The Promise of Manumission: Appropriations and Responses to the Notion of Emancipation in the Caribbean and South America in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century

In Kris F. Sealey & Benjamin P. Davis (eds.), Creolizing Critical Theory: New Voices in Caribbean Philosophy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 61-81 (2024)
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Abstract

In this text, I consider two examples in the history of emancipation and manumission of enslaved, Black populations in the Caribbean and South America in order to theorize a colonial mode of conceiving of freedom at play in the first half of the nineteenth century. This mode is marked by the figure of the promise, enacting a notion of freedom as a constantly deferred, external compensation. Indeed, instead of an immediate decision deeming the practice of enslavement and trade of human beings unacceptable, and an effective liberation of the enslaved Black populations in these different emancipation proclamations, the various histories of manumission in Latin America and the Caribbean show a long series of political and legal attempts to reduce and limit the extent of the slave trade that deferred the process of liberation for decades. Moreover, in many of these territories the practice did not end with the official proclamation of emancipation but was continued by illegal practices and mutations into legal forms of exploitation and oppression that are still operative today. After outlining this first trajectory, reconstructing the promise of manumission in the historical examples of Martinique (as read by Édouard Glissant) and La Gran Colombia and the Republic of Nueva Granada (contemporary Panamá, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador), I analyze a second mode of investigation in examples of individual and collective strategies of liberation coming from the enslaved themselves, as reconstructed by contemporary feminist scholars in South America. These strategies appropriate liberation not as a promise, but as a negotiation and calculation that begins with the enslaved’s resistance to their oppressive conditions and that ultimately depends on the external concession by juridical authorities. In the third section of the chapter, I read these practices not as marronage, as they are sometimes approached, but as a different mode of turning back to these glimpses of freedom that more effectively challenge the narrative of emancipation and, with it, the promise of manumission in our present.

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Miguel Gualdrón Ramírez
University of Oregon

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