Yesenia Barragan, Freedom’s Captives: Slavery and Gradual Emancipation on the Colombian Black Pacific. Cambridge University Press, 2021. ISBN: 9781108832328, Hardback, 257 pages, CAD$ 114.95
by Evan C. Rothera
Freedom’s Captives opens with the torture of a woman named Magdalena, a horrifying account “replete with musty stocks, iron bars, broken bones, and other unspoken punishments that elude the archival hold” (2). Slaves frequently suffered such tortures because brutal violence sustained slavery. However, Magdalena was not a slave. Rather, she was a “child of the Free Womb, a new social subject established with the gradual emancipation law adopted in 1821 by slaveholding officials in the newly founded republic of Gran Colombia” (2). Magdalena’s story thus featured both brutal unfreedom as well as violent freedom and illustrates how, for Magdalena and many others, freedom under the gradual emancipation law often produced disastrous consequences.
Yesenia Barragan, currently Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Rutgers University explores “competing struggles over disparate modes of freedom, unfreedom, and bondage in Colombia – the country with the largest population of Spanish-speaking people of African descent in the Americas – and the Colombian Pacific during the age of gradual emancipation” (3). Gradual emancipation rule began in 1821 with the enactment of the law and ended with the final abolition of slavery in 1852. Free Womb captivity represented a tenuous space of transitory bondage and the book examines “the untold story of gradual emancipation rule in Colombia and the country’s Black Pacific lowlands” (12).
Barragan begins by discussing the social geography of the lowlands. Black pilots and gold miners “governed the everyday life of the riverine Chocó in remarkable and historically unacknowledged ways” (43). The relative absence of state power made this particular riverine world an unpredictable place filled with power brokers as well as people who “developed diverse economies to maintain their families and livelihoods” (52). Barragan discusses the brutal realities of slave life but also that, despite slavery’s inhumanity, “enslaved miners of the Pacific lowlands managed to carve out space and time for themselves and their families” (60). Elite lowlanders, on the other hand, continually strengthened their power and their commitment to slavery. In her examination of life in Quibdó and Nóvita, the main urban centers of the northern Colombian Pacific frontier, Barragan notes the thriving slave trade and the ubiquity of small-scale slaveholding.
The Free Womb law was the most controversial part of the gradual emancipation law passed in 1821 and represented a “new political frontier” (110). That said, Free Womb children became “test subjects as Colombia crafted a new regime of unfreedom, the contours of which would be fiercely contested after 1821 within a burgeoning public sphere across Colombia” (110). Contention over the law helped create abolitionist and antiabolitionist publics. In addition, as in many other societies that passed gradual emancipation laws, this law often promised more than it delivered. Barragan analyzes the implementation of the law in the Pacific lowlands, specifically “the labyrinthine legal struggles of Free Womb captives” (158). The law contained many paradoxes, one of which was that many lowlanders gained an even stronger stake in slavery because the law “both muddled and deepened the legal and racial distinctions between free and unfree” (161). The law facilitated the creation of a marketplace in Free Womb children and the malleable nature of the law ensured that its precise meaning and application were constantly debated. Despite the obstacles thrown in their paths, slaves sought freedom and Barragan explores the complex routes they pursued in a society that featured gradations of unfreedom as well as a constantly evolving meaning of legal freedom.
The final chapter in the book examines “the transformation of Chocó and the greater Colombian Black Pacific in the 1840s and 1850s” (235) as well as the “contending racial geographies and economies that emerged in the Pacific lowlands after final abolition” (235). Barragan notes the emergence of a robust abolitionist public which greatly contributed to the formal end of slavery in 1852. That said, slaveholders and antiabolitionist waged different types of rearguard actions. This included promoting the myth that emancipation destroyed the economy of the lowlands to elite attempts to privatize communal rainforests and rivers. Freedom’s Captives, Barragan concludes, reveals “liberal freedom’s ensnarement of enslaved lowlanders and their kin” (281) as well as “the existence of other modes of freedom that troubled white governance in Chocó and the Colombian Black Pacific frontier” (281). The essence of gradual emancipation rule, she asserts, remains alive today in Colombia’s Black Pacific.
Scholars tend, Barragan contends, to read the narrative of gradual emancipation through places like Cuba and Brazil. Barragan, on the other hand, urges scholars to think about gradual emancipation in Colombia, which occurred several generations before gradual emancipation in Cuba and Brazil, as a way to understand other, later examples of gradual emancipation. Furthermore, for all that the era of gradual emancipation rule has been “largely treated as a peculiar footnote” (21), Barragan illustrates how deeply important this period was, especially because it featured so many different definitions and gradations of freedom and unfreedom, all heavily contested by people throughout Colombia. In sum, this deeply researched volume should be read by anyone interested in slavery and freedom in the Americas.
Evan C. Rothera is an assistant professor of history at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.