Saturday, January 3, 2009: 3:10 PM
Riverside Ballroom (Sheraton New York)
During the mid 1820s, almost two decades after British abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, the Colonial Office, under the direction of Parliament, organized a “Commission of Enquiry into the State of Captured Negroes in the West Indies.” Under this now misleading title, the commissioners were in fact charged with studying the fate several thousand free
Africans rescued from illegally operating slave ships by the British Navy. The number of Africans rescued from such slave ships would increase significantly later in the nineteenth century, but at this relatively early stage in the campaign against the slave trade British authorities sought information on the human results of their purportedly humanitarian project. While multiple factors motivated this information gathering, colonial officials were very much animated by questions about the potential future of free black labor in general, as abolitionists and other political actors were already actively debating the end of slavery itself. This paper draws upon several hundred interviews conducted with free African women about their experience of labor and social relationships with employers, many of whom were also slaveholders—with all parties working through the early stages of what would become the era of emancipation in the Americas
Many of these women worked both in agriculture and in forms of domestic servitude, often refiguring in freedom patterns of gendered work and life—or more pointedly gendered and racialized oppression—from the era of slavery. This study concerns itself particularly with the way that the African women and the British government negotiated new definitions of what black women might expect or even demand from their female lives of freedom.