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.