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The introduction lays out the complex matrices of bondage, freedom, terror, and possibility that defined the period and place under investigation in this book: the gradual abolition of slavery (1821-1852) in the frontier, gold-rich lowland province of Chocó in the Colombian Black Pacific. Barragan calls the thirty-one years from the law’s enactment in 1821 to the final abolition of slavery in 1852 the time of “gradual emancipation rule” in the northern Andes in order to see this period as a distinct moment in the history of liberal racial governance rather than an inconsequential and benign prelude to the final abolition of slavery. While ostensibly designed to gradually destroy slavery, Barragan argues that speculating slaveholders in Colombia paradoxically came to have an even greater stake in slavery through gradual emancipation rule. After a historical and historiographical exploration of slavery and gradual emancipation rule in Colombia, Atlantic World, and Chocó, the introduction concludes with two sections on sources and methodology and chapter outlines.
Chapter 4 examines the legal, economic, and political life of the Free Womb law in the Colombian Pacific and the making of new racialized labor structures. For the first time, enslaved women were granted limited legal rights of maternity and motherhood over their children—at least those born after the promulgation of the 1821 law, which was at times malleably interpreted by lowland masters to defend their claims over Free Womb children. By carefully examining notes of sale, mining inventories, dowries, and wills, this chapter charts the formation in the northern Pacific lowlands of a parallel market for Free Womb children, which instantiated a new and at-times confusing regime of property rights. Reversals of the 1821 law are the subject of the chapter’s last section, which looks at extension of Free Womb bondage, partly inspired by the British Caribbean apprenticeship model established under the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, in the aftermath of Colombia’s first civil war (1839–1842).
After surveying how a capitalist culture and corresponding associationism expanded throughout the Pacific lowlands in the 1840s, Chapter 6 chronicles a final abolitionist movement in Colombia leading in the early 1850s to a final abolition law that compensated slaveholders. This chapter offers the first in-depth study of compensation in Colombia and Chocó specifically, a befuddling bureaucratic process for both lowland officials and ex-masters. Notwithstanding administrative challenges, former slaveholders in the lowlands circulated the government-sponsored “manumission bills” well into the 1850s, whether to pay off their private debts or fortify their descendants’ wealth via their last will and testament. These haunting records lay bare the immediate financial afterlife of slavery in the Colombian Pacific, revealing how enslaved lowlanders’ “paper bodies” continued to fuel the postslavery economy. Finally, the chapter examines the lowlands’ contending postslavery racial geographies and economies into the 1850s. Frontier authorities and former slaveholders sought to retain gradual emancipation rule and devised new methods of social control but had little success implementing such measures in the historically autonomous Colombian Pacific. On the coastal frontier, a social universe daily managed by independent black bogas and gold miners, the principal challenge for white rulers after emancipation was black autonomy.
The epilogue begins by offering a brief overview of the main arguments of the book before meditating on what Barragan (following Saidiya Hartman’s formulation) refers to as the “afterlife of gradual emancipation rule” in the Colombian Pacific. As she argues, the very essence of gradual emancipation rule—that is, the notion of gradated, scheduled “progress” amidst an ongoing state of racial terror—remains alive in today’s Colombian Black Pacific. This paradoxical state of progress and terror, Barragan shows, is nowhere more evident than in the current state of Chocó and the Pacific lowlands, the most marginalized and impoverished region in Colombia, with record levels of displacement and violence against civilians. She moves from the nineteenth century to the late 1990s, when the Colombian Pacific became the central site of powerful Afro-Colombian social movement mobilizations and ground zero of Colombia’s ever-shifting civil war.
Chapter 2 leaves the rural rainforests of the northern Pacific lowlands for its two small urban frontier towns: Nóvita—the capital of Chocó before independence—and Quibdó—the capital of Chocó afterward—where the majority population of white slaveholders and mineowners lived alongside the entrepreneurial merchants from Jamaica, France, and Italy who began to settle in the Pacific lowlands after independence. Based on tax records, wills, travelogues, and other archival sources, this chapter offers a door-to-door geography of Quibdó after the Wars of Independence and explores the small-scale slaveholding central to its households. Despite slavery’s slow destruction under gradual emancipation rule, the local trade in slaves and Free Womb children paradoxically remained as active as ever in Chocó well into the 1830s and 1840s.
Chapter 3 departs from the Colombian Pacific and ventures to the eastern Andean highland town of Cúcuta, where white slaveholding delegates from across Gran Colombia (and one from Mexico) established the policy of gradual emancipation. After surveying historical precedents for and factors leading up to the 1821 gradual emancipation law’s adoption, including Antioquia’s gradual abolition law of 1814 and the Haitian Revolution, the chapter turns to the contentious debate over the Free Womb law and the question of slaveholders’ compensation. Delegates principally wrestled over the age at which Free Womb children’s bondage would be terminated and over the parameters of their salability, grounding arguments in Enlightenment thought and colonial racial accounting ideas of the development life cycles of enslaved people. Here I also examine the debates and conditions for the trafficking of Free Womb children, a phenomenon I refer to as the Free Womb trade that adopted specific legal parameters regarding puberty and geography. The chapter ends by exploring the combative and regionalized public spheres of abolition and antiabolition that developed across Gran Colombia in the 1820s.
Chapter 1 introduces readers to the everyday world of the nineteenth-century Colombian Black Pacific—often neglected in the dominant historiography of colonial and nineteenth-century Colombia—through a narrative-driven historical geography and ethnography of Chocó. Through the journeys of a free black boga (rower) and a female gold miner, among other figures, the first chapter shows the everyday ways in which free blacks and (to some extent) slaves continued to trouble white governmentality during the gradual emancipation years. In many ways, free black and captive lowlanders experienced unparalleled levels of autonomy and independence in this mining frontier by maintaining control over the region’s labyrinth of rivers and gold mines. This chapter likewise reveals how the gold-mining economy’s gendered social structure was transformed after independence and gradual emancipation rule, as enslaved and free black women became the primary laborers in mines increasingly worked by Free Womb captives.
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.