Maritime Marronage, Portuguese Imperial Law, and the Atlantic Praxis of Freedom

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 2:10 PM
Adams Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Mary Hicks, Amherst College
Historian N.A.T. Hall first coined the term “maritime marronage” to describe a unique form of grand marronage through maritime travel that was particularly prevalent in the Caribbean. Maritime marronage was facilitated, Hall argued, by the jurisdictional patchwork of porous European empires within the Caribbean itself, making escape to a legal regime that did not recognize one’s enslaved status all the more probable. This presentation examines the legal strategies of seamen of African descent, who navigated shifting imperial boundaries, dense commercial networks and the ever-present threat of enslavement or re-enslavement within the maritime Atlantic. By focusing on such historical actors, it is possible to see maritime marronage as a far from spontaneous affair, but rather as part of a planned legal strategy on the part of enslaved mariners to secure manumission, a strategy that was ultimately grounded in a sophisticated understanding of metropolitan free soil laws. Critically, reframing marronage as a legal strategy permits historians to analyze the ways in which enslaved people conceptualized Atlantic spaces in terms of legal jurisdiction. Seamen’s spatially defined imaginary—which I term “jurisdictional consciousness”—prompted slaves to escape most frequently to territories whose favorable legal regimes would enhance their chances of escaping bondage. This presentation focuses on the legal and social aftermath of the adoption of the Alvará of September 19, 1761, which endowed all slaves who stepped foot on Portuguese soil legal freedom. Petitions authored by sailors in the South Atlantic demonstrates Black mariners’ engagement with imperial legal systems through their interpretation of established juridical concepts including catholic sanctuary, descent from a free womb, prescripción (or a statute of limitations on claiming a freeman or woman as a slave), and free soil, and also illustrates the ways in which mariners reformulated these ideas to generate their own novel ideas of liberty.