The frequency of manumission, the legal act of releasing a slave from his or her bondage, is often highlighted as a primary distinction between colonial Latin American slavery and its counterparts in the slave societies of the Caribbean and British North America. Manumission is important not only because of the potentially profound impacts it had in the lives of slaves, but also because the intricacies of its operation speak volumes about the institution of slavery in Latin America.
As Iberian (Spain and Portugal) imperial law did not guarantee slaves access to manumission, it is best understood as a customary right. Although the Siete Partidas (1348), the basis for colonial Iberian slave law, stipulated that "all laws of the world should lead towards freedom," this body of law only outlined the processes by which slave owners could free their chattel, stopping short of guaranteeing the right to emancipation for slaves. Nor did subsequent slave legislation for Spanish America—including the Recopilación de Leyes de Indias and the Royal Cedula of 1789—codify a slave's right to manumission.
Manumissions generally took one of three forms: (1) immediate freedom without compensation; (2) immediate freedom for payment; and (3) conditional freedom, contingent upon the completion of a specific term of service or upon the owner's death. The last type was often granted in the last will and testaments of masters, while the first two tended to be granted in formulaic manumission deeds called cartas de libertad (Spanish) or cartas de alforria (Portuguese), which were sworn out before a notary public. Self-purchase became increasingly important over time, as slaves actively pursued their freedom rather than relying on the generosity of their owners.
Many historians believe that a another option—coartación (Spanish) or quartação (Portuguese)—became increasingly important throughout Latin America after the middle of the eighteenth century. The process of coartación, which originated in eighteenth-century Cuba, consisted of the setting of a "just price," agreed upon by slave and master, for self-purchase. Once set, the price could not be raised, and slaves could make payments towards their manumission price until they reached the stipulated amount. Slaves in the process of purchasing themselves, known as coartados (Portuguese, quartados ), remained in the service of their master until the total self-purchase price was met.
While coartación existed in both Spanish and Portuguese America, it appears to have developed slightly differently in those two contexts. In Spanish America, colonial
courts became involved in the process both in terms of setting a "just price" and in guaranteeing a slave's right to self-purchase. In other words, despite the fact that coartación was not guaranteed in Spanish American colonial law until 1843, when Cuban masters were required to coartar those slaves who offered a minimum down payment of fifty pesos towards self-purchase, slaves throughout Spanish America could theoretically avail themselves of the courts to set their manumission price and to guarantee that they were freed upon meeting their self-purchase price. In Brazil, however, the courts refused to serve as arbiters between masters and slaves precisely because the practice had no basis in law.
The importance of coartación may have been overstated within past treatments of slavery in colonial Iberian America. Quantitative studies for Mexico, Peru, Argentina, and Brazil (Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais) have found that only in colonial Buenos Aires and Minas Gerais were a majority of manumissions purchased, and it is unclear what proportion of those manumissions resulted from coartación. Additionally, in regions of eighteenth-century Minas Gerais and nineteenth-century Cuba, approximately one percent of the total slave population was in the process of purchasing their freedom through coartación, while only six-tenths of one percent of the slave population achieved freedom annually via coartación in 1850s Cuba, when it became the primary means of liberating slaves.
The importance of purchased manumission requires discussion of a related topic: the slave peculium, or private fund. Throughout Latin America individual slaves could and did accumulate money that could be applied to self-purchase. However, the peculium is also best understood as a customary right because the Siete Partidas stipulated that slaves did not have the right to possess private property. Yet Spanish American courts did defend slaves' possession of property and money, so long as it was earned legitimately.
Manumission was a decidedly urban phenomenon, with the exception of rural slaves engaged in gold or diamond mining. Estimates of manumission rates in urban and mining contexts range from 0.33 to 1.5 percent of the slave population annually. In one extreme case, manumission rates may have been as high as three percent annually in the gold mining fields of colonial Colombia. Compared to the average rural field hand, the typical urban or mining slave probably had greater opportunities to accumulate money for self-purchase due to the specific waged occupations they filled (e.g., marketeering, waged day labor, prostitution, mining). This explains, in part, their greater access to manumission.
There is a surprising uniformity in terms of which slaves tended to be liberated throughout Latin America. Primarily, women received between fifty-five and sixty-seven percent of all manumissions. These numbers are made all the more impressive because women were generally a minority within the slave population itself. For example, in the city of Rio de Janeiro during the first half of the nineteenth century, women represented approximately forty percent of the slave population, but they received sixty-four percent of all manumissions. Children occupied a similarly advantaged position in terms of access to manumission, but rates throughout the Americas show much greater variability than was the case for manumission based upon gender.
Historians have offered numerous possible explanations for the advantages enjoyed by women and children in achieving liberty. They highlight their lesser market value compared to adult men, as well as the greater opportunities for women to accumulate money as marketeers or prostitutes that could theoretically be used to free themselves or their children. Alternatively, these patterns might reflect strategies of slave families for achieving freedom. Freeing women served to prevent their future offspring from being born into slavery, as only children born to slave mothers were slaves under Spanish and Portuguese law. In addition, adult children may have been more likely to free their slave mothers due to the matrifocal nature of most slave families. A dominant explanation for the preponderance of these two groups among freed slaves is that slave women were able to manipulate their sexuality to improve their own chances for freedom (and those of their children). It has also been suggested that women's domestic occupations within the household may have provided more opportunities for daily interactions with slave owners, and thus for stronger, more amiable relations between masters and slaves. This may, in turn, have translated into increased opportunities for freedom for slave women and their children. Clearly, all of these explanations point to the reality that gender played a key role in manumission.
Generally, American-born slaves (Creoles) had greater chances to be manumitted than did African-born slaves. Likewise, mixed-race slaves were more likely to be freed than were black slaves. However, these patterns are more likely explained by increased opportunities to achieve skilled positions within slavery and to cultivate relationships with masters than any other factor.
Female slave-owners were responsible for a significant portion of freed slaves, liberating between one-third and one-half of all slaves freed throughout Latin America. Furthermore, the proportion of slaves freed by women, compared to those freed by men, was much higher than the percentage of slaves that women actually owned. Men dominated economic life in colonial Latin America, and thus more men than women owned slaves, and men generally owned more slaves than did women.
The practice of manumission served to buttress the institution of slavery in important ways. Opportunities for manumission had obvious potentially positive ramifications for slaves, but it also served to empower masters, as the possibility of manumission served as an incentive to insure the good behavior of slaves. In theory, the possibility of manumission made slaves less resistive because they would not want to jeopardize their chances for manumission, and through coartación and conditional manumission, masters could insure faithful service from slaves during their prime working years.
As a result of manumission (and the subsequent natural growth of the families of those freed), Latin America was characterized by sizeable free populations of color. For example, in Salvador, Brazil, in 1835, free people of color represented nearly thirty percent of the total population, compared to twenty-eight percent for whites and forty-two percent for slaves. At the turn of the nineteenth century in Rio de Janeiro, free people of color accounted for twenty percent of the total population, while slaves accounted for thirty-five percent and whites for forty-five percent. In Spanish America, free people of color actually came to outnumber slaves in colonial Mexico by the middle of the seventeenth century, and in Peru and New Granada they outnumbered slaves by the end of the eighteenth century. These large populations of freed people did not undermine the integrity of slavery as an institution, however. Although this population faced significant racism, which prevented their complete incorporation into Spanish and Portuguese society, differences in status (free vs. slave), race and ethnicity, and occupation, among other factors, prevented the unification of slaves and free people of color against slavery and Europeans. Even in contexts where slaves were outnumbered by free people of color, slavery proved to be a very stable and enduring institution. It was not uncommon for ex-slaves and free people of color to own slaves themselves, although they were less likely to do so than whites.
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