The paper argues that enslaved and freed women and their kin employed manumission agreements as notarial contracts in an effort to legally manage slaveholders and to publicize work hidden within households, and dismissed from written accounting. Africans and their descendants in the early modern Atlantic world understood that freedom was made of failed plans, back-up documents, and accounting for slaveholder retribution. Therefore, enslaved people understood that a notarized manumission agreement did not “free” them from slavery. Instead, I show how enslaved women employed manumission agreements to exchange the value of their obedience and skill—including consistently and skillfully providing childcare and eldercare, producing palatable meals, and delivering clean laundry—for freedom.
I agree that manumission was a process (Chalhoub 2015, Cowling 2013) of promises and contracts. Quality of service in addition to monetary exchange, however, lay at the core of manumission’s exchange, and further defines an early modern freedom rooted in patronage rather than citizenship of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
See more of: AHA Sessions