Slave Manumission in the Atlantic World (Topical Guide)

Slave Manumission in the Atlantic World (Topical Guide)

Steve Peraza

SUNY-Buffalo State College

Steve Peraza of SUNY-Buffalo State College offers H-Slavery the third in a series of topical guides concerning the study of slavery. A preliminary draft circulated to the subscribers of H-Slavery on March 6, 2016 for feedback (available here); we thank Jerome Handler for his comment. This revised version was published March 31, 2016.



Recent studies on manumission in the Atlantic World have occasioned the opportunity to assess the historiography in this critical field of slavery studies. (See, for example, Brana-Shute and Sparks, eds., Paths to Freedom [2009] and Fede, Roadblocks to Freedom [2011].) Manumission refers to the legal release of enslaved people at a time when slavery is sanctioned by law, as opposed to emancipation, which follows abolition and releases all people formerly enslaved. (On the distinction between manumission and emancipation, see Schafer, Becoming Free, Remaining Free [2003], esp. xxiiin13.) Most slave manumissions were conferred voluntarily by slaveholders who released their slaves either by living deed of gift or last will and testament. Less commonly, involuntary manumission was the result of enslaved people eliciting the support of courts to compel slaveholders to release them, often with state officials motivated by a desire to preserve legal sovereignty over local subjects. (For an illustration of the difference between voluntary and involuntary manumission in colonial Louisiana, see Hanger, Bounded Lives, Bounded Places [1997], esp. ch.1; see also Hall, Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy [2000].)

The legal mechanisms by which enslaved people acquired freedom differed across slaveholding regimes, and sometimes across regions within an empire or nation-state. (On comparisons of slave laws including manumission, see Goveia, The West Indian Slave Laws of the 18th Century [1970] and Watson, Slave Law in the Americas [1989].) These variations make generalization difficult, frustrating historians’ efforts at synthesis, but also make for a rich, complex historiography. Embedded in the study of manumission lies the mysterious story of how and why slaveholders and state officials created laws that sanctioned slave releases despite their commitment to increasing the size and profitability of plantation slavery. The actors’ incongruous paths and partial successes offer insights into the theory of manumission, mechanics of manumission law, and the ingenuity of slave legal resistance.


The Theory of Manumission

Historians have repeatedly interpreted manumission as strengthening the institution of slavery ideologically and legally. The ideological function of manumission finds an early extant expression in the Institutes of Justinian, a sixth century Roman legal code. Roman jurists defined slavery as an “unnatural condition” by which men subjugated others to their dominion, a legal power known to the Romans as manus. However, since freedom was the natural condition of man, manumission, a term derived from the Latin word manumittere, empowered slaveholders “to release, free, or set at liberty” their bondsmen. By relinquishing authority over the subjugated, slaveholders restored to nature those individuals they held in bondage. (See Moyle, The Institutes of Justinian, [1896], 6-8.) Manumission thus strengthened slavery by acknowledging the impermanency of the institution and empowering slaveholders to determine when and how one’s enslavement might end.

At least in theory, enslaved people could acquire freedom in a slaveholding regime, even if only at the mercy of their owners. The possibility of manumission, historians have reasoned, placated otherwise resistant slaves by offering a pathway to freedom far less dangerous than flight or revolt. In his landmark study of comparative slavery, Slavery and Social Death, Orlando Patterson applied the “gift-exchange theory” to explain manumission, which he described as a gift given by slaveholders to slaves in exchange for loyal and faithful service. The practical purpose, Patterson explained, was “to get an utterly degraded and socially dead person to serve faithfully and productively.” Ideologically, however, slaveholders reified their power to restore life to ‘socially dead’ slaves through the gift of freedom. (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death [1982], 211 and Patterson, “Three Notes of Freedom,” [2011], 17-18.)  Patterson’s gift-exchange theory and his emphasis on slaveholder power over manumission continues to shape how historians and legal scholars view manumission in the New World, as evidenced in Robin Blackburn’s introduction to the comparative volume Paths to Freedom and Andrew Fede’s Roadblocks to Freedom.

The gift-exchange theory further impacts manumission historiography by complicating the question of morality in slavery. While historians do not deny the violence and degradation inherent to slaveholding regimes, the possibility for slaves to acquire freedom, a privilege codified by law, seems to suggest that slaveholders and state officials viewed slavery as an aberrant condition from which some individuals deserved refuge. Such perspectives suggest that the perpetrators of slavery did not entirely dehumanize their chattel, and that even the most unfair laws created legal fictions by which justice might occasionally be served.   


Manumission Laws and Freedom Principles

Beyond this tenuous consensus that manumission incentivized slaves and thus strengthened slavery, historians have examined the legal regimes under which manumissions occurred. Frank Tannenbaum pioneered this line of inquiry in his classic study Slave and Citizen, which compared the legal cultures of the United States and Latin America. Tannenbaum argued that Latin American moral and legal institutions, inspired by Roman Catholic notions of the equality of men before the eyes of god, encouraged manumission, whereas the United States legal culture restricted it. (See Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen [1943] and “Forum: What Can Frank Tannenbaum Still Teach Us about the Law of Slavery,” Law and History Review [2004].)

Historians of slavery in the Atlantic world have since complicated this duality. Manumission studies on eighteenth-century Brazil are particularly rich. Stuart Schwartz’s analysis of cartas de alforria, or colonial Brazil’s manumission certificates, has served as the cornerstone of this subfield, compiling quantitative data to deduce the impact of manumission on the political economy of slavery. Similarly, Kathleen Higgins’s Licentious Liberty analyzed hundreds of manumission records to show how gendered divisions of labor in the mining centers of central Brazil empowered enslaved women to acquire freedom more effectively than men. (Schwartz, “The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil: Bahia, 1684-1745,” Hispanic American Historical Review [1974] and Higgins, “Licentious Liberty” in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region [1999]; see also Grinberg, “Freedom Suits and Civil Law in Brazil and the United States,” Slavery and Abolition [2001].)

Manumission studies on the British Atlantic have also applied the quantitative method to explore the mechanics of manumission. Jerome Handler, for example, has shown that manumission was rare in seventeenth-century Barbados – only .005% of the annual total slave population between 1673 and 1684 earned freedom. Robert Olwell found similarly low numbers of manumission in South Carolina, where he uncovered only 379 recorded manumissions between 1737 and 1789. In both colonies, the legal devices that facilitated manumission – last wills and testaments and living deeds – required slaveholder consent. This and the very low rate of manumission suggests that planters in the British Atlantic were particularly reluctant to release slaves. (Handler and Pohlmann, “Slave Manumissions and Freedmen in Seventeenth-Century Barbados,” William and Mary Quarterly [1984], 400 and Olwell, “Becoming Free: Manumission and the Genesis of a Free Black Community in South Carolina, 1740-1790,” Slavery and Abolition [1996]).

Not all groundbreaking work on manumission relies on quantitative methods. In the study of manumissions in colonial Cuba, historians have employed traditional legal analyses to show that slave claims-making resulted in changes to colonial slave laws. Historian Alejandro de la Fuente, for example, has traced the legal history of coartaciòn, freedom purchases which slaves could pay in small installments over time. In the process, de la Fuente discovered that the legal activism of slaves over the long eighteenth century transformed coartaciòn from a customary practice to a right codified in law. (Alejandro de la Fuente, “Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights in Cuba: Coartaciòn and Papel,” Hispanic American Historical Review [2007]; see also Aimes, “Coartaciòn,” The Yale Review [1909] and Salmoral, “El Derecho de Coartaciòn del Esclavo en la America Española.” Revista de Indias [1999].)

While some enslaved litigants effected changes to colonial laws by pursuing freedom, others prompted the reform of metropolitan laws. In 1691, for example, two enslaved stowaways abandoned Martinique aboard the ship l’Oiseau. When the ship arrived in France, metropolitan officials confiscated the runaway slaves and subsequently freed them, enforcing a longstanding customary law that ‘there are no slaves in France’. For centuries France prevented slavery from taking root in the realm, but the burgeoning plantation economy in the French Caribbean increased the number of enslaved Africans reaching French ports. Sue Peabody has explored how King Louis XIV’s ministers reconciled France’s free soil principle with reforms that permitted French colonial planters to visit France with slaves without forfeiting them. Though not a study of slave manumission, Peabody’s monograph and more recent works on free soil laws show how enslaved people’s freedom struggles pushed state officials in metropolitan zones to reassess, if not reform, manumission laws and procedures. (Peabody, “There Are No Slaves in France” [1996]; “Free Soil: The Generation and Circulation of an Atlantic Legal Principle,” Slavery and Abolition [2011]; see also Moreau de Saint-Mery, Loix et constitutions [1784].)

Studies on the evolution of manumission law and the impacts that slave releases had on colonial and metropolitan politics have shown considerable variation across time and space. Yet they also reveal tensions between slaveholders, for whom the power to release slaves was inherent to the power to own them, and state officials, for whom the sovereignty of laws and legal institutions could supersede even the property rights of privileged subjects like slaveholders. Most slaveholders manumitted slaves voluntarily, but sometimes state institutions forced slave owners to release slaves against their wishes, causing unexpected political rifts among authorities similarly committed to the expansion of slavery. 


The Possibilities of Slave Legal Resistance

Perhaps more importantly, manumission studies have shown that enslaved people sometimes manipulated laws and court procedures to demand release from bondage, and that these legal efforts occasional prompted reform in colonial and metropolitan contexts. The strategic use of freedom suits by enslaved litigants suggests that laws which sanctioned slave releases could serve slaves as tools of resistance. (See Bryant, “Enslaved Rebels, Fugitives, and Litigants,” Colonial Latin American Review [2006].) The majority of successful freedom suits released only individual slaves and perhaps their immediate family members, thus not posing a revolutionary threat to the institution of slavery. Nevertheless, the possibilities of slave legal resistance cast doubt on prevailing notions that manumission unequivocally strengthened slave regimes.    

Indeed, recent studies of manumission in the colonial and early national periods of U.S. history reveal the efficacy of slave legal resistance in a legal culture that aggressively opposed slave releases. In the U.S., enslaved litigants could only file freedom suits under narrowly circumscribed conditions, one being proof that their mother was a free woman. Studies by Honor Sachs and Loren Schweninger have traced the genealogies of two black families who registered the free status of their matriarchs in colonial freedom suits and then utilized these precedent cases to secure legal freedom for family members in subsequent generations and alternate jurisdictions. Sachs and Schweninger thus show that some enslaved people saw manumission laws and local courts as resources in their struggles against slavery and included legal strategies in the oral histories they communicated from one generation to the next. [For the conditions pertinent to freedom suits in the U.S., see Finkelman, ed. The Law of Freedom and Bondage: A Casebook [1986]; on slave legal resistance in the U.S., see Sachs, “‘Freedom by a Judgment’: The Legal History of an Afro-Indian Family,” Law and History Review [2012] and Schweninger, “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery,” William and Mary Quarterly [2014]; see also Finkenbine, “Belinda’s Petition,” William and Mary Quarterly [2007] and Sword, “Remembering Dinah Nevil: Strategic Deception in Eighteenth-Century Antislavery,” Journal of American History [2010].)



The study of manumission continues to evolve as historians change methodological approaches and choose alternative subjects of analysis. The field still awaits a scholarly synthesis that can incorporate the diverse social, legal, and political dynamics of manumission in the Atlantic world. The select bibliography below lists primary and secondary sources that may be useful in preliminary investigations of manumission, including classic and recent studies. Conspicuously rare are book-length monographs on manumission, suggesting the need for further study. Future studies might examine more closely the social networks that helped enslaved litigants acquire the legal and economic resources needed to sue their masters. Others might trace the political cleavages between slaveholders and legal officials in jurisdictions where enslaved people secured higher rates of manumission. 


Select Bibliography


Primary Sources

Finkelman, Paul, ed. The Law of Freedom and Bondage: A Casebook. New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1986.

Hall, Gwendolyn M. Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Moreau de Saint-Mery, Mederic Louis Elie. Loix et constitutions des colonies francoises de l’Amerique sous le vent, 6 vols. Paris, 1784.

Moyle, J.B. trans., The Institutes of Justinian, Third Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 1896.


Secondary Sources

Aimes, Herbert. “Coartaciòn: A Spanish Institution for the Advancement of Slaves into Freedmen.” The Yale Review 18 (1909): 412-431.

Brana-Shute, Rosemary and Randy J. Sparks, eds., Paths to Freedom: Manumission in the Atlantic World. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 2009.

Bryant, Sherwin K. “Enslaved Rebels, Fugitives, and Litigants: The Resistance Continuum in Colonial Quito.” Colonial Latin American Review 13, no. 1 (2006): 7-46.

De la Fuente, Alejandro. “Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights in Cuba: Coartaciòn and Papel,” Hispanic American Historical Review 87, no.4 (2007): 659-692.

Finkenbine, Roy E. “Belinda’s Petition: Reparations for Slavery in Revolutionary Massachusetts.” William and Mary Quarterly 64, no. 1 (2007): 95-104.

Fede, Andrew. Roadblocks to Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in the United States. New Orleans: Quid Pro Quo Books, 2011.

“Forum: What Can Frank Tannenbaum Still Teach Us about the Law of Slavery.” Law and History Review 22, no. 2 (2004): 339-387.

“Free Soil: The Generation and Circulation of an Atlantic Legal Principle,” Slavery and Abolition 32, no. 3 (2011).

Goveia, Elsa V. The West Indian Slave Laws of the 18th Century. Barbados: Caribbean University Press, 1970.

Grinberg, Keila. “Freedom Suits and Civil Law in Brazil and the United States,” Slavery and Abolition 22, no. 3 (2001): 66-82.

Hanger, Kimberly S. Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Handler, Jerome S. and John T. Pohlman, “Slave Manumissions and Freedmen in Seventeenth-Century Barbados.” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, no. 3 (1984): 390-408.

Higgins, Kathleen J. “Licentious Liberty” in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabarà, Minas Gerais. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Olwell, Robert. “Becoming Free: Manumission and the Genesis of a Free Black Community in South Carolina, 1740-1790.” Slavery and Abolition 17, no. 1 (1996): 1-19.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Peabody, Sue. “There Are No Slaves in France”: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancien Regime. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Sachs, Honor. “‘Freedom by Judgment’: The Legal History of an Afro-Indian Family.” Law and History Review 30, no. 1(2012): 173-203.

Salmoral, Manuel L. “El Derecho de Coartaciòn del Esclavo en la America Española.” Revista de Indias LIX, no. 216 (1999): 357-374.

Schafer, Judith K. Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

Schwartz, Stuart B. “The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil: Bahia, 1684-1745.” Hispanic American Historical Review 54, no. 4 (1974), 603-635.

Schweninger, Loren. “Freedom Suits, African American Women, and the Genealogy of Slavery.” William and Mary Quarterly 71, no. 1 (2014): 35-62.

Sword, Kristen. “Remembering Dinah Nevil: Strategic Deception in Eighteenth-Century Antislavery. Journal of American History (2010): 315-342.

Tannenbaum, Frank. Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. New York: Vintage Books, 1946.

Watson, Alan. Slave Law in the Americas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.