MANUMISSION (Western Colonialism)

Slavery was not seriously questioned until the late eighteenth century. In fact, the exploitation of slave labor was crucial to the growth of most colonies. With the development of powerful antislavery movements, the problem presented itself in different forms. The most basic difference was between colonies in which Europeans and

Americans used slave labor and those in which the slaveowners were not European. Furthermore, within the first group we can distinguish between plantation colonies in which slavery was the base of the economy and those in which slaves were less numerous and slavery less important.


The first efforts at abolition took place in the northern United States, where slavery was not crucial to economic life. In 1780 a Pennsylvania act freed slave children born after that year on condition of service until age twenty-eight. This meant that anyone born to a slave mother after 1780 remained in servitude until age 28. This formula, known as a free womb act, became popular elsewhere. Connecticut and Rhode Island passed similar acts in 1784, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804. As slavery became less important, private manumissions increased, as did pressure to be done with slavery. New York abolished slavery definitively in 1827, Pennsylvania only in 1847, and Connecticut in 1848. Only in Massachusetts and New Hampshire was manumission unconditional, and in both cases it occurred as a result of court interpretation of new state constitutions.

Many slaves were manumitted in exchange for military service. During the American Revolution (17751783), the British tried to undercut the colonists by freeing slaves. During the wars of independence in Spanish America, both sides freed slaves who enlisted. Real manumission for other slaves did not come until after independence. In Africa, slaves who served in colonial armies were often given freedom, though conditional on fulfilling an enlistment contract. Only in Haiti did a slave revolution win immediate and total manumission. Even there, new elites tried to sustain plantation production of sugar, but the former slaves refused plantation discipline and speedily became a free peasantry.

In 1833 Great Britain ended slavery in all of its colonies. Slavery did not exist in Britain itself. Compensation was provided for slave-owners, and a period of apprenticeship was set up to smooth the transition. Slave resistance to continued plantation labor forced a speedy end to apprenticeship in 1838. Where land was available, slaves withdrew to areas more suited to smallholder production than to plantations. On the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the slaves withdrew into highland areas not appropriate for sugar and within a decade, slave labor had been totally replaced by Indian indentured labor. Even where male former slaves continued to work for wages, freed women were withdrawn from the plantation and men were reluctant to work the long hours that marked slavery.

New York City Manumission Certificate. This certificate of manumission, freeing a slave named George, was signed by New York mayor Jacob Radcliffand city recorder Richard Riker in 1817.

New York City Manumission Certificate. This certificate of manumission, freeing a slave named George, was signed by New York mayor Jacob Radcliffand city recorder Richard Riker in 1817.

Other slave-owning societies followed. In 1848 France abolished slavery. Compensation was provided to former masters, but manumission took place within several months and was complete. Denmark ended slavery the same year, largely as a result of a slave revolt. The Dutch abolished slavery in their West Indian colonies in 1863, and Spain abolished it in Puerto Rico in 1873. In Cuba, many slaves were freed during the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878). Spain abolished slavery in 1880, but conditional on a long period of apprenticeship. The slaves resisted apprenticeship, and in 1886 immediate and total manumission was granted.

Those emancipating slaves were generally more concerned to compensate masters for financial losses than slaves for unremunerated labor. Manumission often involved a period of struggle over the labor of former slaves. In many areas, slave labor was replaced by indentured labor, usually from India. When the planters on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion were denied the right to recruit labor in India, they imported African indentured labor and sought to keep the existing labor force in place with laws against vagabondage and begging. The Portuguese had a disguised slave trade on the cocoa plantations of Sao Tome, an island off West Africa, until 1910. In many former slave colonies, master-and-servant laws were passed specifically to control former slaves.

They increased the control employers had over employees and made it difficult for former slaves to break contracts.


Some colonies were primarily trading entrepots. In these, slaves resident in areas under European administration were usually freed, but efforts were made to limit enforcement of these laws so as not to threaten the interests of their trading partners. As colonial rule was extended, the problem was that slave-owners were not European and were often important in the administration of the colony. Colonial governments thus were under pressure from humanitarian groups at home, but were reluctant to alienate local slave-owning elites.

The most important formula was worked out in India. The 1833 British Emancipation Act did not apply to India because India was ruled not by the British Crown but by a chartered company. Parliamentary pressure on the English East India Company, however, forced it to devise a formula that minimized change. The courts were no longer to recognize claims derived from slave status. No compensation was paid to slave-owners and no alternative employment was offered to the slaves. Slavery was fully abolished only in 1860, but Indian slave-owners were generally able to maintain their control over servile labor by developing other forms of bondage.

Colonial regimes faced the same dilemma elsewhere in Asia and Africa. In many cases, they turned to the Indian formula. On the Gold Coast, such a law, proclaimed in 1874, was poorly enforced. In French Africa, the regime prohibited all exchanges of persons and quietly asked administrators to stop recognizing slave status. They hoped that slaves would not notice, but in a six-year period an estimated one million slaves left their masters. In Northern Nigeria, the British freed only those who had been mistreated. Others were guaranteed the right to purchase their freedom.

The process was similarly slow in most Asian colonies. In Indonesia, the Dutch began to hesitantly extend antislavery laws to areas of indirect rule in 1874 and completed the task only decades later. The French abolished slavery in Cambodia in 1887. In Malaya and Burma, the British operated in a similar case-by-case manner. The process was completed only in 1915 in Malaya, and in 1926 in Burma. In Nigeria and the Sudan, slavery was only made illegal in 1936.

In most cases, no assistance was given to freed slaves, but former slaves everywhere asserted control over work and family. They usually rejected plantation discipline, preferring to become smallholders. Some former slaves accepted forms of continued dependency on rich patrons. Often, with little assistance, the success of former slaves depended on the options available to them. The most important was the availability of land or jobs.

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