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Conceiving Freedom

Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 344
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    Conceiving Freedom
    Book Description:

    InConceiving Freedom, Camillia Cowling shows how gender shaped urban routes to freedom for the enslaved during the process of gradual emancipation in Cuba and Brazil, which occurred only after the rest of Latin America had abolished slavery and even after the American Civil War. Focusing on late nineteenth-century Havana and Rio de Janeiro, Cowling argues that enslaved women played a dominant role in carving out freedom for themselves and their children through the courts.Cowling examines how women, typically illiterate but with access to scribes, instigated myriad successful petitions for emancipation, often using "free-womb" laws that declared that the children of enslaved women were legally free. She reveals how enslaved women's struggles connected to abolitionist movements in each city and the broader Atlantic World, mobilizing new notions about enslaved and free womanhood. She shows how women conceived freedom and then taught the "free-womb" generation to understand and shape the meaning of that freedom. Even after emancipation, freed women would continue to use these claims-making tools as they struggled to establish new spaces for themselves and their families in post emancipation society.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1180-8
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vi-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Note on Currency (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction (pp. 1-20)

    One sweltering August day in the Caribbean summer of 1883, in Havana, Cuba, a freedwoman named Ramona Oliva made a petition to the offices of the island’s governor general. She requested custody of her four children, María Fabiana, Agustina, Luis, and María de las Nieves, who were being held by Ramona’s former owner, Manuel Oliva, on his farm in Matanzas, in the sugar-growing heartland of western Cuba. Ramona had purchased her own freedom the previous year, but she could not rest until her children could enjoy the rights she thought should apply to them under the new laws for the...

    • CHAPTER ONE Sites of Enslavement, Spaces of Freedom Slavery and Abolition in the Atlantic Cities of Havana and Rio de Janeiro (pp. 23-46)

      Neither Josepha Gonçalves de Moraes, in Rio de Janeiro, nor Ramona Oliva, in Havana, had been born in the city where her claim was filed. Yet for each woman, these “Atlantic port cities” were not merely the backdrop to her actions, but a significant part of her story, shaping her relationship to law and labor, slavery and freedom. In turn, such women would also influence the cities in which they arrived. They joined the vast ebb and flow of humanity that made Havana and Rio de Janeiro fast-growing, cosmopolitan places, crowded with newcomers from far-flung provinces and from across the...

    • CHAPTER TWO The Law Is Final, Excellent Sir Slave Law, Gender, and Gradual Emancipation (pp. 47-68)

      With these words, Ramona Oliva’s petition claimed freedom for her five children from her former owner, Manuel Oliva. The unusually passionate wording of the document vividly evoked the efforts of countless other ex-slaves to bring their understandings of the law’s new provisions to bear on their former owners. In small towns, like the one where Ramona initially made her claim, powerful individuals found it particularly easy to use their personal sway to ignore such initiatives. Convinced that existing local mechanisms of access to law would not give her a fair hearing, Ramona had undertaken a journey of some sixty miles...

    • CHAPTER THREE As a Slave Woman and as a Mother Law, Jurisprudence, and Rhetoric in Stories from Women’s Claims-Making (pp. 71-96)

      With these words, three years before the end of the Cubanpatronato, Ramona Oliva’s petition staked a claim to custody over her children. Behind the petition’s apparently simple words lie many of the complex questions that are the subject of this book. As this chapter will show, this language about the rightful claims of maternity appears again and again in women’s claims-making in both Brazil and Cuba. Why did Ramona’s claim emphasize not just a legal, “de jure” claim for custody, but also a “de facto” one, which implied a broader, socially recognized set of “rights” about ex-slave women’s maternity?...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Exaggerated and Sentimental? Engendering Abolitionism in the Atlantic World (pp. 97-122)

      With these words, one of the neighbors of freedwoman Josepha Gonçalves de Moraes, who was seeking custody of her daughter Maria through the courts of Rio de Janeiro, explained why he had helped Josepha care for Maria when Josepha’s ex-owners allegedly neglected her. In so doing, José Braga Rodrigues helped Josepha make a moral case, as well as a legal one, that Maria should be handed over to her mother’s care. Josepha’s case, like those of many other women we have met as they approached courts andjuntasin 1870s and 1880s Rio and Havana, made use of and helped...

    • CHAPTER FIVE I Wish to Be in This City Mapping Women’s Quest for Urban Freedom (pp. 123-148)

      With these words, Ramona Oliva’s appeal argued that, although she did not live in Havana, she ought to be able to make her claim for her children’s freedom in the colonial capital. Ramona had traveled some sixty miles from the small settlement of Bolondrón in Matanzas. Her appeal reminds us that both the legal struggles over slavery and the public wrangling over emancipation that have been the subject of previous chapters were framed by a specific context. It was in the cities, and above all the capital cities, where these processes found their most fervent expression. Yet Ramona’s life and...

    • CHAPTER SIX Enlightened Mothers of Families or Competent Domestic Servants? Elites Imagine the Meanings of Freedom (pp. 151-173)

      With these words, Judge Oliveira Andrade ended Josepha Gonçalves de Moraes’s two-year custody battle. In so doing, he also crushed the hope, vaunted by abolitionists and clearly shared by Josepha herself at some level, that freedom promised the “sacred rights of motherhood.” Throwing out the various witness statements Josepha had brought to demonstrate that her former owners were neglecting and abusing Maria, Oliveira Andrade concluded that her legal case against them had not been proven. Adding insult to injury, and social significance to the legal ruling, he went on to justify his decision by painting Josepha as an unsuitable mother,...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN She Was Now a Free Woman Ex-Slave Women and the Meanings of Urban Freedom (pp. 174-197)

      On 17 March 1886, Rio de Janeiro’s police chief, João Coelho Bastos, wrote to the city’s municipal council. In his letter, Bastos denounced an attempt by artisan Jeronymo José de Mello to take a youngpardawoman, Gabriella, “through violent means,” to Nova Friburgo, a small city in Rio de Janeiro province. The abolitionist press daily berated Bastos and the police force over which he presided for “slaveocrat” behavior—imprisoning nonwhite people, humiliating them by forcibly shaving their heads, and packing them off to plantations outside the city with little proof of whether they were enslaved or free.² Yet in...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT My Mother Was Free-Womb, She Wasn’t a Slave Conceiving Freedom (pp. 198-213)

      Jeronymo José de Mello, the Rio de Janeiro artisan whom the reader met at the beginning of Chapter 7, had owned at least two other women as well as hispardaslave Gabriella, who used her newfound freedom to resist removal from the city of Rio de Janeiro. At the same 1886 emancipation ceremony in which Gabriella was freed, he also received compensation from the municipal council in exchange for freeing another youngpardawoman, eighteen-year-old Maria.¹ Urban freedom, for Maria, surely held the kinds of significances it did for Gabriella—the ability to remain in the city; greater autonomy...

  9. Conclusion (pp. 214-219)

    Neither Josepha Gonçalves de Moraes nor Ramona Oliva was successful in achieving her immediate aims. In Rio de Janeiro in August 1886, the judge ruled categorically in favor of Josepha’s owners. Her ten-year-old daughter, who several witnesses had said was being beaten and starved, remained in their custody. Three years earlier, in Havana, Ramona’s quest for custody of her four children ended in stalemate. The petitions to the Gobierno General, which she had traveled weary miles to make, were passed back to her localjunta de patronatoin Bolondrón. Thejuntaconfirmed what Ramona said: that she had previously made...

  10. Epilogue Conceiving Citizenship (pp. 220-222)

    With these words, Ramona Oliva’s 1883 petition proclaimed a radical vision of freedom: that the force of the law should apply equally to all, regardless of status, wealth, sex, or skin color, and that, in the same way, its protection might be actively sought by all who were entitled to it. Written in the dying days of a slave regime, and a few years before a new uprising in Cuba would transform the language of “subjecthood” to that of “citizenship,” the words evoke a hope not just of combating slavery through the law, but of staking a broader claim within...

  11. Notes (pp. 223-272)
  12. Bibliography (pp. 273-310)
  13. Index (pp. 311-326)