Female Bodies and Freedom: Liberated African Women and Their Children in 19th-Century Cuba and Brazil

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 12:50 PM
Room A601 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Jennifer Nelson, University of Leeds
Africans from slave ships freed by anti-slave trade treaties with Britain were expected to complete a period of apprenticeship before obtaining their liberty in nineteenth century Cuba and Brazil. An experiment in free labour: the degree of freedom that these individuals, known as emancipados or liberated Africans, were able to attain, has been frequently described by contemporary observers and historians alike as virtually indistinguishable from slavery. Apprenticeships were often perpetually renewed and labour conditions comparable to those encountered by slaves. However, some subtle but important differences existed, not least with regard to the children of liberated Africans. Although the treaty stipulations were vague respecting the status of subsequent generations, they were born free in legal terms. 

This paper addresses the role of female liberated Africans in protecting their children against enslavement and assuring their freedom despite limited recourse to do so. It also addresses the difficulties that women faced as child-bearers in these circumstances. For example, in the case of an emancipada in Cuba who was hired as a wet nurse, they could be quickly made destitute if their own children’s free status was considered a burden to the person who had apprenticed them. On the other hand, it has been noted that maternity contributed to higher rates of manumission amongst liberated African women in Rio de Janeiro compared with female domestic slaves in the same city. This paper addresses the relationship between childbearing and manumission amongst liberated African women in comparative context. It examines how ambiguities regarding the status of the children of liberated Africans relate to debates surrounding free womb laws. 

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