Affective Debts: Manumission by Grace and the Making of Gradual Emancipation Laws in Cuba, 1820s60s

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:30 PM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Adriana Chira, Emory University
Drawing on several freedom suits from nineteenth-century eastern Cuba, this paper explores how some enslaved individuals successfully redefined slaveholders' oral promises of manumission by grace into contractual obligations providing a deferred wage payout. Manumissions by grace tended to reward affective labor (loyalty, affection) and to be granted to domestic slaves. Across Cuba, as in other slave societies of Spanish America, through self-purchase, enslaved people made sustained efforts to monetize the labor that they did by virtue of their ascribed status. The monetization of affective work stands out amongst such efforts. Freedom litigants involved in conflicts over manumission by grace emphasized the market logics in domestic slavery, revealing that slavery was a fundamentally economic institution even in such instances where it appeared to be intertwined with kinship and domesticity. Through this move, they challenged the assumption that slaves toiled loyally for slaveholders out of a natural commitment to an unchanging master-slave hierarchy. The paper explores why equity, a principle that allowed judges to make decisions based on the circumstances of individual cases and litigants, remained an organizing principle in the courts of first instance in eastern Cuba into the 1860s in spite of judicial reforms that had been designed to standardize the law. It was the judges’ reliance on this principle as well as Santiago’s idiosyncratic political economy that enabled freedom litigants to be successful. By the 1880s, through court litigation and extra-judicial violence, slave litigants and insurgents would turn oral promises of manumission by grace into a blueprint for general emancipation. Through their legal actions, enslaved people, especially women, revealed the significance and transactional nature of care work, a notion familiar to us today.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>