Skip to main content

Affective Debts: Manumission by Grace and the Making of Gradual Emancipation Laws in Cuba, 1817–68


Drawing on thirty freedom suits from nineteenth-century eastern Cuba, this article explores how some slaves redefined slaveholders' oral promises of manumissions by grace from philanthropic acts into contracts providing a deferred wage payout. Manumissions by grace tended to reward affective labor (loyalty, affection) and to be granted to domestic slaves. Across Cuba, as in other slave societies of Spanish America, through self-purchase, slaves made sustained efforts to monetize the labor that they did by virtue of their ascribed status. The monetization of affective work stands out amongst such efforts. Freedom litigants involved in conflicts over manumissions by grace emphasized the market logics in domestic slavery, revealing that slavery was a fundamentally economic institution even in such instances where it appeared to be intertwined with kinship and domesticity. Through this move, they challenged the assumption that slaves toiled loyally for masters out of a natural commitment to an unchanging master-slave hierarchy. By the 1880s, through court litigation and extra-judicial violence, slave litigants and insurgents would turn oral promises of manumission by grace into a blueprint for general emancipation. Through their legal actions, enslaved people, especially women, revealed the significance and transactional nature of care work, a notion familiar to us today.

Corresponding author
Hide All

She thanks Clifton Crais, Jean Hébrard, Pablo Gómez, Chloe Ireton, Kris Lane, Jeffrey Lesser, Kristin Mann, Michelle McKinley, María de los Angeles Meriño Fuentes, David Nugent, Cynthia Patterson, Alfredo Sánchez Falcón, Stuart Schwartz, Rebecca J. Scott, Gyanendra Pandey, Aisnara Perera Díaz, Bianca Premo, Tom Rogers, Yanna Yannakakis, the Anthro-History Reading Group at the University of Michigan, the Colonial/Postcolonial Seminar at Emory University, and the three anonymous readers at Law and History Review.

Hide All

1. Archivo Nacional de Cuba, Havana, Cuba (National Archives of Cuba, hereafter ANC), Audiencia de Santiago de Cuba (The Court of Santiago de Cuba; hereafter ASC), legajo (bundle; hereafter leg.) 694, expediente (record number; hereafter exp.) 15,718, “El Caballero Síndico reclama la libertad y los alquileres del negro José Alejo, esclavo que fue del Pbro D. José Nicolás Contreras, 1858” and leg. 842, exp. 19,987 and 19,987A, “Apuntamiento de los autos seguidos por el Síndico Procurador General contra Da Elena Silveira en reclamación de la libertad del negro José Alejo Contreras, 1858–1864.” The law suit is also cited in Díaz Aisnara Perera and de los Angeles Meriño Fuentes María, Estrategias de libertad: un acercamiento a las acciones legales de los esclavos en Cuba (1762–1872) (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2015), 2:51–52.

2. Las Siete Partidas (the thirteenth-century Spanish legal compendium that served as the main legal framework in the Spanish colonies into the nineteenth century) treated all oral manumissions like noncupative testaments. The same number of witnesses was required for both. Las Siete Partidas del Sabio Rey Don Alonso el Nono, glosadas por el Licenciado Gregorio López del Consejo Real de Indias de S. M. (Madrid: Oficina de Benito Cano, 1789), vol. 2, partida (P.) V, title (tit.) IV, law XI, 667 and P. IV, tit. XXII, law I, 589–90.

3. Las Siete Partidas stipulated that five witnesses were necessary to validate a contracted debt. Las Siete Partidas, P. III, tit. XVI, law XXXII, 2:212–13. The two lawyers invoked a law from the 1505 Leyes de Toro (law 66) and included in the 1805 Novísima recopilación de las leyes de España that did not specify a required number of witnesses to validate a debt, but simply mentioned the need for witnesses in cases in which debts were not notarized. The two lawyers argued that these two later treatises surpassed Las Siete Partidas. Novísima recopilación de las leyes de España, libro X, tit. XI, law V, in Códigos españoles concordados y anotados, vol. 9 (Madrid: Imprenta de la Publicidad, 1850), 338 .

4. The two lawyers argued that “a debtor's heirs cannot excuse themselves from paying back a debt that the debtor who had died intestate had contracted in cash in the presence of two witnesses. Why would not the same rule apply to a case in which the services received by the deceased had been deemed to be equivalent to a fixed amount equal to the price of freedom?” Ricardo Lancís and Antonio Carlos Ferrer, January 7, 1864, in ANC, ASC, leg. 842, exp. 19,987 and 19,987A.

5. de la Fuente Alejandro, “Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights: Coartación and Papel,” Hispanic American Historic Review (hereafter HAHR) 87 (2007): 659–92.

6. Herman Bennett has shown how Afro-descendants invoked Christian virtue to claim legal rights in New Spain. Bennett Herman, Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570–1640 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 10 . Also, Ireton Chloe, “‘They Are Blacks of the Caste of Black Christians’: Old Christian Black Blood in the Sixteenth- and Early Seventeenth-Century Iberian Atlantic,” HAHR 97 (2017): 579612 . Some legal rights that slaves had, such as marriage, were fundamentally tied to Christianity. McKinley Michelle, “Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Legal Activism, and Ecclesiastical Courts in Colonial Lima, 1593–1689,” Law and History Review 28 (2010): 749–90; and Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy, and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima, 1600–1700 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), esp. chap. 2; O'Toole Rachel, Bound Lives: Africans, Indians, and the Making of Race in Colonial Peru (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), chap. 5.

7. On the political stakes underlying efforts to create separate spheres of exchange for particular goods or involving particular people, see Appadurai Arjun, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016[1986]), Introduction.

8. Echeverri Marcela, “Enraged to the Limit of Despair: Infanticide and Slave Judicial Strategies in Barbacoas, 1789–1798,” Slavery and Abolition 30 (2009): 403–26; France Renée Souloudre-La, “Socially Not So Dead! Slave Identities in Bourbon Nueva Granada,” Colonial Latin American Review 10 (2001): 87103 ; Townsend Camilla, “‘Half My Body Free, the Other Half Enslaved’: The Politics of the Slaves of Guayaquil at the End of the Colonial Era,” Colonial Latin American Review 7 (1998): 105–28. On nineteenth century liberal ideologies among the popular sectors, see Chambers Sarah, From Subjects to Citizens: Honor, Gender, and Politics in Arequipa, Peru, 1780–1854 (College Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2011); Childs Matt, The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Eller Anne, We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Ferrer Ada, Freedom's Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) and Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); and Sanders James, Contentious Republicans: Popular Politics, Race, and Class in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). However, slaves used the courts in American slave societies where they had fewer formal rights and where liberal ideologies were not as widespread. See Edwards Laura, The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), chap. 5 and Status without Rights: African Americans and the Tangled History of Law and Governance in the Nineteenth-Century US South,” American Historical Review (hereafter AHR) 112 (2007): 365–93; Ghachem Malick, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Gross Ariela, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Schaefer Judith Kelleher, Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846–1862 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003); and Scott Rebecca, “Social Facts, Legal Fictions, and the Attribution of Slave Status: The Puzzle of Prescription,” Law and History Review 35 (2017): 930 .

9. See, especially, the special issue on free soil, Slavery and Abolition 32 (2011), edited by Sue Peabody and Keila Grinberg; Ferrer Ada, “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic,” AHR 117 (2012): 4066 ; Kennington Kelly, “Law, Geography, and Mobility: Suing for Freedom in Antebellum St. Louis,” Journal of Southern History 80 (2014): 575604 ; and VanderVelde Lea, Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

10. Such customary rights were common across slaveholding societies in the Americas. Barickman Bert J., “‘A Bit of Land, Which They Call Roça’: Slave Provision Grounds in the Bahian Recôncavo, 1780–1860,” HAHR 74 (1994): 649–87; Berlin Ira and Morgan Philip, eds., The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas (London: Routledge, 2016); Edwards, The People and Their Peace, chap. 5; and Penningroth Dylan C., Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

11. Both first and second wave feminists debated whether or not domestic labor should be made part of the public sphere and monetized. At the core of these debates was the question of whether or not keeping household work as part of a private and unmonetized sphere of exchange oppresses women. For a first wave feminist vision of how to turn domestic work into a monetized practice that would help women's personal growth, see Gilman Charlotte Perkins, Women and Economics: A Study of Economic Relations between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution (Boston: Small, Maynard et comp., 1898). Second wave feminists who drew on Marxist thought argued that the gendered division of labor, which has relegated feminized care work to the status of unpaid labor, has allowed capitalists to accumulate more profits. For an early argument for wages for household labor, see dalla Costa Mariarosa and James Selma, The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community (Bristol: The Fallen Wall Press, 1972).

12. For a critique of commodifying care work, see Anderson Elizabeth, “Is Women's Labor a Commodity?Philosophy and Public Affairs 19 (1990): 7192 . For a critique of commodification, but with ideas on how well-regulated markets can also provide opportunities, see Radin Margaret, Contested Commodities: The Trouble with Trade in Sex, Children, Body Parts, and Other Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001[1996]).

13. For example, Katherine Silbaugh has argued that by separating economically productive (and commodifiable) work from affective work, “legal actors have used the language of emotions to deny material security to those who perform domestic labor.” Silbaugh Katharine, “Commodification and Women's Household Labor,” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 9 (1997): 81121 , quote at 82. See also Zelizer Viviana, The Purchase of Intimacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). For a feminist anthropological piece engaged in a similar critique, see Strathern Marilyn, The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). On the history of gendered separate spheres, see Brown Wendy, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); Fraser Nancy, Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989); Wolff Janet, Feminine Sentences (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990). On the racial colonial dimensions of separate spheres, see Collins Patricia Hill, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Glenn Evelyn Nacano, “Racial Ethnic Women’s Labor: Intersection of Race, Gender, and Class Oppression,” Review of Radical Political Economics 17 (1983): 86108 ; Lowe Lisa, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), chap. 1.

14. Putnam Lara, “Borderlands and Border Crossers: Migrants and Boundaries in the Greater Caribbean, 1840–1940,” Small Axe 18 (2014): 721 .

15. Zúñiga Olga Portuondo, Santiago de Cuba desde su fundación hasta la Guerra de los Diez Años (Santiago: Editorial Oriente, 1996), chap. 1; and Klein Herbert, “North American Competition and the Characteristics of the Slave Trade to Cuba, 1790–1794,” William and Mary Quarterly 28 (1971): 86102 .

16. de la Fuente Alejandro, Havana and the Atlantic in the Sixteenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 50 ; Zúñiga Olga Portuondo, “Informe de Bernardo Urrutia sobre el oriente de la isla de Cuba, 1750,” in El Departamento Oriental en documentos (Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente, 2012), 1:270; Archivo General de Indias (hereafter AGI), Ultramar, leg. 34, exp. 2: “Expediente del ilustre Ayuntamiento en respuesta al discurso del provisor y vicario Juan Bernardo O'Gavan, en la Sociedad Económica de La Habana,” February 1, 1819; and von Humboldt Alexander (Kutzinski Vera and Ette Ottmar, eds.), Political Essay on the Island of Cuba A Critical Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011[1826]), 8 .

17. Kuethe Allan, Cuba, 1753–1815: Crown, Military, and Society (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 24 ; Portuondo Zúñiga, Santiago de Cuba, chap. 1; and Juan Bautista Vaillant's report to the Council of the Indies, February 17, 1789, in Portuondo Zúñiga, El Departamento Oriental, 1:335.

18. AGI, Ultramar, leg. 83: “El Gobernador de Cuba después de representar las importancias del Puerto de esta Plaza y Partido de su Governación propone fáciles medios para su fomento,” February 17, 1789.

19. AGI, Indiferente General, leg. 2,821: “Real Cédula de su Magestad concediendo libertad para el comercio de negros con las islas de Cuba, Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, y Provincia de Caracas, a Españoles y Extrangeros, bajo las reglas que se expresan, 1789;” and Belmonte José Luís, Ser esclavo en Santiago de Cuba: espacios de poder y negociación en un context de expansión y crisis, 1780–1803 (Aranjuez: Doce Calles, 2011), 54 .

20. Ferrer, Freedom's Mirror, chap. 4; Zúñiga Olga Portuondo, “Santiago de Cuba, los colonos franceses y el fomento cafetalero (1798–1809),” in Les français dans l'Orient cubain, ed. Lamore Jean (Bordeaux: Maison des Pays Ibériques, 1993); and Renault Agnes, D'une île rebelle a une île fidele: Les français de Santiago de Cuba (Le Havre: Publications de l'Université de Rouen, 2013).

21. The royal order was passed on October 21, 1817. A copy is available in Archivo General de la Administración, Madrid, leg. (10)26 54/7729, The Havana intendant to the Spanish consul in Philadelphia, April 1, 1820. See also Orovio Consuelo Naranjo and González Armando García, Racismo e inmigración en Cuba en el siglo XIX (Madrid: Doce Calles, 1996).

22. The total population increased three times, from 24,427 people in 1810 to 71,419 in 1827. The number of slaves increased from 6,804 to 38,039 during the same time period. ANC, Real Consulado y Junta de Fomento, leg. 184, exp. 8,329, “Estado de la población del Departamento Oriental, según calidad, sexo y condición civil,” 1810; and Vives Dionisio, Cuadro estadístico de la siempre fiel isla de Cuba correspondiente al año 1827 (Madrid: Arazoza y Soler, 1829).

23. For an account of the underdevelopment, see, for example, AGI, Ultramar, leg. 37, exp. 23, “Expediente de la Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País de Cuba,” August 13, 1825.

24. AGI, Ultramar, leg. 50, exp. 29: Petition by Adrian Pedro and Pedro Severo Lestapis to take possession of delinquent debtors in Santiago de Cuba in spite of not being Spanish nationals, Madrid, June 16, 1833 and leg. 48, exp. 45, “El Capitán General de la Isla de Cuba y el Superintendente de Real Hacienda dan cuenta de los estragos causados en la provincia de Santiago de Cuba por un huracán;” ANC, Asuntos Políticos (hereafter AP), leg. 43, exp. 30, “Expediente para que por las diversas autoridades de la provincia de Santiago de Cuba se rindan un informe acerca de la decadencia de aquella y sus causas, proponiendo medidas para mejorar la riqueza pública, 1849.” de la Riva Francisco Pérez, El café: historia de su cultivo y explotación en Cuba (Havana: Jesús Montero, 1944).

25. Manumission rates increased from 1.6/1,000 enslaved people/per year to 6.3/1,000 enslaved people/per year between the late 1820s and the late 1860s. Figure based on 1,914 manumission letters issued between 1828–1830, 1845–1847, 1853–1855 and 1862–1865 in Santiago de Cuba. Archivo Histórico Provincial de Santiago de Cuba (hereafter AHPSC), Fondo Protocolos Notariales (hereafter PN), legs. 21–23, 25–27, 38–40, 46–48, 51–52, 78–80, 82–84, 95–97, 103–105, 113–115, 184, 187, 189, 194–198, 212, 213, 217, 218, 222–224, 259–261, 262–264, 275–277, 285–287, 293–295, 327, 373–375, 378–380, 391–393, 399–401, 409–411, 477–479, 486–488, 495–497, 528–530, 535–537, 545–547, 599–601, 607, 608, 615, and 617.

26. O'Donnell Leopoldo, Cuadro estadístico de la siempre fiel isla de Cuba, correspondiente al año 1846 (Havana: Imprenta del Gobierno y de la Capitanía General, 1847); and Estadística Comisión, Noticias estadísticas de la isla de Cuba en 1862 (Havana: Imprenta del Gobierno, 1864).

27. Comisión Estadística, Noticias estadísticas de la isla de Cuba en 1862.

28. Twenty perent of freedom letters issued between the late 1820s and the mid-1860s had been paid by a third party (in the vast majority of cases a parent, grandparent, or godparent of the manumitted slave). See note 25.

29. ANC, AP, leg. 30, exp. 30.

30. Benton Lauren, Law and Colonial Cultures: Legal Regimes in World History, 1400–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); and Ross Richard and Stern Philip, “Reconstructing Early Modern Notions of Legal Pluralism,” in Legal Pluralism and Empires, 1500–1850, eds. Benton Lauren and Ross Richard (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 109–41. On legal pluralism, see also Merry Sally Engle, “Legal Pluralism,” Law & Society Review 22(1988): 869–96; and Hartog Henrik, “Pigs and Positivism,” Wisconsin Law Review 899(1985): 126 .

31. Herzog Tamar, Upholding Justice: Society, State and the Penal System in Quito (1650–1750) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 8 ; Premo Bianca, The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), Introduction. For the United States South, see Edwards Laura, The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

32. The king and the courts were responsible for coordinating relations among the different parts of the social system to secure the peace (el buen gobierno). Kempshall Matthew, The Common Good in Late Medieval Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Telechea Jesús Solórzano, “The Politics of the Commons in Northern Atlantic Spain in the Late Middle Ages,” Urban History 41 (2014): 183203 . On casuistry and considerations of public peace in North American courts, see Edwards, The People and Their Peace. For how subordinate groups in the American colonies invoked ideas of buen común and buen gobierno, see Díaz María Elena, The Virgin, the King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2000); and Owensby Brian, Empire of Law and Indian Justice in Colonial Mexico (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008), chap. 3. On casuistry and custom in Spanish American courts, see Alejandro de la Fuente, “Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights”; Premo Bianca, “Custom Today: Temporality, Customary Law, and Indigenous Enlightenment,” HAHR 94 (2014): 355–79; Yannakakis Yanna, “Making Law Intelligible: Networks of Translation in Mid-Colonial Oaxaca,” in Indigenous Intellectuals: Knowledge, Power, and Colonial Culture in Mexico and the Andes, eds. Ramos Gabriela and Yannakakis Yanna (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); and Yannakakis Yanna, The Art of Being In-Between: Native Intermediaries, Indian Identity, and Local Rule in Colonial Oaxaca (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008). On casuistry in colonial Spanish America more generally, see Anzoateguí Victor Tau, Casuismo y sistema: indagación sobre el espiritu del derecho indiano (Buenos Aires: IIHD, 1992).

33. On status-based adjudication, see Las Siete Partidas, P. III, tit. I, laws II and III, 2:3.

34. Las Siete Partidas, P. IV, tit. XXII, laws I–VII, 2:590–93.

35. For Cuba, the locally issued Ordenanzas de Cáceres served as a legal framework until various of its parts were altered in the eighteenth century. Ordenanzas para el cabildo y regimiento de la Habana y las demas villas y lugares de esta isla de Cuba que hizo y ordenó el Ilustre Sr. Dr. Alonso Cáceres,” Pichardo Hortensia, Documentos para la historia de Cuba (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1971), 1:102–19. Other codes for Cuba included the 1789 “Royal decree and instructional circular for the Indies on the education, treatment, and work regimen of slaves,” May 31, 1789, in García Gloria, Voices of the Enslaved in Nineteenth-Century Cuba: A Documentary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 4754 . This code was revoked 4 years later. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the most important legal code to be introduced on the question of slavery was the 1842 Reglamento de esclavos. Cano Bienvenido and de Zalba Federico, El libro de los síndicos de ayuntamiento y de las Juntas Protectoras de Libertos (Havana: Imprenta del Gobierno y de la Capitanía General, 1875), 2032 .  Additionally, the courts in Cuba invoked the Recopilación de las leyes de los reynos de las Yndias mandadas imprimir y publicar por la Magestad Católica del Rey, Don Carlos II (Madrid: Juan de Paredes, 1681), a casuist set of laws written in the Iberian Peninsula in response to situations that arose in the American colonies, and published in 1681.

36. When royal power consolidated in medieval Iberia, it provided such avenues of redress for the poor as a way of ensuring their loyalty and of weakening elite intermediaries. See Vallejo Jesús, “Power Hierarchies in Medieval Juridical Thought,” Ius Commune 19 (1992): 129 . On the high levels of litigiousness that this measure resulted in, see Kagan Richard, Lawsuits and Litigants in Castile, 1500–1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).

37. Some scholars have argued that slaves sued for greater levels of autonomy, rather than freedom, prior to 1700. Proctor Frank Trey, “Damned Notions of Liberty”: Slavery, Culture, and Power in Colonial Mexico, 1640–1769 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011). For studies that show that slave litigants had developed notions of freedom before the Enlightenment, see Bennett Herman, Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 11 ; Bryant Sherwin, “Enslaved Rebels, Fugitives, and Litigants: The Resistance Continuum in Colonial Quito,” Colonial Latin American Review 13.1 (2004): 746, esp. 9; and Owensby Brian, “How Juan and Leonor Won Their Freedom: Litigation and Liberty in Seventeenth-Century Mexico,” HAHR 85 (2005): 3980 .

38. McKinley, Fractional Freedoms, tables 1.2 and 1.3, at 56.

39. Ibid., 5.

40. On debates about the need to stem the proliferation of picapleitos, AGI, Ultramar, leg. 103:, “Testimonio integro del expediente formado por los procuradores politicos de la Habana sobre arreglo y reforma de sus oficios, 1830.” Perera Díaz and Meriño Fuentes, Estrategias de libertad, vol. 1, chap. 2 and “‘Yo, el Notario’: breve reflexión microhistórica sobre el poder de la escritura,” Nucleo de Estudos em História Demográfica (São Paolo) (accessed August 1, 2017); Zeuske Michael and Martínez Orlando García, “Estado, notarios y esclavos en Cuba: aspectos de la ciudadanía en sociedades esclavistas,” Nuevo mundo, mundos nuevos 8 (2008) (accessed August 1, 2017). For such intermediaries at other locations in Spanish and Portuguese America, see Burns Kathryn, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Graham Sandra Lauderdale, “Writing from the Margins: Brazilian Slaves and Written Culture,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 49 (2007): 611–36; McKinley, Fractional Freedoms, 44–47; Premo, The Enlightenment on Trial, chap. 1; Yannakakis, The Art of Being In-Between.

41. The jurist and judge José Serapio Mojarrieta argued that síndicos started representing slaves in freedom suits in Cuba in the 1760s. See Esposición sobre el origen, utilidad, prerogativas, derechos y deberes de los Síndicos Procuradores Generales de los pueblos (Puerto Principe: Imprenta del Gobierno y de la Real Hacienda, 1833[1830]), 7 . Some historians have argued that it was a royal decree passed in 1789 that initiated this process. See Perera Díaz and Meriño Fuentes, Estrategias de libertad, vol. 1, chap. 2. “Royal decree and instructional circular for the Indies on the education, treatment, and work regimen of slaves,” May 31, 1789, in García, Voices of the Enslaved, 47–54, esp. art. 9, 11, and 13. After liberalizing the slave trade to the island, the crown issued this prudential piece of legislation to ameliorate slaves’ living conditions and to avoid possible insurrections. The slaveholding elites’ ire at this royal decree did not take long to reach the Iberian Peninsula, and, in 1794, the law was suspended. Salmoral Manuel Lucena, Los códigos negros de la América Española (Alcalá: Ediciones UNESCO, Universidad de Alcalá, 1996), 119–23.

42. Perera Díaz and Meriño Fuentes, Estrategias de libertad, vol. 1, chap. 2.

43. See note 8.

44. For two legal precedents, see Las Siete Partidas, P. IV, tit. XXI, law VI, 2:588–89 and “Ordenanzas para el cabildo y regimiento de la Habana,” art. 60 and 61. The 1789 royal order instituted an authority responsible for policing the behavior of masters.

45. Echeverri Marcela, “‘Enraged to the limit of despair’: Infanticide and Slave Judicial Strategies in Barbacoas, 1788–1898,” Slavery & Abolition 30 (2009): 403–26; McKinley, Fractional Freedoms, 19, fn. 7; Proctor Frank Trey, “’An Imponderable Servitude’: Slave versus Master Litigation for Cruelty (Maltratamiento or Sevicia) in Late Eighteenth-Century Lima, Peru,” Journal of Social History 48 (2015): 662–84.

46. De la Fuente, “Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights;” and Premo, The Enlightenment on Trial, chap. 6.

47. Premo, The Enlightenment on Trial, chap. 6. A freedom case that suggests this shift is ANC, ASC, leg. 1,228, exp. 41,447, “Recurso del Síndico Procurador General D. José Manuel de Zayas en representación del esclavo Gerónimo a consecuencia de la demanda propuesta contra D. José Joaquín Díaz para que le preste mano a la coartación de aquel,” 1830.

48. Even though Las Siete Partidas did not mention the right to self-purchase, two laws did reference arrangements between slaves and masters according to which slaves could be emancipated at a set future date. Las Siete Partidas, P. V, tit. V, law XLV, 2:696 and P. V, tit. XI, law VI, 2:787–88. On coartación in medieval Iberia (referred to as talla), see Phillips William D., Slavery in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 135 . At the beginning of the sixteenth century, colonial authorities were already discussing how manumission and limited ownership rights over resources that would be used for self-purchase might motivate and discipline slaves in the Americas. See “Carta Real al gobernador de Nueva España,” Granada, November 9, 1526 in Konetzke Richard, ed., Colección de documentos para la historia de la formación social de Hispanoamérica (Madrid: CSIC, 1953),1:88; “Real Cédula pidiendo parecer a las audiencias indianas sobre la posibilidad de manumitir a los esclavos que pagaran 20 marcos a sus dueños,” October 26, 1541, in Salmoral Manuel Lucena, ed., Regulación de la esclavitud negra en las colonias de América española (1503–1886): Documentos para su estudio (Alcalá de Henares: Universidad de Alcalá, 2005), 63 . For early references to it in notarial records from New Spain and Peru, see Bowser Frederick P., “The Free Person of Color in Mexico City and Lima: Manumission and Opportunity, 1580–1650,” in Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies, ed. Engerman Stanley and Genovese Eugene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975): 331, 338–46. On coartación in Cuba, see De la Fuente, “Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights;” Salmoral Manuel Lucena, “El derecho de coartación del esclavo en la América Española,” Revista de Indias LIX (1999): 357–74; and Claudia Varela Fernández, “Esclavos a sueldo: la coartación cubana en el siglo XIX” (PhD diss., Universitat Jaume I, 2010).

49. De la Fuente, “Slaves and the Creation of Legal Rights,” 664. On eighteenth century laws mentioning coartaciones as tax-free transactions, see Lucena Salmoral, “El derecho de coartación del esclavo en la América Española.” However, these laws did not yet formalize the practice.

50. When the caja de ahorro (a state-run savings bank) opened in Santiago in 1859, slaves held 12% of all savings accounts during the first year of its operations. de la Pezuela Jacobo, Diccionario geográfico, estadístico, histórico de la isla de Cuba (Madrid: Impr. del establecimiento de Mellado, 1863), 2:200.

51. Adriana Chira, “Uneasy Intimacies: Race, Family, and Property in Santiago de Cuba, 1803–1868,” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2016), 225. See note 25.

52. Historians Laird Bergad, María del Carmen Barcia, and Fe Iglesias García established, based on a sample of notarized sales between 1790 and 1880, that 13% of slaves were coartados. Bergad Laird, Iglesias Fe, and del Carmen Barcia María, The Cuban Slave Market, 1790–1880 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 123 .

53. On the invalidity of stipulatio (oral promises or agreements) between masters and slaves, see Las Siete Partidas, P. V, tit. XI, law VI, 2:787–88. The only exception was in situations in which slaves had orally promised to pay a set amount of money toward their freedom; in such cases, they were bound by the promise that they had made.

54. Las Siete Partidas, P. IV, tit. XXII, law I, 2:590–91.

55. ANC, ASC, leg. 701, exp. 15,908: “El Síndico Procurador General, Dn Jose María Veranes, pide el reconocimiento del negro Juan Luís, esclavo de Dn Miguel Ruíz para su libertad,” 1826; leg. 130, exp. 2,418, “Incidente de la testamentaria del regidor Dn Juan Antonio Bestard sobre la libertad de la esclava Celestina,” 1837.

56. The historiography on enslaved people's participation in market activities is vast. Some examples include Gaspar David Barry and Hine Darlene Clark, eds., More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998); Esguerra Jorge Cañizares, Childs Matt, and Sidbury James, eds., The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Frank Zephyr, Dutra's World: Wealth and Family in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004); and Graham Sandra Lauderdale, House and Street: The Domestic World of Servants and Masters in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro (Austin: University of Texas, 1992).

57. ANC, ASC, leg. 498, exp. 11,729: “Reclamo que hace el Caballero Síndico de la libertad de la esclava Demetria a José Antonio Portuondo como albacea de Da Irenea Veranes, 1854.”

58. Perera and Meriño Fuentes, Estrategias de libertad, 2:35. All acts of donation had to wait until all creditors had been paid. Recipients of donations could be paid only out of the quinto (a fifth of the property, which testators could bequeath to someone other than their descendants). This meant that slaves who had been manumitted usually had to wait until all the debts on an estate had been paid. Escriche Joaquín, Diccionario razonado de legislación civil, penal, commercial y forense (Caracas: Imprenta de Valentin Espinal, 1840[1838]), 550 . Slave litigants were trying to redefine manumissions by grace from acts of donation into transactions, which would have provided them with equal treatment as that of other creditors of a deceased master.

59. AHPSC, JPI , leg 380, exp. 1: “Incidente al intestado de D. Felipe Porquin sobre la libertad de la negra Ortensia y sus cuatro hijos a instancia del caballero Síndico Procurador General,” 1835.

60. ANC, ASC, leg. 717, exp. 16,613, “El Caballero Síndico Procurador General demanda a Mr Eduardo Pauvert por la libertad del negro Juan Bautista, 1840.”

61. ANC, ASC, leg. 889, exp. 31,141, “Recurso del negro Andrés Villalón en los autos contra Da Rafaela Rizo reclamando su libertad, 1830.” For the first district court trial transcript, leg. 596, exp. 13,718: “Diligencias formadas por el negro Andrés Villalón reclamando su libertad, 1829.” See also Perera and Meriño Fuentes, Estrategias de libertad, 2:300–314.

62. More flexible manumission rules were provided for women in certain categories. Las Siete Partidas, P. IV, tit. XXII, Law I, 591. See also, Cowling Camilla, Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 5359 ; and Grinberg Keila and Peabody Sue, eds., Slavery, Freedom, and the Law in the Atlantic World: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007). The historiography on the gendering of the experience of slavery across the Atlantic world is vast. Some classic and recent publications include: Beckles Hilary, Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Women in Barbados (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989); Brown Kathleen, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Camp Stephanie, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Cowling, Conceiving Freedom; Fuentes Marisa, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Graham Sandra Lauderdale, Caetana Says No: Women's Stories from a Brazilian Slave Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); White Deborah Gray, Ar'n't I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1999[1985]); McKinley, Fractional Freedoms; Moitt Bernard, Women and Slavery in the French Antilles, 1645–1803 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001); Morgan Jennifer, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); and Turner Sasha, Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

63. See note 25.

64. Karasch Mary, Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987). On the gendering of manumission, see also Cowling, Conceiving Freedom; Grinberg Keila, “Manumission, Gender, and the Law in Nineteenth-century Brazil: Liberata's Legal Suit for Freedom,” in Paths to Freedom: Manumission in the Atlantic World, ed. Brana-Shute Rosemary and Sparks Randy (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 219–34; Scully Pamela and Paton Diana, eds., Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); and Scully Pamela, Liberating the Family? Gender and British Slave Emancipation in the Rural Western Cape (Portsmouth: Heinneman, 1997).

65. Slaveholders who had abused their dominion by raping slaves could lose control over them. Las Siete Partidas, P. IV, tit. XXII, law IV, 2:592–93.

66. ANC, ASC, leg. 601, exp. 13,806, “El Caballero Síndico Procurador General del Ayuntamiento contra Carlota Levegue sobre libertad de la negra Teresa conocida por Delfina, 1856.”

67. I use the phrase “color status” rather than “racial status” here in order to emphasize the distinctiveness of the socioracial taxonomy used within the Spanish Empire at the time. Using a North American vocabulary to translate local categories can result in an erasure of important nuances. Individuals could be identified as negro (usually enslaved black, but also sometimes used pejoratively to refer to recently freed individuals), moreno (a free Afro-descendant), pardo (brown), or Don/Doña (usually associated with whiteness), but these terms referred to one’s reputation in the community and to displays of certain behaviors rather than to phenotype or an ostensible biological racial type. One’s color status could shift throughout one’s lifetime. On color status as reputation, see for instance Adriana Chira, “Uneasy Intimacies: Race, Family, and Property in Santiago de Cuba, 1803–1868” (PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 2016), chap. 6.

68. In other lawsuits, freedom litigants had to supplement the baptismal records with witness testimonies. See, for example, AHPSC, JPI, leg 379, exp. 9: “Incidente al intestado de Don Luis Hinet sobre la libertad de las tres mulaticas Josefina, Luiza y Emilia, 1833.” In a freedom suit from 1839, the slaveholders’ legal counsel argued that the baptismal entries did not prove anything other than Christianity. ANC, ASC, leg. 1,259, exp. 6,904, “El Caballero Síndico Procurador General reclama la libertad del negro Yldefonso, esclavo de D. Narciso Sallés, en cumplimiento de la Real Cédula del año 1800, 1839.” See also Perera and Meriño Fuentes, Estrategias de libertad, 1:270.

69. ANC, ASC, leg. 702, exp. 15,934, “El S.P. Gral reclama de D. Apolinario Ximénez la libertad de la negra Soledad, 1827,” and leg. 937, exps. 32,694 and 32,694 A.

70. Other similar cases are: ANC, ASC, leg. 702, exp. 15,934, “El S.P. Gral reclama de D. Apolinario Ximénez la libertad de la negra Soledad, 1827”; leg. 702, exp. 15,936, “El Síndico Procurador General, Licenciado D Antonio Odio, reclamando la libertad de la negra Merced, esclava de José de los Santos, 1827;” leg. 431, exp. 10,126, “Da Teresa Dubré contra D Próspero Regner reclamando la libertad de unas esclavas, 1828;” leg. 243, exp. 6,369, “El Caballero Síndico Procurador General reclama libertad de esclava del intestado de D Pedro Berís, 1833;” and leg. 835, exp. 19,817, “Cuaderno de audiencia de los autos seguidos por el Síndico Procurador General reclamando la negra Margarita y su hijo Desiderio perteneciente a la testamentaria de D. Francisco Crombet, 1854.” In some cases, children who resulted from such unions claimed their freedom. See, for example, ANC, ASC, leg. 590, exp. 13,583, “El Caballero Síndico Procurador General demanda a la sucesión de D Julián Fills sobre libertad de la mulata Sebastiana, 1853–1854.”

71. Las Siete Partidas, P. IV, tit. XXII, law IV, 2:592.

72. Salmora Manuel Lucena, Leyes para esclavos: El ordenamiento jurídico sobre la condición, tratamiento, defense y repression de los esclavos en las colonias de la America Española (Madrid: Fundación Histórica Tavera, 2000), 266 .

73. Escriche, Diccionario, 220.

74. See, especially, Mojarrieta, Esposición, 22–23. He was a judge at the appellate court in Puerto Principe at the time when he wrote this pamphlet. Mojarrieta argued that “frequently, slave women bring their masters into courts asking for their freedom papers in return for having granted them carnal access and following promises of freedom that masters had made to their slaves in order to be able to enjoy their bodies. But who would not deem such a claim scandalous and illegitimate?…Precisely because freedom is so desirable, it should not be granted to those who engage in prostitution.”

75. AHPSC, JPI, leg. 379, exp. 9: “Incidente al intestado de Dn Luis Hinet, 1833.”

76. ANC, ASC, leg. 125, exp. 2,3251: “Incidente al intestado de Mr. Santiago Miniet promovido por el Caballero Síndico Procurador General sobre la libertad de la morena Aspasia y su hija Modestina de la Caridad,” 1838. For other similar cases in which the litigants could provide well-positioned witnesses, see, for example, ANC, leg. 702, exp. 15,936, “El Síndico Procurador General, Licenciado D. Antonio Odio, reclamando la libertad de la negra Merced, esclava de José de los Santos, 1827”; and AHPSC, JPI, leg 380, exp. 1: “Incidente al intestado de D. Felipe Porquín sobre la libertad de la negra Ortensia y sus cuatro hijos a instancia del caballero SPG,” 1835. In the last case, Ortensia and her daughters were granted freedom in the First District Court. However, on appeal, Ortensia lost her freedom, because she had not received manumission letters and there were creditors who wanted to collect the debts that Porquín had contracted with them. At this point, the higher the jurisdiction, the less value promises of freedom had.

77.En la hacienda se la tenía por su mujer, le dijo lo de la libertad porque siempre la tenía ocupada en la casa sin darle los días festivos para trabajar en su conuco, según es costumbre, remunerando al propio tiempo el mucho cariño que le profesaba por haber tenido tres hijos con ella, la declarante es madrina de uno de ellos.” ANC, ASC, leg. 243, exp. 6,369: “El Caballero Síndico Procurador General reclama libertad de esclava del intestado de D. Pedro Berís,” 1833.

78. ANC, ASC, leg. 694, exp. 15,715, “Diligencias promovidas por el Síndico Procurador General [SPG] reclamando la libertad de la negra María Merced Villes, 1824.”

79. Villes held a promissory note that Mustelier had made out to her in the amount of 120 pesos. In 1835, the average price for a prime age enslaved woman on the Santiago slave market was 350 pesos. See Bergad et al., The Cuban Slave Market, 104.

80. ANC, ASC, leg. 828, exp. 19,535, “Cuaderno de audiencia del incidente al intestado de José Reveirote promovido por el SPG en reclamo de la libertad de la negra Magdalena,” 1844.

81. ANC, leg. 921, exps. 32,050 and 32,050A, “Cuaderno de los autos seguidos por la morena Josefa de Cisneros contra el Capitán de pardos Francisco Ramos sobre la libertad de José María Barrientos, marido de aquella y esclavo de este, 1819–1821.”

82. ANC, ASC, leg. 721, exp. 16,424, “Diligencias promovidas por el Síndico Procurador General reclamando la libertad de la negra María Josefa Pirela, esclava que fue del difunto Pbro D Juan Antonio Farías, 1824.”

83. On 1830s fears of a Haitian invasion, see ANC, AP, leg. 215, exp. 97, “Documento que se refiere a la correspondencia del comandante la 2a sección Oriental al comandante general del Departamento, fecha Bayamo, 23 de diciembre de 1830, sobre las intenciones del gobierno de Haití de cubrir de espías las islas de Cuba y Puerto Rico.” The freedom lawsuit is: ANC, ASC, leg. 582, exp. 13,348, “El Síndico Procurador reclama la libertad de la esclava Gertrudis de Madame Fillet Barberousse, 1833.”

84. A copy of the Real Cédula of April 7, 1800 that granted the cobreros freedom and land appears in AGI, Ultramar 84: “El Capitán General de Cuba contesta a la orden de 31 de marzo sobre medida y repartimiento de las tierras del Real de Minas de Cobre,” October 27, 1812. Díaz, The Virgin, The King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre. On maroon communities in Eastern Cuba generally, see La Rosa Corzo Gabino, Runaway Slave Settlements: Resistance and Repression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

85. Scott Rebecca, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 1860–1899 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 38 .

86. ANC, ASC, leg. 622, exp. 124,246, “Demanda establecida por Félix Vera contra Don Agustin Fernández, 1864.” Also, Díaz Aisnara Perera and de los Angeles Meriño Fuentes María, “El Cabildo Carabalí Viví: Alianzas y conflictos por el derecho a la libertad. Santiago de Cuba (1824–1864),” Millars XXXIII (2010): 157–71.

87. Figuerola Laureano, “Sociedad Libre de Economía Política de Madrid. Décima cuarta reunión celebrada el 20 de Mayo de 1865,” El abolicionista español 2 (1866): 162–63; and Ruano SánchezSociedad Libre de Economía Política de Madrid. Décima reunion celebrada el 8 de Marzo de 1865,” El abolicionista español 1 (1865): 52 . See also Schmidt–Nowara Christopher, Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833–1874 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 116–22.

88. de Armas y Céspedes Francisco, De la esclavitud en Cuba (Madrid: Fontanet, 1866), chap. 32. For a similar understanding of contracts among United States political economists who argued against slavery, see Stanley Amy Dru, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 38 .

89. AHN, Ultramar, leg. 4,444, exp. 4, “Expediente de infidencia instruido a L. Arteaga,” 1873; leg. 4353, exp. 35, “Concedida restitución de derechos y bienes a Ricardo Lancís,” 1873–1877.

90. Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba, 74.

91. AHN, Ultramar, leg. 4938, exp. 2, 3, doc. 23. A letter in French that had been translated by the Ministerio de la Gobernación. The author was a certain Havas. The slaves on the plantations in Santiago de Cuba had risen demanding freedom, which the owners had promised to provide in return for salaried work for 3–4 years. AHN, Ultramar, leg. 4883, tomo 5, “Documentos de la Comisión creada por Real decreto de 15 de Agosto de 1879,” opinion of José Bueno y Blanco. See also, Mata Iacy Maia, Conspirações da raça de cor: Escravidão, liberdade e tensões raciais em Santiago de Cuba (1864–1881) (Campinas: Editora Unicamp, 2015), chap 5; Scott, Slave Emancipation, 117–18. Bueno y Blanco introduced two gradual emancipation projects. According to the first one, slaves would be gradually emancipated within 7 years. According to the second one, which he had implemented on his own properties, slaves would become free within 4 years with the condition that they would continue working for the same master for 3 additional years after being emancipated. They would receive salaries in return.

92. Salmoral Manuel Lucena, Leyes para esclavos (Madrid: Fundación Histórica Tavera, 2000), 13651368 .

93. Scott, Slave Emancipation, chap. 7 and 8.

94. On slaves’ use of insurgency to obtain rights on the island, see Paz Manuel Barcia, The Great African Slave Revolt (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2012); Ferrer, Freedom's Mirror and Insurgent Cuba; and Finch, Rethinking Slave Rebellion.

She thanks Clifton Crais, Jean Hébrard, Pablo Gómez, Chloe Ireton, Kris Lane, Jeffrey Lesser, Kristin Mann, Michelle McKinley, María de los Angeles Meriño Fuentes, David Nugent, Cynthia Patterson, Alfredo Sánchez Falcón, Stuart Schwartz, Rebecca J. Scott, Gyanendra Pandey, Aisnara Perera Díaz, Bianca Premo, Tom Rogers, Yanna Yannakakis, the Anthro-History Reading Group at the University of Michigan, the Colonial/Postcolonial Seminar at Emory University, and the three anonymous readers at Law and History Review.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Law and History Review
  • ISSN: 0738-2480
  • EISSN: 1939-9022
  • URL: /core/journals/law-and-history-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 5
Total number of PDF views: 23 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 347 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 12th December 2017 - 21st January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.