Bound in Marriage, Bound by Children 

Friday, May 19, 2.45-4.00 pm

Moderator: Matthew Perry

Katharine P.D. Huemoeller, “Freedom in Marriage: Manumission matrimonii causa in the Roman world”
Enrique Martino, “Articulations of Debt-bondage and Bride Wealth at the Edges of Commercial Empires”
Yesenia Barragan, “Accounting for Children: Slavery, Debt, and Gradual Emancipation in Colombia”

Katharine P.D. Huemoeller, “Freedom in Marriage: Manumission matrimonii causa in the Roman world”

This paper will examine kinship as a justification for manumission in the Roman world.  We know from legal texts that owners could circumvent certain restrictions on manumission by claiming a slave as a child, parent, or intended spouse.  Kinship, in other words—whether preexisting or, in the case of marriage, anticipated—was thought to furnish “good cause” for manumission.  In particular, the marriage of a former female slave to her former owner is represented as constituting her payment for freedom.  

Numerous funerary epitaphs attest that this practice, the ownership and manumission of family members, was not just a legal fantasy.  On monuments scattered all over Italy and other parts of the western half of the empire, commemorators remember their “patron [former owner] and father” or refer to themselves as “freedwoman and wife.”  What is especially significant about these epitaphs is that individuals are remembered for both ties simultaneously.  The bond of kinship is not represented as subsuming the preexisting relationship based on ownership, rather both continue to be relevant.  What, then, did it mean to achieve liberty through kinship?  Conversely, what did it mean to create or formalize kinship through purchase, ownership, and manumission?
Using both epigraphic and legal sources, this paper will focus on release from slavery for the purpose of marriage, which occurred much more frequently for enslaved women than men.  In some cases these women were likely purchased by their existing partners as an emancipatory strategy, in others they may have been purchased on the slave market to be wives, in particular, according to our epigraphic corpus, by soldiers on the frontiers of the empire.  Perhaps the difference between these two scenarios was not always so marked, but rather a matter of perspective.  Though it is frequently noted that the principle of maternal descent allowed slave owners to profit from enslaved women’s procreation, we have yet to recognize that enslaved women freed for marriage performed a different kind of reproductive labor, the production of free, legitimate children.  Both scenarios described (and all those in between) undoubtedly resulted in very different shades of freedom for the manumitted wife and very different associated costs.

Katharine P.D. Huemoeller joined the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia as Assistant Professor of Roman History in the fall of 2016.  Prior to moving to Vancouver, she spent a year at the American Academy in Rome as a Rome Prize Fellow.  During the summer, she excavates in Sicily as a member of the Contrada Agnese Project of the American Excavations at Morgantina.  She received her doctorate in Classics and a certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies from Princeton University in 2016.


Enrique Martino, “Articulations of Debt-bondage and Bride Wealth at the Edges of Commercial Empires”

My paper examines the articulations between debt-bondage, money and kinship in nineteenth century and early colonial Central Africa. I adopt a global history approach in the tradition of anthropological political economy in order to conceptualize the moments when segmentary lineage societies became attached to labor-seeking commercial empires, in Central Africa but also elsewhere and at other times. I will review and detail Fang conceptions and attitudes towards wealth and its generation, and the history of trade, social payments and credit financing in this region that was colonized by German, French and Spanish imperial powers. Following the flows of imported moneys helps to understand how the commodification of social payments and ceremonial obligations such as bride wealth during periods of commercial and imperial expansion engendered contradictory forms of debt bondage.

Many Africanist scholars have highlighted the commodification of social obligations during the violence of the slave trade, as itself a supply mechanism of the Atlantic slave trade; but the picture becomes more unstable and reversible under imperial rule when many more African societies became fully exposed or fully appropriated the vagaries of commercial money. Empirically, I find that the social currencies of lineage societies were not engulfed or disfigured by commercial currencies, rather they continuously recomposed themselves. I reconstruct the commercialization of Fang bride wealth or nsoa from the nineteenth century to the 1920s when it became largely monetized. A combination of imported trade goods and marks, francs and silver peseta coins came to fully replace Fang customary prestations and exclusively ceremonial iron moneys, bikuele.

Fang were a people who, peculiarly for the region, had had no commercial tradition whatsoever and who had largely avoided the slave trade altogether. While being violently conscripted into early imperial projects of unpaid forced labor many threw themselves onto nearby colonial labor markets. Fluctuating and inflating bride wealth seemed to generate new forms of debt-bondage, because many of the new currencies inserted as blocks of debt into existing matrimonial circuits were being distributed by imperial labor recruiters. This is how the bulk of colonial currencies became generalized in Fang areas. Recruiters doubling as marriage-enabling creditors were a huge success. Fang bridewealth was astronomically high, incomparable to other groups in the region. Soon Fang made up the vast majority of the contract workers stationed in the logging camps of French Gabon and the cacao plantations of Fernando Pó. They entered this ‘free’ labor market, that was organized with bondage contracts that were being often extended because of ‘outstanding’ debts, with the concerns and obligations of kin solidarity and affinal alliance in mind.

Kinship relationships were present during each step of the way; these relationships were not severed, as is the case of slavery. The Fang impulse to regain self-determination after conquest did not primarily show itself in politico-religious leaps of adapted embrace or whole-hearted refusal, but in everyday and decentralized reassessments of the appropriate components and values of matrimonial payments.

Enrique Martino is a postdoctoral fellowship at the research group “A Global Network for Global History” in the University of Göttingen, a project that is co-organized by the Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and Harvard University and supported by the Volkswagen Foundation. In the summer of 2016, Martino completed his doctoral dissertation, “Touts and Despots: Recruiting Assemblages of Contract Labour in the Gulf of Guinea, 1858–1979”, at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Funded by the European Research Council Fellowship, Martino pursued the dissertation as part of a research group on the history of forced labor, based at the university’s Department of Asian and African Studies.


Yesenia Barragan, “Accounting for Children: Slavery, Debt, and Gradual Emancipation in Colombia”

In 1821, in the aftermath of the Wars of Independence in the northern Andes, officials of the newly created republic of Gran Colombia (composed of present-day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama) passed a Free Womb law designed to gradually abolish slavery through the wombs of enslaved women. This Free Womb law specified that any child born after 1821 would be declared legally free, but remain bonded to their mothers’ masters until the age of eighteen. After contentious debate, Colombian officials voted that eighteen years of service would sufficiently compensate the debt incurred upon slaveholders for rearing the children of enslaved women during this transitory stage. By destroying the genealogical inheritability of slavery, the Free Womb law destroyed the institution of chattel slavery. Nevertheless, as I argue in this paper, the law simultaneously birthed a new debt-bondage economy resting on the unfree circulation of child and youth quasi-slaves.

This paper explores the rise of this new debt-bondage economy and society during the era of gradual emancipation in Colombia. The paper first examines the making of the Free Womb law in 1821 and analyzes how Colombian delegates resolved the question of slaveholder compensation, debt, and the salability of the children of the Free Womb. Through an examination of slaveholder inventories, notes of sale, mortgages, last wills and testaments, and other materials, I examine the economic and social lives of the children of the Free Womb to show how they circulated as distinct bodies of debt within the marketplace of slavery. In producing accounting books for the children, I also show how the Free Womb law forced slaveholders to incorporate elements of modern business practices by imposing temporality and macro economic thinking. Finally, the paper will end by showing how the Free Womb law left the question of compensation unresolved for many slaveholders across Colombia, as the years of required bondage from the children shifted from 18 to 25 years after Colombia’s first civil war beginning in 1839.

Yesenia Barragan is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College and a historian of Afro-Latin America. A historian of race, slavery, and emancipation in Colombia, the Andes, and the Atlantic and Pacific Worlds, she received her Ph.D. in Latin American History at Columbia University, where she was a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellow. Her current book project, Frontiers of Freedom: Slavery and Emancipation on the Colombian Pacific, is the first historical study of the gradual abolition of slavery (1821-1852) and the post-emancipation era on the Pacific coast of Colombia, the gold mining center of the former Spanish empire.