From the earliest years of the slave trade to the New World, enslaved and free people of color across the Americas sought and shaped liminal spaces in the law to claim freedom for themselves and their loved ones, and to create communities that challenged slaveholders’ efforts to align blackness with enslavement. Although “manumission” should be understood as the prerogative of an enslaver with the power to emancipate those he held in bondage, lawsuits for freedom reveal individuals who were not mere passive recipients of a gift of freedom. Instead, they entered into contracts with their owners, labored, and accumulated property to achieve their ends. Not only did they use the legal tools available to them, but their initiatives shaped the laws of slavery and freedom. Enslaved people staked their claims through self-purchase arrangements and other efforts to bargain for freedom, as well as through lawsuits they brought when arrangements fell through. Enslaved people who found their way to a notary’s office or a courtroom to claim freedom were exceptional in certain ways. The majority of men and women born in bondage remained enslaved their entire lives. Yet those who became free were key to the construction of race in the Americas.
Despite the efforts of white colonists to instantiate the link between blackness and enslavement during the earliest years of colonization in the Americas, many people of African descent began making their way to freedom as soon as they landed in the New World. They drew on customary practices as well as legal mechanisms, and they relied on the resources of the communities of color that were created in part by discriminatory Spanish legislation. Yet the very same legal traditions that made it easier for Spanish colonists to establish racial distinctions in law quickly also made it unthinkable to curtail enslaved people’s manumission or suits for freedom. In both seventeenth-century Virginia and in Cuba, an enterprising man of African descent could purchase his freedom with a tobacco crop or a white servant, in a completely unregulated transaction. But by the early eighteenth century, white Virginians, like the French colonists who settled Louisiana at that time, had already begun to restrict this practice. This change had lasting consequences for the ways communities of free people of color shaped regimes of race.
Becoming free was never easy. When François Tiocon, a freedman of the “Senegal nation” and a resident of New Orleans, managed to formalize an agreement to secure the freedom of his wife, Marie Aram, he had to agree to many years of service. He signed the contract on July 15, 1737, to purchase her freedom from the recently created Hôpital des Pauvres de la Charité (Hospital of Saint John). We do not know when Aram had become a slave of the hospital. It is possible that she was bequeathed to the institution by Jean Louis, a French boatbuilder who in 1735 left most of his estate to create the hospital, although the will does not contain a detailed inventory of his possessions. Nor do we know how long before his marriage took place Tiocon had arrived in New Orleans. Tiocon was apparently an affranchy (freedman) who had obtained his freedom by fighting against the Indians in the Natchez war.
Tiocon’s agreement was fairly onerous. To obtain Aram’s freedom, he committed to “work and exert himself for it and do all that he may be ordered and commanded to do at the said hospital for the service of the poor and sick” for six consecutive years, beginning in January 1738, “during which time he [would] work at the said hospital without any remuneration whatever, being fed with provisions of the country and supported as the Inspector wills.” The hospital’s representatives, in turn, promised at the end of the contract to “give and remit liberty to one Marie Aram, negress slave of the said hospital, wife of the said Tiocon.”
Despite the many obvious uncertainties involved in an agreement of this sort, Tiocon and Aram succeeded in their endeavor. On March 6, 1744, the hospital’s officials certified that the couple had “worked and served the hospital well and faithfully” and that in consequence it was “just to grant freedom” to Aram as agreed. They also declared that the couple’s intention was to remain employed at the hospital. To complete the manumission of Aram, the director of the institution petitioned the governor and members of the council “to confirm and grant freedom to the said Marie Aram, negress, wife of François Tiocon, that in the future she may be free as are all the subjects of His Majesty in France.” Issued by the French colonial governor, the commissary of the marine, and the intendant, the official confirmation ratified that “as a recompense of the good services rendered to the hospital,” Aram was indeed free and was entitled to “enjoy the privileges of persons born free.”
A similar official confirmation was required for Will, a Virginia slave, to be declared free in 1710. Will, described in the records as “a Negro belonging to Robert Ruffin,” a resident of the county of Surry, was deemed worthy of becoming a free man for being “signally serviceable in discovering a conspiracy of diverse negroes in the said county, for levying war in this colony.” Colonial officials, including the lieutenant governor and the Council of Burgesses of the General Assembly, decided to reward such “fidelity” as encouragement to other slaves in the future. After providing for the owner to be compensated, they certified that “the said negro Will, is and shall be forever hereafter free from his slavery, and shall be esteemed, deemed, and taken, as is hereby declared to be a free man, and shall enjoy and have all the liberties, privileges, and immunities of or to a free negro belonging.” In addition, the colonial officials stipulated that Will could stay in Virginia if he wished to do so.
The intervention of colonial officials was also required in the case of Cristobal and Jose, two African slaves of the “Mina nation” living in Havana. In 1691 they petitioned the lieutenant governor, Licenciado Francisco Manuel de Loa, to request their freedom. They explained that their former owner, Melchor Borroto, had granted them freedom in his will, but then had died with insufficient assets to cover his debts. Rather than freeing the slaves, the executors had auctioned them to Juan Garcia for eight hundred pesos. Invoking “the right that assists us” (el derecho que nos favorece), Cristobal and Jose “exhibited” eight hundred pesos, showing that they could pay their own price, and requested that they be declared “free people not subject to captivity and servitude.” They also requested a certified copy of their petition and the official’s ruling, to confirm their freedom in the future as needed, and asked that another copy be kept in the records of the notary in case the original documents got lost. The lieutenant governor ruled favorably on all of their requests and declared that Cristobal and Jose were thereafter free.
These cases illustrate how enslaved people across the Americas strove from the earliest years of colonization to secure freedom for themselves and their loved ones. The paths to legal freedom could involve considerable personal sacrifice and draconian service agreements, as in the case of Aram and Tiocon; the denunciation and betrayal of other slaves, as in Will’s example; or the unusual savings that some enterprising slaves managed to accumulate, as in the case of Cristobal and Jose. Furthermore, across jurisdictions, manumission frequently was not a private matter between master and slave but a public event that required the intervention of colonial officials and the creation of public documents backed by the power and the legitimacy of the colonial state. The very colonial states that were building slavery and racial distinctions into law were also making freedom possible.
Yet by seeking freedom, slaves breached the racial order. Each slave who managed to escape slavery represented a crack in the strict racial hierarchy that colonial legislators and slave owners were carefully constructing in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Colonial legislators in each of these settings went to great lengths to create a rigid association between African ancestry and slave status. The presence of free people of color undermined this link and created a problematic intermediate group in what was conceived as a dichotomous order of free white masters and enslaved black servants.
Free people of color challenged the racial order in other ways as well. Some free people of color accrued property and social status, and many mixed freely with whites as well as slaves, having sex and even marrying across the color line. “Mulattoes” made up a disproportionate number of the free people of color. Even in Virginia, a jurisdiction that sought to restrict their ability to mix with whites, the court minute books are filled with cases of “fornication” and “bastard bearing” by white women and “negroes” or “mulattoes.” Thus, the rate at which enslaved people could become free could have significant consequences.
The formation of sizable communities of free people of color not only subverted the association of “negro” and “slave” but also tempered attempts to turn people of African descent into a class of disenfranchised and socially dead subjects. Many of the enslaved who managed to obtain their freedom, frequently by purchasing it, did so with the assistance and support of kin and other free blacks. The size and economic well-being of the free black community was critical in this regard, as it provided the networks, institutional access, and often the resources the enslaved needed to escape their condition. Furthermore, scholars of Latin American independence frequently explain the elimination of legal caste systems in the region as a by-product of the size and political might of its free communities of color. The connecting thread, we argue, is race. Free people of color undermined and breached the solid line between free whites and enslaved blacks that legislators sought to inscribe in the law.
In Cuba, unlike Virginia and Louisiana, enslaved people continued to claim freedom without restriction throughout the eighteenth century. This should not necessarily be seen as an indicator of friendly attitudes toward slaves, nor of “the mystique of the Portuguese or Spanish soul.” There were strong demographic and economic reasons for Iberian masters to free their slaves in greater numbers than did the British or French. Iberian colonies lacked a steady stream of European migration, so free people of color performed interstitial economic roles that might otherwise have been filled by white immigrants. The boom-and-bust cycles of the Iberian colonial economies provided incentives for manumission, as did the prospect of slaves working hard and paying a high price for self-purchase.
Yet the patterns of manumission and regulation that unfolded in these three colonies suggest that something more than economic imperatives was at work. By the early eighteenth century in both Virginia and Louisiana, slaveholders had come to see manumission as something that required regulation, and to see that regulation as linked to the creation of a racial order. In Cuba manumission was never tied to race but was part of the traditional architecture of slavery. The growth of free communities of color was greatly facilitated by higher rates of manumission among women, which meant that their progeny would be free. The gendered organization of labor required women to work in service activities and domestic duties that gave them access to financial resources and social networks that could be used to obtain freedom. Since most manumissions involved self-purchase, and since most purchases required collaboration from third parties, it is also possible that family strategies played a role in this process, to make sure that the offspring of these women would be free. Gender conventions also appear to have shaped slaveowners’ preferences. Although both male and female owners favored women in manumission, mistresses did so at much higher rates than men, perhaps to reward their closest servants in the household. Through these gendered processes, and thanks to their own initiative, women became a germinal force of black freedom. Their wombs could reproduce enslavement, but they could also become, as scholar Camillia Cowling writes in Conceiving Freedom, “spaces in which freedom was, literally, conceived.”
Reprinted with permission from Becoming Free, Becoming Black: Race, Freedom, and Law in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana by Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela Gross, published by Cambridge University Press. Copyright © 2020 by Alejandro de la Fuente and Ariela Gross. All rights reserved.