This panel engages the problem of freedom and manumission in Latin America and the Atlantic world from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Freedom and manumission continues to be a powerful subject for understanding the lives of Africans and their descendants. Bringing together papers on Spanish and Portuguese America, this panel explores new avenues for considering the history of freedom and manumission that are attentive to relations of power at the local and imperial scales, as well as the strategies that slaves employed to confront that power that are not always immediately legible on the surface of archival materials central to the study of freedom, such as letters of manumission, petitions, and freedom suits. In doing so, this panel joins recent scholarship on slavery and freedom by rethinking and refining categories of agency, resistance, and the law, and casting them in local, Atlantic, and imperial contexts. While these papers draw together the experiences of Africans and their descendants across different locales in Latin America and the Atlantic world, they propose that achieving freedom was much more than a terminal moment or act: it was a process that was deeply conditioned by colonial power relations, mediated through engagements with legal and imperial institutions, and characterized by struggles to recognize one’s labor in freedom contracts. In their homes, in courts, and at sea, slaves and freed people, these papers contend, reformulated juridical concepts, pressed for degrees of freedom, and navigated the intimate and spatial relations that shaped their lives.
The papers in this panel cohere around the following questions: What legal and extralegal strategies did slaves employ to achieve and protect their freedom? How did intimate ties between slaves and masters and the affective labor they provided shape manumission? How can historians fully understand the scope and breadth of slaves’ legal consciousness, as well as what one panelist terms “jurisdictional consciousness,” or their spatially defined imaginary? How do we reckon with the Atlantic as a space that offered both possibilities for freedom but also limitations on that freedom?
In addressing these questions, the papers in this panel seek to promote and facilitate a conversation about the nature of freedom in Latin America, the comparative actions and experiences of slaves within different imperial and legal regimes, and finally, enslaved peoples’ nuanced and sometimes divergent conceptions of freedom over time.