agency of Afro-Colombians for understanding the legal history of slavery and for promoting new ideas of human freedom. Pérez Morales uncovers a rich tradition of enslaved people appropriating the law, and even inventing new legal claims, to push for emancipation, both under Spanish colonialism and in the new independent Colombian republic. A major contribution.'

James E. Sanders

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  • Unraveling Abolition
    pp i-i
  • Studies in Legal History - Series page
    pp ii-iv
  • Unraveling Abolition - Title page
    pp v-v
  • Legal Culture and Slave Emancipation in Colombia
  • Copyright page
    pp vi-vi
  • Epigraph
    pp vii-viii
  • Contents
    pp ix-ix
  • Maps
    pp x-x
  • Acknowledgments
    pp xi-xii
  • Abbreviations
    pp xiii-xiv
  • Prologue: Antislavery, Abolition, and the Judicial Forum
    pp 1-11
  • 1 - Raynal in the New Kingdom?
    pp 12-35
  • 2 - Landscapes of Slavery, Rumors of Freedom
    pp 36-58
  • 3 - Popayán: Prudent Legislation
    pp 59-84
  • 4 - Cartagena: Equality and Natural Law
    pp 85-108
  • 5 - Antioquia: Free Womb, Captive Slaves
    pp 109-134
  • 6 - An Exegesis of Liberty
    pp 135-161
  • Epilogue: The Slaves Before the Law
    pp 162-166
  • Notes
    pp 167-231
  • Index
    pp 232-242


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