Atlantic History Manumission
by
David Ryden
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0194

Introduction

Along the western rim of the Atlantic basin, slavery’s growth was primarily in response to economic imperatives. The sugar industry, in particular, drove much of the flow of the transatlantic slave trade from the late 16th century to the second half of the 19th century. However, slavery proved to be a plastic institution, adapting to a variety of contexts and crop types throughout the Americas. As a consequence of this variation, the frequency and the rationale for master-sanctioned manumission (the voluntary freeing of slaves) differed among the array of economic, as well as cultural and legal, contexts. Taken at face value, manumission deeds show that masters granted freedom to individuals for cash payment; “loyal,” valorous, or “good service” shown by a slave; religious and ideological reasons; or the “love and affection” proclaimed by the manumitter. Historians of free populations of color in the Atlantic world have been drawn to manumission studies, but those scholars interested in the conditions and the standard of living of slaves have made the most use of manumission records. For the latter, analysis of the manumission deeds and the process of manumission yields rich insight into the relationship between masters and their slaves across time and space; both the textual content of individual manumission records and the aggregate statistical patterns in groups of records can offer some indication of the intensity in which slaves were controlled. Furthermore, manumission deeds provide one perspective into the strategies that slaves pursued in order to better their lives within a brutal labor regime. The manumission process, as well as the legal code regulating the freeing of slaves, not only details the attitudes of the master class toward slaves and the slave economy but also provides evidence of slave agency. Manumission, it should be kept in mind, is a very narrow topic within the slavery historiography, but paradoxically it is a subfield that touches on many broader themes that are much more developed in the literature, including slave resistance, urban slavery, the independent economy of slaves, and so forth. This article, therefore, cites scholarship that is closely connected to manumission; readers should be advised that many classic general works on slavery and freedom are excluded.

Primary Sources

Unlike the transatlantic slave trade or US slave censuses, virtually no effort has been made to collect and harmonize coded manumission records into a single database, despite the number of quantitative analyses on the subject. Furthermore, many records have been neither microfilmed nor digitized; therefore, on-the-spot archival visits are usually essential for conducting new research in the field. Some scholars, independent of one another, have posted manumission data on the Internet, but genealogists are the most enthusiastic in sharing machine-readable data. Unfortunately, those interested in building family trees often code the bare minimum of information, making the genealogy sites of limited value for social historians of slavery. Nonetheless, these records can be a helpful starting point to determine the scope of archival holdings. Those beginning their research will find plenty of examples of individual manumission records for the East Coast of the United States (e.g., Slave Manumissions, Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage). Although manumission data sets are not widely available, the mass digitizing of early modern books, pamphlets, and magazines has made access to primary qualitative sources—such as statutes regulating slavery, manumission, and freed slaves—easy for users. Google Books remains an impressive resource for 18th- and 19th-century researchers, and efforts are being made to digitize texts from the slavery period by other institutions, particularly for the United States (Documenting the American South). Historical texts written in English predominate in the mass of online printed primary sources in the early 21st century.

  • Documenting the American South.

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    Contains transcriptions (HTML text files) of books, pamphlets, and speeches, including materials from the Manumission Society of North Carolina. The collection also includes ex-slave narratives, written in English, which describe their transition from slavery to freedom. Has a full-text search function.

  • Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage.

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    Provides one hundred full-text manumission deeds from antebellum Maryland. Includes a digital image of the original document. Statewide program is designed to digitize a range of historical and cultural documents.

  • Slave Manumissions.

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    Slave index compiled by the Chester County (Pennsylvania) Archives and Record Services provides the slave’s first name, last name (if any given), slave age, owner’s name, owner’s residence, volume number, page, and year for more than sixty slaves. Scope covers the late 18th and 19th centuries.

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