Aline Helg on her newly translated book, Slave No MoreHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, books, Civil War, abolition, emancipation, Liberation
There has been growing attention to self-emancipation. What does looking at self-liberation from a continental perspective—beyond the confines of a particular country—teach us about slavery and liberation?
A focus on self-emancipation challenges the traditional, top-down narrative of the abolition of slavery still prevailing in the general public. It shows that well before Enlightenment and the Revolutionary Era, when slavery seemed indestructible, many enslaved men and women managed to free themselves, individually or collectively. It demonstrates that they did so through a variety of strategies, from flight to legal self-purchase, military service, and more exceptionally revolt, generally adapting the means to liberate themselves to their context. Flight and marronage were especially successful up to the mid-eighteenth century, when most of the American continent and the mountainous areas of the Caribbean islands were not colonized by European settlers. In the early stages of slavery, self-purchase was possible everywhere, but with the development of slave plantations, it was progressively restricted in the British, Dutch, and French colonies, whereas it remained legal in Spanish America and Brazil as well as in the Iberian Peninsula, where slave laws continued to follow the Roman law. Revolt, I discovered, was quite rare, because the conditions to secretly prepare a movement widespread and strong enough to win over armed militias and regular troops were almost impossible to meet. The 1791 Saint-Domingue Revolt could spread and take root because the colonial order had been destroyed by the French Revolution—but we should remember that it took thirteen years for the African and creole insurgents to definitively defeat slavery and colonialism, in 1804.
Moreover, if enslaved people seldom openly revolted, it was because they knew that the chances to survive cruel repression were slim. However, my book documents their readiness to seize any opportunity that let them envision freedom. During the U.S. Revolutionary War, tens of thousands of enslaved men, women and children fled their masters to take refuge with the British forces in response to a vague promise of freedom. Once abolition was in sight, slaves responded massively. Think about the one million enslaved African Americans who escaped their owners in the South to gain their freedom by joining the Union’s troops during the Civil War: one out of four in the enslaved population then made that choice! Similar mass movements to freedom also happened during the Ten Years War in Cuba, or after the first states abolished slavery in Brazil. Indeed, enslaved people actively participated in the abolition of slavery.
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