Atlantic History Free People of Color
by
Matt Childs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0065

Introduction

Wherever slavery existed in the Americas, free people of color could be found. Despite the ubiquitous presence of free people of color during the era of Atlantic slavery, there is no comprehensive or general treatment of the topic. Most of the literature on free people of color situates their history in a very specific setting, usually a single country or colony, and most frequently a single town or city. As free people of color tended to flourish in the urban areas of the black Atlantic, a large body of literature examines their labor, urban family relations, strategies for manumission, and protection of their hard-earned freedom. In addition populations of free people of color tended to increase in numbers as abolition loomed on the political horizon. Consequently a significant body of social history examines free people of color in the abolition process. Scholars have reached different conclusions on whether free people of color more closely aligned themselves with the free population of European descent or the enslaved population of African descent. Some free people of color owned Africans themselves, while others schemed and struggled to liberate them. Ultimately no definite conclusion will be reached on that question as local social, cultural, political, and legal institutions most heavily shaped free people of color’s lives and the experiences that trapped them between masters and slaves.

General Overviews

Synthetic work on free people of color most commonly appears in collaborative edited volumes or works of comparative history. As the Atlantic history paradigm has become more common and conferences more frequent, more edited works bringing together specialists in different geographic areas of the Atlantic world will likely become more common. Tannenbaum 1946 is one of the earliest interpretations and continues to shape debates in the field by specifically assessing the comparative slave systems according to how Iberian and Anglo political, legal, and religious institutions treated free people of color. A generation later, Degler 1986 followed the Tannenbaum 1946 comparative analysis with a focus on the mulatto population as an example of how free people of color fit into different slave societies. Cohen and Greene 1972 provides the first attempt at a collaborative synthetic work, with experts providing general overviews of the experiences of free people of color in various locations in the Americas. Nearly twenty years later the journal Slavery and Abolition published a special issue edited by Jane G. Landers that was subsequently released as a book, Landers 1996, which explores the situations of free people of color throughout the Atlantic world. The central role women played both in gaining freedom and as leaders of communities of free people of color receives detailed attention in Gaspar and Hine 2004 and Scully and Paton 2005. The role of free people of color in the emancipation process and their experiences as wage laborers is explored in varying degrees of detail in Moreno Fraginals, et al. 1985 and Brana-Shute and Sparks 2009.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Excellent collection of studies on manumission throughout the Atlantic world with comparative insights into the legal and political cultures that both allowed and circumscribed the rights and opportunities for the enslaved population to become free.

  • Cohen, David William, and Jack P. Greene, eds. Neither Slave nor Free: The Freedman of African Descent in the Slave Societies of the New World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

    E-mail Citation »

    Classic starting point for the social history of freed people with chapters covering the British, Dutch, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies in the Americas.

  • Degler, Carl N. Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    Pulitzer Prize–winning and pathbreaking study of comparative slavery; explains that the differences between US and Brazilian slavery were the result of distinct demographic, economic, and cultural factors. Emphasizes the so-called mulatto escape hatch, which the author agues allowed free people of color a “space” in Brazilian slave society, but Degler neglected to investigate the enslaved mulattoes.

  • Gaspar, David Barry, and Darlene Clark Hine, eds. Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Fourteen chapters covering the experiences of free women of color throughout the Americas. Although their freedom was always precarious, the volume points out that women obtained their freedom more frequently than men and served as leaders of communities of free people of color.

  • Landers, Jane G., ed. Against the Odds: Free Blacks in the Slave Societies of the Americas. London: Routledge, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    Seven chapters that explore in detail through extensive research the conditions and experiences of free people of color in Senegal, South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida, Cuba, Saint-Dominique, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Suriname.

  • Moreno Fraginals, Manuel, Frank Moya Pons, and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. Between Slavery and Free Labor: The Spanish-Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    Focusing on Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, the chapters in this volume deal directly and indirectly with free people of color and their experiences during slavery and in the aftermath of abolition.

  • Scully, Pamela, and Diana Paton, eds. Gender and Slave Emancipation in the Atlantic World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Fourteen innovative and well-researched chapters on the gendered dimensions of slave emancipation. Contributors focus particular attention on the social and cultural construction of new gender relations for free people of color as a result of the emancipation process.

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

    E-mail Citation »

    Classic study in comparative slavery that argues that the legal and religious institutions for the enslaved population that were part of Iberian colonialism but absent from British colonialism ameliorated slavery and allowed free people of color to prosper.

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