Precarious freedom : manumission in Eighteenth-Century Colombo

Ekama, Kate (2020-09-04)

CITATION: Ekama, K. 2020. Precarious freedom : manumission in Eighteenth-Century Colombo. Journal of Social History, 54(1):88–108, doi:10.1093/jsh/shaa008.

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In the historiography of slave-owning societies, manumission has been a contentious topic. Based on the assumption that manumission rates and the level of cruelty in a slave-owning society were closely related, historians have used research on manumission to rank slave societies based on a scale from “mild” to “harsh.” More recent research on manumission has eschewed this problematic approach, instead probing gradations of freedom. This article aims to contribute to our understanding of manumission and slavery by questioning how the formal, legal process of manumission altered the lived experience of individuals. Examining legal sources that shed light on the complexities of manumission in eighteenth-century Colombo, it considers the social strategies employed to achieve and defend free status. The records show that manumission did not sever the master-slave relationship: obligations and relations of debt continued to bind the formerly enslaved to former slave-owning families. Studying court records involving individuals responding to the possibilities and limitations of manumission, this study shows that freed status was precarious and, like bondage, was not an unalterable state.

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