Abolitionist and Anti-Abolitionist Publics in Gradual Emancipation Colombia

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 11:10 AM
Thurgood Marshall South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Yesenia Barragan, Dartmouth College
In 1821, amidst what would become the final tumultuous months of the Wars of Independence against Spain in the northern Andes, officials of the newly created republic of Gran Colombia (composed of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama) passed a gradual abolition law to address the political problem of slavery in the young nation. Far from terminating the debate over slavery, the months and years after the passing of the law witnessed the emergence of pro- and anti-abolitionist elite publics within the early republican Colombian public sphere. This paper explores the development of these abolitionist and anti-abolitionist publics as they unfolded in newspapers and tracts across major cities in Colombia and Venezuela. Though often short-lived and poorly funded, newspapers in Bogotá, Medellín, and Caracas became the public grounds and defensive home for Colombia’s early abolitionists, while the opposition, based primarily in the slaveholding regions of Popayán and southwestern Colombia, depended largely on the pamphlet and treatise as they initiated lettered and legislative campaigns calling for the law’s undoing. Yet, because of the hegemonic consensus surrounding gradual abolition among the elite republican ruling classes backed by President Simon Bolívar, anti-abolitionist voices in this period always fell short of calling for the law’s definitive repeal. This paper argues that the emerging modern conception of “public opinion” helped bolster support for the gradual abolition law in 1820s Gran Colombia. However, as the paper concludes, this high point of elite abolitionism in the Colombian public sphere would be short-lived.
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