Liberty’s Diaspora: Enslaved Women’s Routes to Freedom in the Late 18th-Century Atlantic World

Sunday, January 10, 2016: 8:30 AM
Salon C (Hilton Atlanta)
Barbara Krauthamer, University of Massachusetts Amherst
This paper examines the ways in which enslaved women gained their freedom from slavery by moving, and being moved to, sites throughout the African Diaspora/Atlantic World.  The paper traces enslaved women’s escapes from their North American masters during the Revolution and follows their trajectories to Halifax, London, and Jamaica.  Thousands of enslaved women, like men, took advantage of the British military’s pledge to free those slaves who served the Loyalist cause.  While enslaved people often fled en masse to British, women did not always escape with men nor did they blindly follow male leaders.  Rather, they made calculated decisions about when, where, and with whom they would escape. Drawing on British and American sources, the paper focuses on women’s strategies for escape as well as their subsequent efforts to reunite with family and kin and build their lives anew as free people.  The paper highlights the embodied and gendered nature of freedom by considering instances in which enslaved women gained freedom through their work as prostitutes and concubines of British officers; and also considers the experiences of those who became pregnant and gave birth behind British lines and on British naval vessels. 

Archival sources present an array of cases in which women struggled to regain possession of their bodies, sexuality, and children as the hallmarks of their newly achieved status as free people.  Labor and property disputes, likewise, illuminate women’s efforts to clarify their rights as free people and protect their time, bodies, mobility, and property.  This paper presents these cases as evidence of Black women’s intellectual and politicized engagement with Revolutionary-era understandings of liberty and slavery, and frames their strategies for escape and their subsequent efforts to create new lives as indicative of some of the ways in which they participated in and shaped late-eighteenth century meanings of freedom.

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