Perspectives on Enslaved Women, Freedom, and the Law in the Atlantic World

AHA Session 146
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
New York Ballroom West (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Susan D. Amussen, University of California, Merced
Black Women, Free Soil Suits, and the Civil Law
Alexandra Havrylyshyn, Robbins Collection in Religious and Civil Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law
Stephanie Jones-Rogers, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

The efforts of reformers and anti-slavery advocates to end the slave trade and/or abolish slavery through policy, diplomacy, and law in the nineteenth century opened up new and sometimes unintentional avenues for enslaved persons to articulate demands for freedom. In particular, new, evolving, or formerly unapplied slave laws—from abolishing the slave trade to free soil clauses to amelioration policies—provided enslaved peoples with an opportunity to contest bondage through multiple layers of the colonial and metropolitan court systems. This panel examines the experience of enslaved women through the lens of “law” to address several historical questions and problems in transatlantic contexts. For example, how did enslaved women navigate colonial and metropolitan legal systems to claim certain rights or demand their freedom? What legal strategies did they adopt to press their claims? What advantages or disadvantages did enslaved women face and how were these circumstances shaped by the categories of gender, race, or place? In what ways did enslaved women contributed to the meaning, efficacy, and scope of slave laws in the Atlantic World? What do these cases reveal about the flexibility or inflexibility of slave, amelioration, or abolition laws during a period of transformation in Atlantic slave societies? The papers on this panel engage with these questions by adopting a transoceanic perspective on enslaved women and their interaction with the legal systems underpinning the Atlantic World.

Randy J. Sparks’ paper examines the period following the British abolition of the slave trade—and the subsequent legal changes that gave African and African-descended peoples in British colonies and protectorates new rights under the law. He examines cases of enslaved women in Cuba and Sierra Leone who claimed to be British subjects in order to exploit these juridical technicalities and sue for their freedom—demonstrating how enslaved women understood and capitalized on the transatlantic reverberations of abolition law. Alexandra Havrylyshyn’s paper explores the legal cases of twenty women and girls who, after traveling to France, claimed freedom in New Orleans between 1830 and 1850. Building on transatlantic research that follows the movement of these enslaved women and girls, she argues that the experience of living in France during a period of transition in the empire (that culminated with slave emancipation in 1848) opened up opportunities for them to make legal claims to freedom in antebellum New Orleans—the epicenter of the American slave trade. Finally, Deirdre Lyons’ paper considers how formerly enslaved women in the French Antilles seized on slave amelioration policies that prohibited the breakup of the slave family in the 1830s and 1840s to sue their former owners for the freedom of their children, grandchildren, and spouses. In their suits, these women argued that their manumissions constituted an illegal separation from their families—demonstrating how these women’s legal claims creatively transformed the meaning and scope of amelioration laws and established new avenues of possibility for slaves to pursue freedom through the courts.

This panel will appeal to general and scholarly audiences interested in gender, slavery, the Atlantic World, and legal history.

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