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In the 1860’s, Candida manumitted Gabriela and gave her a letter of freedom. Armand nevertheless contested this manumission. He argued that married women were illegally incapable of giving manumission to their slaves without their husband’s consent. Faced with this resistance to her freedom, Gabriela resorted to the courts. She brought two lawsuits against Armand—a civil one and a criminal one, for the crime of reducing a free person to slavery. Gabriela lost both lawsuits. Judges accepted Armand’s argument that a married woman was legally incapable of manumitting a slave without the explicit authorization of her husband, who was the legal administrator of her property. Thus, Brazilian courts nullified Gabriela’s manumission because a married woman had granted her freedom. Gabriela’s judicial struggle was not unique. By analyzing Gabriela’s judicial trajectory, this chapter will address broader questions regarding enslaved women’s access to courts and the role of law in the outcome of judicial claims for freedom in a patriarchal society.
This contribution assesses the legal struggle of Juana Godínez to enforce the last will and testament of her owner that she remain within the cloisters of La Encarnación (a cloister for wealthy Limeña doncellas in the seventeenth century) as a free person. Juana had to fight to remain within La Encarnación as free. According to the terms of the will, if she were to leave the convent, she would have to pay 400 pesos for her freedom. Did her owner’s testament in fact grant Juana autonomy to choose how she would live her life after her death, or did the testament give her an option to remain within the cloister (the only home she had ever known) as a freedwoman? The fact that Juana “chose” to remain within the cloister while litigating her case, and that she refused the option of self- purchase prompts us to think of what freedom meant to enslaved women who belonged to religious communities. Juana’s case—and her alleged choices afford us an opportunity to think through freedom in the early modern slaveholding world.
One of the few avenues for women to achieve freedom from slavery in the Kingdom of New Granada was to be manumitted by slaveholders. Only ten percent of the enslaved population in New Granada’s central region (state of Cundinamarca) gained their liberty through this legal action. Eufemia Álvarez was part of that small group, as her master Don Juan Álvarez voluntarily manumitted her in the mid eighteenth century. Consequently, her daughter Juana María Álvarez was born in freedom, even if both of them remained servants in Don Juan Álvarez’s household in Guaduas—a rural town that was part of the Royal Road from Honda to Santa Fe. In 1758, Juana María suffered re-enslavement when she was sold and taken to Quito, away from her family. Juana María resorted to the appellate court in Honda to re-claim her freedom and petition for her own protection as well as her daughter’s. Juana María’s biography emerges from legal documents, which record her struggle—and ultimately, her failure—to legitimate her freedom, despite having been voluntarily manumitted by the original slaveholder. Read against the grain, her life serves as a critique of a legal system that failed to protect freed women.
In 1834, an enslaved woman named Minerva submitted a petition to the U.S. District Court of Western Louisiana, claiming that her late master had freed her and her three children in his will but that his wife, Rachel, had “forcibly carried” them from their home in Arkansas to Mexico in order to continue holding them in bondage. Minerva’s story, recovered from previously unexamined records of the U.S. District Court of Western Louisiana, reveals that freedom was less a “natural state” to be enjoyed than a legal claim to be defended. Cases like Minerva’s also had consequences beyond the courtroom, contributing to a growing misperception in both Mexico and the United States that the Mexican authorities had adopted the “freedom principle” and fully abolished slavery. These rumored policies would prove what the Anglo colonists in Texas had long suspected—that their rights would never be assured under Mexican rule.
In 1732, a twenty-three-year-old enslaved woman named Sarah Chauqum ran away from New London, Connecticut and headed for South Kingstown, Rhode Island. In two successful pathbreaking legal actions, Sarah and her lawyers not only exposed the seamy regional system of human trafficking that turned free people of color into slaves in New England, but also laid the groundwork for freedom suits that would follow. In the first, Sarah established her legal freedom. In the second, Sarah filed what is possibly the first reparations case in New England—and won. In the process, Sarah also reclaimed her Indigeneity from her owners’ intentional efforts to erase it by categorizing her as a person of African ancestry. Sarah's post-escape success in claiming freedom created the legal files that contain what we know of her history, which is not much. The story of her enslavement helps us understand the larger phenomenon of Indian slavery in the colonial period. It also points to the ways in which Indian slavery and the slave system more broadly in New England changed as the number of enslaved Africans imported to the region grew over the course of the eighteenth century.
Chapter Four shows how slaveholding elites across jurisdictions responded to the growth of the free population of color during the Age of Revolution with fear and repression. They feared large-scale slave revolts, the rise of abolitionism, and the assertiveness of free people of color. Beginning in the 1830s, and with increasing fervor in the 1840s and 1850s, white slaveholding elites across the Americas sought to crack down on free people of color and manumission. They also looked for ways to remove free people of color from their midst through various “colonization” schemes, to realize the old dream of a perfect, and perfectly dichotomous, social order of blacks and whites, enslaved and free. This chapter explores the growing restrictions on manumission and free people of color in Louisiana and Virginia during the antebellum era, which stand in contrast to the significant but less successful efforts of Cuban slaveholders to limit the rights of free people of color. By 1860, these jurisdictions were on truly divergent paths concerning race and freedom. Black freedom was described as an anomaly or a legal absurdity in Virginia and Louisiana, but not in Cuba.
The Conclusion revisits some of the book’s main arguments and notes that although, by the mid-nineteenth century, Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana were mature slave societies, their racial orders differed in consequential ways. In most parts of Virginia and Louisiana blackness was almost coterminous with enslavement: an enslaved person could live his entire life without ever meeting a free person of color. This was virtually impossible in Cuba, where free people of color represented a significant proportion of the total population. The link between whiteness and citizenship did not crystallize in the same way in Cuba. A free person of color in Cuba could be a rights-bearing subject, participate in public life, and marry across racial lines; on the eve of the Civil War, a person of color in Virginia or Louisiana could do none of those things. Laws regulating free people of color also served as a template for post-emancipation societies seeking ways to degrade black people. Slavery laws did not translate forward in the same way that regulations based on race did.
Chapter Three studies the impact of the Age of Revolution on the formation of communities of free people of color. Across the Americas, the chaos of war, ideologies of equality and liberty, and the specter of slave rebellion in Haiti, inspired legal forms of claims-making and created new opportunities for emancipation. The period from 1763 through the 1820s could be said to be the era of greatest commonality across these jurisdictions. During this period, both Louisiana and Virginia developed significant communities of free people of color, especially in urban areas. Yet freedom was often the unintended consequence of retrenchment and reform rather than revolution. The growth of these communities had radically different political connotations. In Virginia, manumissions became linked to wider debates about slave emancipation and were opposed as a dangerous step toward black citizenship. In Cuba–and by extension in Louisiana under Spanish control–manumission was linked to the regulation of customary practices that had nothing to do with abolition or with republican notions of equality but instead concerned traditional understandings of vassalage, status, and royal justice.
Chapter Five continues the discussion of slaveholders' efforts to limit the rights and standing of free blacks. It looks closely at the 1850s, when Louisianan and Virginian slaveholders built a white man’s democracy in which whiteness was the sole basis for political power and free people of color could never be citizens. The legislatures of Virginia and Louisiana sought to isolate and degrade people of color in every realm of the public sphere, shutting down their institutions, such as churches and schools. In Cuba, where the colonial state could not afford to alienate the free black population and where black freedom was not linked to white man’s democracy, free people of color managed to withstand the slaveholders’ assault on their traditional rights and institutions. Regulations based on race rather than status predictably led to litigation over racial identity, and the chapter compares trials of racial identity and cases of interracial marriage. Whereas courts in the U.S. drew tight connections between whiteness and the possibility of citizenship, the Cuban courts held out the possibility that a person of color could be honorable and marry across the color line.
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