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Atlantic History Emancipation
by
Roderick McDonald, Michelle Craig McDonald

Introduction

The process of emancipation in the Atlantic world spanned most of the 19th century and took a variety of forms. Some, such as Haiti’s 1804 declaration of immediate emancipation and the United States’ Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment, followed long, violent conflicts. Other nations, such as Britain, attempted a more gradual transition to freedom in an effort to prepare both former slaves and slave owners for new social and economic systems. Thereafter, France and Denmark (in 1848), Holland (1863), Puerto Rico (1873), and Cuba (1886) all abolished slavery through combinations of international pressure, religious and moral petitioning, legislative action, and violent confrontations, as did many of the newly independent nations of Latin America. In 1888 Brazil became the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, though in many ways the process of emancipation itself had just begun. Post-emancipation scholarship starts at abolition and asks not only what factors contributed to slavery’s demise, but also how subsequent freedoms, or denials of freedom, can be measured politically, socially, culturally, and economically. These studies have moved beyond the first few decades of freedom to explore how emancipation experiences contributed to contemporary ideas about liberty and equality, as well as ongoing problems with racial conflict and violence.

General Overviews

Emancipation scholarship has, until recently, been dominated by studies of Britain and the United States. With the rise of comparative and Atlantic studies, however, more work explores similarities and differences between emancipation societies, often finding marked differences depending on when and how emancipation began. Cooper, et al. 2000 and Frey and Wood 1999 take this broad geographic approach. Other studies look at emancipation as a product of late 18th-century ideological developments. Both David Brion Davis 2006 and Drescher 2009 suggest that radical redefinitions of liberty and equality were pivotal to the rise of 19th-century abolition efforts. Additional work focuses on specific regions of Atlantic emancipation. Borritt and Hancock 2007, for example, argues that post-emancipation inequalities in the United States helped create a common “memory of slavery” that united black grassroots mobilization efforts. Darién Davis 2006 likewise explores how concepts of independence and citizenship, as well as exclusion, developed in different Latin American nations, while Holt 1992 considers these themes within the British Empire, and in Jamaica in particular. Other studies have opted for a broader chronology, seeking to place Atlantic slavery and emancipation alongside other systems of slavery in the past, such as Brana-Shute and Sparks 2009, which spans the medieval period through the 19th century.

  • Borritt, Gabor, and Scott Hancock, eds. Slavery, Resistance, Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    Primarily concerned with the United States’ antebellum and Reconstruction periods, this collection of essays suggests that African Americans sought to create a common memory of slavery and its immediate aftermath in their subsequent challenges to racial inequality. Includes essays by leading US emancipation scholars, including Ira Berlin, Edward Ayers, and Eric Foner.

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

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    While the chronological scope is larger than this project, spanning the medieval period to the 19th century, this collection is broadly comparative geographically, comparing the legacy of manumission in medieval Europe, the Levant, Europe, and Atlantic Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and British colonies, as well as the antebellum United States.

  • Cooper, Frederick, Thomas C. Holt, and Rebecca J. Scott. Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

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    Three leading historians explore the transition from slavery to freedom throughout the Atlantic. Thomas Holt focuses on emancipation and contested citizenship in Jamaica, Rebecca Scott investigates struggles and cross-racial alliances in southern Louisiana and Cuba, and Frederick Cooper examines the intersection of emancipation and imperialism in French West Africa.

  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    Considers the rise and fall of North American slavery within a comparative framework that explores the origins and rise of slavery and the impact of the Age of Revolutions throughout the Americas. The last four chapters are devoted to abolition and emancipation in Britain and the United States.

  • Davis, Darién J., ed. Beyond Slavery: The Multilayered Legacy of Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006.

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    Though primarily composed of work published elsewhere, this volume brings together important work, particularly on post-emancipation Latin American societies. Chapters are loosely organized around three themes: struggles for independence, citizenship, and displacement. A final essay considers race and contemporary media representations.

  • Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    An important survey with broad-based geographic and chronological coverage of Atlantic abolition and its impact. Drescher argues that ideological ferment during the Age of Revolutions prompted radical rethinking about slavery at the end of the 18th century, and he then follows these ideas as they were adapted by regions of the Atlantic world. The work is truly comparative in scope.

  • Frey, Sylvia R., and Betty Wood, eds. From Slavery to Emancipation in the Atlantic World. London: Frank Cass, 1999.

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    Though the title implies a balance between slavery and emancipation, the majority of essays in this collection explore post-emancipation experiences, in particular former slaves’ political and collective activism and the power of historical memory. Case studies explore Brazil, North America, the British Caribbean, and Africa.

  • Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

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    An important study that explores the political, economic, and social transitions from slavery to freedom. While most chapters focus on the years during and immediately following apprenticeship, the final essays compare continuities between the Baptist Rebellion of 1831–1832 and labor resistance in 1938.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199730414-0019

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