Maladies of Manumission: Illness and Disability in Slave Manumissions in Late Colonial New Granada

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 4:30 PM
State Ballroom (Palmer House Hilton)
Brandi M. Waters, Yale University
In the prodigious literature of manumission patterns across time and space in the Atlantic world, sick and disabled enslaved people have been considered prime candidates for freedom. From this perspective, enslaved people enduring chronic illness and disability are characterized by their limited capacity to work, reduced resale value, and as a “burden” to slave owners often charged to provide for them for the rest of their lives. While this viewpoint positions freeing the sick and disabled as a form of abandonment, it misses an opportunity to understand how experiences with illness and disability influenced enslaved people’s political choices and strategies for interacting with the exclusionary practices of the legal system. Furthermore, recent quantitative research has demonstrated that in some cases, this population comprised only a small portion of those formally manumitted. Probing the intersections of rich scholarship the history of manumission and health and slavery in the Atlantic world, this paper asks, how did experiences with illness and disability impact enslaved people’s pursuit of legal freedom? What roles did medical practitioners play in the legal manumission process? Finally, what do the unique obstacles and options that ill and disabled slaves faced at the nexus of colonial medical and legal authority tell us about the ableist nature of freedom in this society? Using case studies from the departments of Bolívar and Antioquia in present-day Colombia, I suggest that even where enslaved labor was in decline, manumission for ill and disabled people remained a contentious process, meanwhile offering opportunities for medical practitioners in the legal realm.
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