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The formulas describe unfree men and women with terms that are fluid and overlapping, and that encompass everything from what we would call chattel slavery to loose patronage. The unfree most often appear as the passive objects of the power and interests of their betters. They are not a closed group, however. Free people submitted themselves to servitude either voluntarily or by force of circumstance, in exchange for money or to make amends for some wrong. Unfree were freed or bought their own freedom. The unfree also display a significant amount of agency. They ran away. They sought help against their own lords from other powerful people. Sometimes they stole things, including marriage partners. They contested their status, often with success. Some even owned other unfree. In short, the formulas tell us that status at the interface between free and unfree was fluid, and that while they spent much of their lives as the passive objects of power, the unfree in this world had the capacity to act in their own interests, were fully aware of how power flowed, and could work the social and political system to their own advantage.
This chapter recovers the performances of Saint Domingue’s refugees who fled the slave uprisings and acted out their relationship to Haiti on professional American stages. The Haitian Revolution’s refugees also appeared as stage characters in original plays such as John Murdock’s 1795 The Triumphs of Love, which reimagined refugees as refined but unfortunate figures, integrating them into American culture by differentiating them from comic but rebellious slaves.
As long as people could be used as economic pawns, freedom was an ambiguous status. While legal recognition of property rights over land and goods expanded in the nineteenth century, the morality regarding ownership of human beings was challenged in courts, parliaments, and newspapers for centuries. Chapter 5 explores the experiences of freed people in a context of change related to property recognition and rights along with freed people’s access to property in the second half of the nineteenth century. Although semantics suggest otherwise, there was very little distinction between the experiences of enslaved or freed people in Angola. Accumulation of free and enslaved bodied, known as wealth in people, has been a fundamental framework for understanding West Central African societies’ understandings about wealth and accumulation. But ownership rights over people were contested within a context of juridical changes in all kinds of property rights in Angola. Coerced, unfree labor persisted, even as Portugal introduced gradual means to emancipate slaves in its possessions. Any efforts to regulate and end ownership rights over individuals had a public and a private sphere of debates, where slavers resisted the end of commodification while enslaved individuals rejected amelioration and gradual abolition projects.
It rained on the first day of December in 1838. This was a day to remember. Across the Cape Colony the yoke of forced labour had been lifted from the almost 40,000 inhabitants who had formerly been classified as slaves. They were now free.
It had been a long road to freedom. When the Dutch first settled the Cape in the mid-seventeenth century the Atlantic slave trade was expanding. As we discussed in Chapter 11, hundreds of thousands of Africans were being shipped across the Atlantic by Portuguese, British, French and Dutch traders and sold to settlers in the New World. Because of the profitability of the trade, the rivalry between these slave-trading nations was intense. It would be this rivalry that would bring the first shipment of Angolan slaves to the Cape.
American Revolutionaries cast themselves as metaphorical orphans, voluntarily severing ties with an overbearing empire-parent. In rendering the trauma of orphanhood as a virtue, this particular metaphor required a harsh rite of passage for protagonists to move from minor status to self-sufficiency. Only by casting off natal relations and their burdensome histories could one move into freedom, as defined by an idealized white male citizen, unencumbered by the trappings of the past. The slave trade’s project of inflicting literal orphanhood on a massive scale sets off this early republican celebration of voluntary alienation in garish relief. The author explores how the tension surrounding orphanhood structured the American Colonization Society, one of the most widely supported and well-financed failures of the time. The ACS was nonetheless the collective author of the first narrative crafted to persuade African Americans of anything: here, to convince them that severing ties to the United States was the only path to true freedom. Attending to orphanhood as imagined in the writings of slavers, the enslaved, and early antislavery legislators, the author traces how theories of early republican childhood were shaped by a shadow narrative in which slavery’s history had to be severed from the nation’s progress.
In Santiago, in Cuba’s far east, a region known to be the cradle of radicalism on the island, peasant communities of African descent laid a distinctive path to emancipation during the nineteenth century. Afro-descendant peasantries did not rely on liberal-abolitionist ideologies of universal freedom as a primary reference point in their struggle for rights. Instead, as they occupied land and pulled themselves out of slavery through manumission, fugitiveness, and unrest, they negotiated their rights through a colonial legal framework that allowed room for local custom. As they chipped away at the institution of slavery gradually yet consistently, they also reimagined colonial racial systems before any of Cuba’s prominent nineteenth-century liberal intellectuals. This introduction provides an outline of the book's main argument and the six chapters that follow.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, no written law numerated the rights of conditionally and partially free individuals, the vast majority of those who would eventually obtain manumission. How much of their time could such individuals control? Could they be punished? Could they live independently? Were the children born of mothers who held this ambiguous status free or enslaved? In courts of first instance, in the absence of illuminating legislation, judges turned to witnesses for arbitration, as enslavers and enslaved vied over the terms of their oral contracts and public reputations. The freedom that emerged from such vernacular legalism was not liberal autonomy. Rather, it was situational dependence on others, usually free and enslaved Afro-descendants who had participated in the coartación in some capacity, and who arbitrated casuistically. Freedom’s legal meanings emerged through such negotiations that belonged to local custom. Historically, these negotiations went back to the cobreros’ customary access to land and coartación as subsistence-based rights. By the 1830s, some enslaved people had redefined such need-based rights as merit-based entitlements.
Between 1808 and 1830, as new coffee plantations developed in Santiago, private actors and local state authorities realized that they did not have the means to coercively control the unprecedented number of enslaved people working in the jurisdiction. Instead, they prudently turned to cooptation. They encouraged the formation of dense familial networks between enslaved people working on coffee estates and between enslaved and free people of color, as well as the distribution of local militia responsibilities to the free Afro-descendant peasant class, who in El Cobre were even given government roles. Although Santiago’s enslaved and free people of African descent would draw inspiration from liberalism and seek to exploit the local elites’ fears of it, they were far more successful at eliciting prerogatives through long-established colonial frameworks: prudential policies that allowed for some redistribution of rights and resources against birth status hierarchies.
The local courts in Santiago also turned to custom to establish the rights and obligations of freed individuals even after letters of manumission had been issued. Even after becoming formally free, manumitted individuals could still be indebted to others. A vast historiography has explored manumission networks primarily from a social perspective, as avenues into freedom. But these networks also had legal effects. Inside the courts, it was members of those very same networks who helped judges clarify how much work debtors should do and what kinds of rights they enjoyed. While constraining, such networks also constituted the foundations of an emerging system of emancipation from below with free people of African descent as its main nodes. As enslaved people became free, they enslaved others whom they freed conditionally on their death. The effect of this pattern was an accelerating manumission rate and, with it, growing expectation among enslaved people to attain freedom. Frequent manumission also helped unfix color statuses within Santiago. Some santiagueros of African descent used color taxonomies to conceive of positions within local hierarchies originating in manumission.
In nineteenth-century Santiago de Cuba, the island of Cuba's radical cradle, Afro-descendant peasants forged freedom and devised their own formative path to emancipation. Drawing on understudied archives, this pathbreaking work unearths a new history of Black rural geography and popular legalism, and offers a new framework for thinking about nineteenth-century Black freedom. Santiago de Cuba's Afro-descendant peasantries did not rely on liberal-abolitionist ideologies as a primary reference point in their struggle for rights. Instead, they negotiated their freedom and land piecemeal, through colonial legal frameworks that allowed for local custom and manumission. While gradually wearing down the institution of slavery through litigation and self-purchase, they reimagined colonial racial systems before Cuba's intellectuals had their say. Long before residents of Cuba protested for national independence and island-wide emancipation in 1868, it was Santiago's Afro-descendant peasants who, gradually and invisibly, laid the groundwork for emancipation.
The prologue dwells on the ambigous status of enslaved Africans and their offspring in the Spanish Indies and the early Spanish American republics. Since there existed no consistent theory or justification of slavery, who exactly slaves were before the law remained a puzzle. The revolutionaries who achieved emancipation from Spain chose the concept of “captive” to frame their gradual, limited emancipation approach. Regarding slaves as Christian captives crying for deliverance and spiritual redemption rather than as individuals denied access to citizenship, this approach left slaves in a legal limbo. The redemption of captives was a spiritual commitment with no single beginning or clearly identifiable end. It was an ongoing, gradual process rather than a sudden change. By reading litigation as a sphere of politics, however, we know that slaves struggled (conceptually and legally) to propose alternatives to continuing captivity. In this process, often times slaves and their free descendants stood at the forefront of legal change. Their vital and complicated engagements with magistrates and legislators reframed, expanded, refined and even defined citizenship for entire nations.
The first chapter examines the changing landscape of slavery and freedom that developed in North America in the revolutionary era. It explores how and why opportunities for enslaved people to permanently escape bondage expanded significantly between the colonial era and the early nineteenth century. The chapter begins with a discussion of how slave flight was characterized during the colonial period, underscoring the informal nature of sancturary spaces and the lack of any spaces of "formal freedom" throughout the continent, as slavery was legally sanctioned everywhere. It then delves into the major transitions that occurred in the Age of Revolutions, with the abolition of slavery in the Northern United States, British Canada, and Mexico; as well as the wave of manumissions in the southern states that greatly bolstered urban free black communities. By the mid-1830s, enslaved people who found themselves trapped in the second slavery of the American South saw potential "spaces of freedom" in every direction: informal freedom within urban areas in the South itself; semi-formal (contested) freedom in the Northern United States; and formal freedom beyond the borders of the United States.
Byzantium continued traditions of slaveholding it inherited from the Roman Empire, but these were transformed significantly from the fourth century onward as slavery came to play a diminished role in the generation of economic surplus. Laws governing slaveholding gradually diminished the power of slaveholders and improved the rights of slaves by restricting a master’s right to abuse, prostitute, expose, and murder slaves and their children. Legal norms also eliminated penal servitude, opened the door wider to manumission, and created new structures for freeing enslaved war captives through the agency of the Christian church. Simultaneously, new forms of semi-servility arose with the fourth-century invention of forms of bound tenancy, which largely replaced the need for slaves. Byzantine society commonly used slaves in household and industrial contexts but only sporadically for agriculture, although slave prices remained constant through the eleventh century and even increased beginning in the thirteenth century as Italian traders turned Constantinople and Crete into conduits for slave commerce from the Black Sea. From the fourth century onward, Christian discourse began questioning slavery as contrary to natural and divine law, a tradition that continued throughout Byzantine history without ever leading to a call for abolition.
This chapter examines the social history of slavery in the early Ottoman Empire. Arguing that the range of forms of enslavement and forced labour practiced in the Ottoman Empire cannot be described by the current ‘universal’ definitions of slavery, this chapter looks at the role of slavery in Ottoman dynastic politics, the social history of military and administrative slavery, and the slavery of skilled workers as central to the economic production of the early modern urban centres of the Ottoman Empire. The chapter concludes with an examination of the legal categories that were applied to different forms of slavery and manumission, and presents to the reader to a range of primary and secondary sources for the research of slavery in the Ottoman Empire.
The societies of medieval Northern Europe were slave-holding societies that revered military prowess and expressed wealth and power through symbols of warrior-hood. They were intensely hierarchical and patriarchal societies in which control, guardianship and naked power over people equated with status. Despite the growth of governmental and religious institutions, they remained societies obsessed with notions of honor and shame, with lineage and kinship, identity and belonging. This chapter explores some problematic historiographical assumptions around the diminishing significance of slavery in these cultural contexts, arguing that only when we acknowledge and recognize the slave-holding nature of these societies are we are better able to understand them. Close analysis of the lifestyle, attitudes, and cultural conceptions of the slave-holder and the enslaver are therefore essential. Indeed slave-holding behaviours are evident in a wide range of medieval sources including sagas, poetry, myths, chronicles, legal texts, manorial records, wills and manumissions as well as penitentials, sermons and hagiography. These sources reveal that enslaved people were regarded as the weakest, most dishonorable and degraded of all individuals. Paradoxically, they highlight that the marginalisation of enslaved human beings was extremely important for these communities - underpinning broader power relations and defining and reinforcing the boundaries of community identity and belonging.
General readers still lack awareness of the prevalence of slavery between the classical period and the post-1420 wider Atlantic World. This phenomenon is not just temporal but geographic, in that Asia, the Indian Ocean World, Amerindian societies and Oceania still receive far less scholarly attention than their populations warrant. This situation exists despite the rapid growth of interest in the general subject of slavery in recent decades. The Islamic conquests and the Mongol expansions generated large numbers of captives, but in fact no society in the Medieval millennium was without enslaved people. While no consensus on the definition of slavery is possible – in this era it assumed a wide spectrum of dependencies - the existence of slave markets across the known world indicates that buyers and sellers shared enough of a common understanding of the practice to sustain a vibrant slave trade. Despite this traffic and major military disruptions, many enslaved people derived their status via birth even though the sources suggest that probably most slaves were female. They also exercised some agency. Prejudice against black people is apparent but the ebb and flow of empires ensured that any group could be a slave, just as any could be a slave owner.
Chapter 5 studies the two principal avenues of acquiring freedom available during gradual emancipation rule in the northern Pacific lowlands: self-purchase for enslaved and Free Womb captives, and public manumissions administered by the new manumission juntas. As Claudia Leal argues, “the Pacific coast of Colombia stands out for being—in all likelihood—the place in the Americas where self-purchase accounts for the largest percentage of manumissions.” This popular practice continued during gradual emancipation, giving rise to a debt-ridden moral economy of familial self-purchase embedded in the northern Pacific lowland gold industry. In the rest of the chapter, I argue that the public manumissions performed by the juntas, while they transformed the political culture and meaning of manumission as a public good in Colombia, fundamentally retained the disciplining logic of the slaveholding order. In fact, a close analysis of the juntas’ finances reveals how they repackaged self-purchase as manumission, thereby erasing the lowland’s long legacy of black self-purchase.
Chapter 4 examines the obstacles enslaved women faced in escaping bondage in post-Revolutionary America. The case of Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved Black woman in Massachusetts who sued for her freedom, captures the tenacity of Black women, who not only resisted with their feet, but also used the courts to gain their freedom. By highlighting the case of Ona Judge, the fugitive slave of George and Martha Washington, this chapter brings to the fore successful escapes in which enslaved women overcame formidable obstacles to freedom. During the post-Revolutionary period, Bett and other enslaved women developed several strategies for overcoming obstacles to freedom. As daughters, mothers, and wives, they contested oppression and invented solutions that defied their status as enslaved women.
In 1850, most white Americans interpreted black resettlement as meaning one institution and one location: the American Colonization Society (ACS) and the African settlement that it had founded three decades earlier, Liberia. As politicians from North and South sparred over dividing the acquisitions of the Mexican-American War (1846–8) into territories where slavery would be prohibited and those where it would not, they turned to the compromise of Liberian colonization, which promised to remove the source of their antagonism by simply removing black people. State legislators, endowed with greater power than their federal counterparts to proscribe African Americans, also redoubled their support for the ACS and the “black laws” that excluded, even expelled their black compatriots. Yet as lawmakers found it easier to persecute African Americans than to offer them positive alternatives, and as the citizens of a now-independent Liberia protested Americans’ presumption in foisting manumitted slaves and “recaptives” from the Atlantic slave trade on a small, struggling settlement, commentators contended that black Americans might need to colonize other parts of the world instead.