Slaves Who Bought Their Freedom
Jun 6, 2020
The harshness of being black in the mid-nineteenth century in Cuba or southern states of the United States was nuanced by different legal and political traditions.
In the mid-19th century, Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana were mature slave societies. In all three, slavery was part of life, a key element of production systems and social organization, installed centuries ago.
The enslavement of Africans and their descendants was regrettable for some and commendable for others. Still, it was accepted by most whites, based on the belief, widely shared in all American societies, that blacks were hopelessly inferior in political, moral, intellectual and civilizational terms. In all three cultures, the racial order placed blacks on the bottom rung of society. By 1860, however, the racial rules in place in Cuba, Virginia, and Louisiana differed significantly from one another.
In many parts of Virginia and Louisiana, a slave could live his entire life without ever finding a free person of color. Blackness was synonymous with slavery. This was almost impossible in Cuba, where free people of color represented a significant percentage of the total population. In Virginia and Louisiana, when people of color challenged their enslavement or racial designations in the judicial arena, legal institutions associated their citizenship claims with whiteness.
The association between whiteness and citizenship, so crucial to the ideology of white supremacy and white democracy in the United States, did not hold in Cuba. A free person of color in Cuba could be a holder of rights, participate in public life, and enter into an interracial marriage; in the run-up to the Civil War, a person of color in Virginia or Louisiana could do none of this. Legal traditions, the actions of the enslaved, imperial institutions, politics, and the ups and downs of history shaped widely divergent trajectories.
Ironically, the strong Iberian legal legacy on slavery had opposite and unexpected effects in the New World. The colonizers arrived in Cuba with a body of legal and institutional precedents that already constituted blacks as socially abject subjects. At the same time, manumission [giving freedom to a slave] was a well-established practice in Mediterranean Spain, applied to individuals of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. The Iberian peninsula’s legal traditions contributed to the fact that racial differences were introduced into the law more quickly in Cuba than in other jurisdictions. They also helped to install the practice of manumission and the self-purchase of freedom, institutions that functioned independently of the race (…)
The slave-owning elites never succeeded in creating the entirely dichotomous world they had dreamed of. People of color, free and enslaved, subverted that racial order by taking advantage of and sometimes creating ways to escape slavery, rejecting the negative aspects associated with blackness, engaging in sexual relations, and even marrying people of other races. In all three jurisdictions, these strategies resulted in the creation of intermediate groups that did not fit into distinct categories of free and white people on the one hand, and people of African origin and slaves on the other.
(…) The initiatives of the slaves themselves proved to be equally important in the course of history. In all three jurisdictions, the enslaved made use of legal reforms that were not intended to benefit them but enabled them to open up spaces for themselves and gain greater freedom. They filed lawsuits to achieve their liberty using laws with other motivations; exchanged information with other people of color, sometimes separated by vast distances; worked and gathered goods to buy their freedom and the freedom of others; and demanded additional rights after paying part of the purchase price for their freedom. In Cuba, slaves, freemen, and alibis [those who bought their freedom] transformed the customary practice of coercion into a right that was eventually enshrined in legislation. Similar efforts by people of color in Virginia and Louisiana did not prosper in the same way.
In this process, the size of the community of free people of color appears to have been vital. Many slaves who bought their freedom did so with the economic support and legal backing of free black relatives and neighbors. The larger the community, the higher the chances of achieving independence. Residential communities of free Blacks were also safe havens for runaway slaves and critical spaces for disseminating important freedom-related information, from the sharing of the details of lawyers who could assist in freedom trials to the sharing of news about the actions of abolitionists (…)
The community of free people of color in Havana – and that of New Orleans, which expanded significantly under Spanish control from the 1760s onwards – owed its existence to legal conceptions and the customs of the ancien régime. Slaves who managed to buy their freedom or, in more exceptional cases, who obtained manumission through other mechanisms, became members of highly stratified societies in which the social ladder was defined according to various axes associated with lineage, income, religion, and respectability.
Black freedom did not imply social equality but was based on traditional legal and religious principles. In Virginia, by contrast, the rise in manumissions and freedom trials was an inexorable consequence of the military conflicts, tensions, and expectations associated with the Age of Revolution. In that state, the expansion of the manumission was linked to issues of citizenship and black participation in the new political order on an equal basis. Free and slave blacks infused a sense of urgency into these issues, using every legal interstice to buy and claim their freedom. Their actions produced highly significant results: by the early 19th century, the percentage of free people of color in the state had increased dramatically.
White citizens viewed these trends with horror and called for a ban on manumissions. It was a reactionary demand: to restore the colonial law of freedom. The 1806 law requiring freed slaves to leave the state failed to do this, but it was the first step toward a racial order in which blacks could only be slaves. After Nat Turner’s Rebellion, white Virginia’s political will to exclude free blacks became even stronger. The slave states of the southern United States responded to the threats of rebellion and the demands of the northern abolitionists for immediate emancipation by defending slavery as a positive good: slavery was the best possible condition for “abject blacks.” To galvanize support for non-slavery whites, and to forge racial solidarity among whites, southern states defined citizenship and voting rights in terms of race. Thus the paradox of an egalitarian democracy arises, which goes hand in hand with the spread of racist practices and ideologies.
Alejandro de la Fuente is director of the Institute for Afro-Latin Studies at Harvard University. Ariela J. Gross is co-director of the Center for Law, History, and Culture at the University of South Carolina.