Degrees of Unfreedom: Slavery and Contested Liberties in the Atlantic World

AHA Session 14
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Linda M. Rupert, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Linda M. Rupert, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Session Abstract

In an effort to better understand slavery in the Atlantic World, scholars from multiple disciplines and with various geographic and periodic specializations have debated the contours of this institution. These scholars have looked for more accurate definitions of slavery and tried to develop useful frameworks to study slavery and other forms of bondage. Due to the great diversity of unfree conditions in the Atlantic, it has been particularly challenging to create such a definition or framework, leaving much space for discussion on this subject.

This panel engages in this debate, but instead of focusing on slavery it will do so through an exploration of freedoms in Atlantic communities. Examination of the various degrees of freedom in these societies allows for new perspectives on the parameters of slavery. Each presenter will explore freedoms in an Atlantic society, whether that is in the Dutch colony of New Netherland, Early Republic Liberia, or colonial New England or Peru. Presenters investigate what freedom meant to people in these respective societies, especially when juxtaposed to unfree conditions such as slavery and indentured servitude. Moreover, they examine whether certain freedoms, such as civic freedom, outweighed other freedoms, like the personal freedom of emancipated slaves. These papers reveal that in many of these societies freedom was something that had to be earned. Jared Hardesty and Andrea Mosterman show in their papers that the freedom of emancipated slaves in colonial New England and New Netherland was often conditional. And, as Frank Proctor’s paper on colonial Peru reveals, in some cases the freedom of emancipated slaves was even revoked. Finally, Robert Murray explores how in some cases emancipated slaves used their newly acquired freedom to force others into unfree conditions. 

Different shades of freedom could be found throughout the Atlantic, from indentured servitude in 19th century Liberia, conditional freedom in colonial New England, temporary freedom in Peru, to half-freedom in New Netherland. This panel will investigate the circumstances and conditions of these various forms of freedom. Through its comparisons of very diverse circumstances, periods, and regions, this panel reveals that the ideas about slavery and freedom in these significantly different societies had many commonalities. Thus, as a panel, these papers challenge common assumptions, such as the idea that half-freedom was typical for the Dutch colony of New Netherland, or that emancipation was more freely accessible to slaves in the Spanish colonies. In short, this panel enhances our understanding of the varying degrees of freedom, and consequently it also contributes to the scholarly debates about the contours of slavery in the Atlantic.

See more of: AHA Sessions