Slavery, Freedom, and Intimate Obedience in Colonial Peru

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:50 PM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Rachel O'Toole, University of California, Irvine
This paper examines how Africans and their descendants in colonial Trujillo, a provincial city on the northern Peruvian coast, articulated freedom in the early modern Atlantic world. Between the withdrawal of the official transatlantic slave trade in the 1640s and the rise of sugar production in the 1720s, regional slaveholders increased the number of legal manumissions granted in cartas de libertad, wills, and sales records. These written documents, in turn, reflected oral negotiations of the intimate arrangements among slaveholders, enslaved, and their kin (McKinley 2016; Graham 1992). Rather than counting manumission records in the extant notary records, however, I engage in a textual analysis, examining keywords and phrases. I find that, primarily, enslaved and freed women with their kin debated the value of their obedience and exchanged their intimate labor for a promise leading to legal manumission.

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.