Negotiating (Un)Conditional Freedom: Black Political Consciousness and Abolition in Colombia, 1597–1852

By Isis Arevalo

Published on July 5, 2024
Volume 9, Issue 2

In 1768, a group of slaves, laboring on a farm in the province of Santa Marta, New Granada, murdered their foreman, Felipe Carbonell.[1] A slew of efforts followed to curtail this budding rebellion: the owner, Andres Madariaga, upon learning about the violent demonstration, sent representatives from Santa Marta to the farm. However, slaves would not surrender until their demands were met. Curiously enough, their demands did not include the end of their enslavement. Rather, what followed was a negotiation between the enslaved farmers and Madariaga: they agreed to their standing as forced laborers, so long as they were treated fairly by a new foreman and were only sold as a unit with their families.[2] Embedded within this fairly standard record of rebellion in colonial Colombia was an attempt at bargaining collectively with authorities. But where did this practice of bartering come from, and what did it lead to?

This article examines the long tradition of collective activism among enslaved individuals and communities in Colombia, beginning from the arrival of the first Africans in Cartagena in the late sixteenth century to the abolition of slavery in the newly independent nation during the mid-nineteenth century. This tradition encompassed various forms of resistance, from acts of negotiation between the enslaved and their owners to legal action through royal courts and explicit acts of flight and community building. Cumulatively, these acts of resistance, both the enactment and the knowledge of them, were influential in developing a collective consciousness among slaves. But which channels did the enslaved use to negotiate their rights? How did they build alliances or bargain with authorities? What do forms of social organization and visions of freedom among the enslaved reveal about their political consciousness? How did the nuclei of slave communities communicate with each other and circulate knowledge about various acts of rebellion, negotiation, and new ideas of freedom? How did this circulation of knowledge influence political action by the enslaved during the national era?

From the introduction of slavery to the Viceroyalty of New Granada, up to and extending beyond its abolition in 1852, the enslaved engaged in diverse forms of resistance. Over this time, they developed strategies to redefine the conditions of their unfreedom. From these continuous acts of negotiation, made possible by internal information networks that carried news of and supported discourse on resistance to various enslaved communities, a dynamic political consciousness emerged. Drawing from this political tradition, freed and enslaved peoples ultimately fought for and expanded the meanings of abolition in Colombia, subverting the juridical process of gradual abolition through liberation on their own terms.

To understand resistance among the enslaved as a deeply entrenched historical tradition, it is crucial to consider a brief history of slavery and emancipation in Colombia.[3] One of the earliest records of slave trafficking from Africa to New Granada comes from 1573, where a majority of imports came from Angola and Guinea. With a sharp uptick in transatlantic slave trade voyages between 1593 to 1601, and 1617 to 1625, slavery instituted itself as a pillar of New Granada’s economy by the seventeenth century.[4] Across the two centuries of New Granada’s existence that followed these key periods of slavery’s proliferation, the enslaved became central not only to economic life but also to the social fabric of the viceroyalty. They were ubiquitous across the territory, from working the northern ports in the urban trade centers of Cartagena, to farming and agricultural production of cacao in Santa Marta, to gold mining in the Pacific lowlands of the Popayan frontier and the highlands of the Andes mountains.[5]

As a result of the centrality of slavery to life in the Spanish colony, Black struggles for freedom emerged from multiple corners of New Granada society. The enslaved sought freedom by forming fugitive slave communities called palenques and using fugitive slaves, or cimarrones, to recruit new members to these communities. Some sought to recruit new members in order to build a larger force of enslaved people. These forces would sometimes return to the estates from which they fled in order to destroy their previous owners’ property. Others sought to recruit new members because they aimed to be self-sufficient communities, and thus a greater population would provide a wider resource bank from which to draw.[6] The enslaved also sought out alternative routes to freedom. Manumission was a possibility, albeit one beyond the control of the enslaved. They could also work towards purchasing freedom: the laws of slavery in New Granada, enacted by the Spanish empire, were unique compared to the laws of slavery enacted by other European empires in that the enslaved could buy their own freedom, or that of their children, at any time.[7] Moreover, the enslaved found ways to use the royal courts to address complaints and grievances against their owners, leading to a kind of juridical activism that complemented struggles for emancipation.[8] Gradual abolition was institutionalized as a goal shortly after Colombia won its independence from Spain; the Free Womb Law was sanctioned in 1821, which discontinued the Roman-derived practice of partus sequitur ventrem, or the notion that a child’s status followed that of their mothers, to allow for a gradual end to slavery that aligned with the principles of liberalism in the new republic.[9] This landmark piece of legislation destabilized the centrality of slavery to the economic and social life of the viceroyalty by instituting a slow, but supposedly certain, generational end to slavery.[10] Finally, in 1852, the Manumission Law was passed, which officially abolished slavery and established the newly freed slaves as citizens of the new republic of Colombia.[11]

Currently, much of the historiography affirms that since the initial forced captivity and transportation of Africans to the coasts of Colombia in the early sixteenth century the enslaved engaged in various forms of resistance.[12] When read uncritically, this can suggest a uniform desire for freedom among the enslaved, held steadily yet statically throughout the colonial period until abolition came. Scholars have countered this dangerous assumption by recognizing some degree of autonomy among the enslaved who engaged in acts of resistance, noting that they strategically elected certain forms of resistance over others depending on which was the “most appropriate means to obtain their freedom in a given environment.”[13] While the historiography has shifted to center on active forms of freedom making—namely the enslaved choosing to engage in military service in exchange for eventual freedom, alongside other acts of collective organizing such as flight, marronage, and revolt—it still falls short in recognizing everyday forms of resistance as a key component to freedom making, in investigating how diversity in strategy nurtured a political life among the enslaved, and in acknowledging how these forms of resistance impacted the process and meaning of abolition.[14]

Scholars assert that the late colonial period, from the 1790s to the 1820s, was primed for social revolutions and drastic reconfigurations of society. This assertion often refers to the wars of independence and the rupture between the European Crown and their colonial subjects that resulted in a period of independent nation-building. Scholars minimize the influence slave resistance had in provoking this social change.[15] Political consciousness among the enslaved contributed to the discourse that complicated this period of liberal nation building. The enslaved latched onto the ideology of liberalism––a natural right to freedom, both political and individual––that had undergirded Colombia’s independence movement. Since slavery denied the law of natural rights which was fundamental to liberal philosophy, the enslaved used these principles in order to question the legitimacy of slavery in a liberal republic.[16] However, due to the limited scholarship addressing the intellectual life of the enslaved, the impact the enslaved had on these philosophical quandaries is understated.[17] By disregarding the potential for political activity and intellectual discussion, the scholarship can implicitly suggest that, while the enslaved actively fought for freedom prior to abolition, they passively accepted abolitionist legislation without questioning the conditions and veracity of its implementation.

Not only does the current historiography understate the influence the enslaved had on the process of abolition, but it also stands divided about which factors influenced the process of abolition in New Granada overall. Presently, some factors generally agreed upon as leading to abolition are the end of the slave trade in the 1790s, which reduced New Granada’s economic dependence on Spain, the social upheaval caused by the wars for independence (which highlighted liberal ideals of freedom and equality that fundamentally questioned the legitimacy of slavery), and the 1821 Free Womb Law, which created a grey area in political categories, as legal distinctions of freedom became blurred for a new generation of unfree children.[18] This combination of factors has produced the historiographical conclusion that, since elites were forced to incorporate gradual abolition as part of the creation of a liberal nation-state, liberation has always been under the strict control of the elites.[19] Since historians have yet to compose a comprehensive analysis of the role Black activism played in contributing to the crisis of slavery’s legitimacy and in shaping the process of abolition, this misleading conclusion has pervaded.

Scholars fall short, too, in considering the persistence of these political actions into the period after abolition, and the long-term implications of such rebellious action on the formation of an enslaved political consciousness.[20] This article aims to complicate this suggested passivity, acknowledging that the enslaved were aware of their political and social positioning in relation to the colonial society around them, and thus had an active intellectual life that varied on an individual and regional basis. Therefore, uniformity in thought, meaning the suggestion that the enslaved held the same desires for the end of and freedom from slavery, is too broad a generalization. Rather, what they sought going into the national era was liberation—liberation which, as opposed to freedom, held an individualized meaning and relationship to each enslaved person. Liberation was carved out not by gradual legislative action by the colonial government, but rather by the everyday forms of resistance organized by the enslaved.

In studying these forms of resistance, this article will adopt social scientist James C. Scott’s concept of public and hidden transcripts.[21] He defines public transcripts as the “open interaction between subordinates and those who dominate.” These interactions often reify the unbalanced relationship of power between the two subjects by publicly deferring to the legitimacy of this unbalanced dynamic. A hidden transcript, on the other hand, is a “discourse that takes place . . . beyond direct observation by powerholders.”[22] Through the hidden transcripts, criticism of the power relations is discussed without it becoming known by those in power. In the case of studying activism among the enslaved, everyday forms of resistance are sites for the development of a hidden transcript that shaped and revealed the opinions, organization, and culture of this subjugated group before they were ready to make their stances explicitly known to their owners.

As historian Yesenia Barragan reminds us, “abolition in the Spanish American mainland is an exploratory and fragmented body of work.”[23] This fragmentation occurs across a number of dimensions. First, it occurs in terms of practices of resistance, which are studied unevenly, as stated previously. Second, it occurs in terms of time, where scholarship focused on New Granada or particular regions within the viceroyalty is divided across epochs. Some scholars focus on the colonial period, others on the thirty-year period of gradual emancipation, and most alienate the post-emancipation period from study entirely.[24] Third, while acts of resistance shaped the lived experience of the enslaved, expanding the historical narrative demands that we also recognize such resistance as an intellectual practice among the enslaved across centuries. Scott cautions that “much of the active political life of subordinate groups has been ignored because it takes place at a level we rarely recognize as political.”[25] If we consider, as he does, the “immense political terrain that lies between quiescence and revolt,” the dynamic intellectual life of the enslaved is revealed.[26] This article, because it pieces together these fragments into a comprehensive study of the formation of a political consciousness, is necessary to understand the political and social context of a diverse, independent Colombia. By examining Black activism as both complementary to and independent of the state’s regulation of slavery, we see how abolition did not mark a final moment of negotiating Black freedom, but rather a benchmark in what is an enduring and contemporary practice. As scholarship on the intellectual history of the enslaved continues to evolve, this article contributes a pertinent study of the long history of resistance among Colombia’s freed and enslaved people.[27]

Forms of Resistance

Since the earliest arrivals of enslaved Africans from New Guinea to Cartagena in 1573, the legitimacy of slavery as an institution has been questioned by those subjected to it.[28] This section will examine three focal case studies, one from 1597, one from 1768, and one from 1780, each of which presents a different form of resistance by the enslaved. Records of these case studies come from legal complaints filed by owners and processed by court officials of the Spanish Royal Crown in response to alleged infractions enacted by the enslaved. To begin, a mere twenty-four years after the beginning of the slave trade to the Spanish American mainland, and coinciding with the second wave of slave importation across the Atlantic between 1593 and 1601, one of the earliest records of independent community-building by fugitive slaves appears. Our first recorded case study is the 1597 slave uprising in the town of Zaragoza.

On May 22, 1597, a Spanish doctor witnessed a slave rebellion in Zaragoza. He wrote to the Spanish royal court that a group of “fugitive slaves” began menacing the town, committing petty thefts and intimidating the townspeople.[29] The townspeople targeted were not only the royal subjects of the Spanish crown but also fellow Black inhabitants—slaves who worked in the mines proximate to Zaragoza. Fugitive slaves, through the tactic of intimidation, attempted to evoke rebellious action from the miners. They employed the phrase “rise against the Spaniards” as a call for recruitment. The city sent a squad after the cimarrones, only to find “a palenque where said slaves were bunkered up in.”[30] The city officials were puzzled. How many people were part of this community? Where did they acquire ammunition? Why were they threatening the city?

The intimidation escalated six months later, on November 20, 1597, when a group derived from the same palenque incited a rebellion in Zaragoza. Their acts of rebellion were violent in nature, with several deaths and “other considerable damages” being cited. Moreover, this revolt was alarming due to the fact that it could provoke further, future action among the enslaved, moving “those who are at peace and in servitude in the mines of the cities . . . [to] rise up.”[31] What finally motivated a group of supposedly subservient slave miners to rise against the entire city is lost from the archival record, but the fear of an impending war between the town and the palenque (cited in the May 1597 report) was validated by this escalation. This collective slave resistance, bred from a nuclear community of self-proclaimed freed Africans, sparked panic amongst colonial officials. It was enough to demand defensive materiel be brought to the towns of Zaragoza and Remedios and to cause rumors to circulate among the public of potential prisoners being taken to the mystifying palenque.

Why did the group of fugitive slaves return to Zaragoza six months later? One can assess their motivations through their primary achievement: recruiting new members to their community. Their demands, in this case, read as the unification of Africans who had, within one generation’s time, been trafficked from Africa to New Granada’s interior. According to the demands of the fugitive slaves, they sought the development of homogenous, independent palenques through a unification between themselves and other Africans. Moreover, the clearly self-proclaimed delineation between the “fugitive slaves” and “the Spaniards” reflected a fundamental distinction between the self, which identified with a collective African identity based on a shared original displacement, and the foreign, oppositional, Spanish other. The violence employed by the fugitive slaves conveyed their perception of the stakes at hand: the goal of those representatives of the palenque was to recruit more community members in order to destabilize the colonial economies upheld by slave labor, to strengthen the material and immaterial foundation of fugitive slave communities, and to do so by any (even if forceful) means. It was from these sixteenth-century parameters of a shared racial identity and employment of necessary violence, shared with a membership that grew and expanded intergenerationally, that seeds of a future political consciousness could potentially sprout.

Cimarronismo is an example of a common practice among the enslaved during the colonial period, from as early as the sixteenth century to as late as the nineteenth century. In lands distant from the urban ports of Cartagena, namely the interiors of Antioquia, esclavos prófugos, or fugitive slaves, would form palenques. Within these communities, entire families of fugitive slaves would gather under a mutual agreement, based on shared experiences of flight and resistance against slavery, to share responsibilities for caretaking, acquire necessary resources for subsistence, and recruit new members to maintain the communities’ self-sufficiency. Often situated along the densely forested and sparsely populated frontiers of the viceroyalty, they socialized with Indigenous groups, both nomadic and sedentary, who shared diverse notions of social organization and divisions of labor.[32] As historian Anthony McFarlane suggests, flight and marronage, and subsequent social mixing among culturally heterogeneous groups, occurred with the goal of bringing “social and mental consciousness about the world to the slaves who aspired to change their own lives by escaping captivity.”[33] This form of resistance reflected a desire for community and autonomy beyond what could be attained under Spanish rule.

By the mid-eighteenth century, there was a greater frequency of another form of resistance: direct negotiation with owners. Our second case study comes from the 1768 slave uprising in Santa Marta, an example of this direct negotiation. Andres Madariaga’s slaves proclaimed that their overseer Felipe Carbonell’s poor treatment was unbearable, and they promised to follow through with their threats against white foremen and Santa Marta’s representatives until their demands were met.[34] Embedded within their demands were the values, motivations, and deal breakers of the enslaved. First, they agreed to return to work so long as Madariaga swore in the name “of the Holy Spirit” that he would not retaliate against his slaves for their rebellion.[35] The enslaved appear to have adopted Spanish religious practice, upholding their owner’s verbal commitment to a shared God as an unbreakable promise that would justify a return to work. This shared religious belief between the enslaved and their owner differs from the last example, where the unity amongst the enslaved in palenques and in the town required a mutual severance from any component of Spanish identity.

Additionally, a key demand was for Madariaga to honor the slaves’ self-proclaimed right to keep their families together in the event of being sold. This practice of selling or transporting a slave alongside their family eventually became institutionalized in New Granada with the passing of the Royal Order of 1789, an informal slaves’ bill of rights to which we will return shortly.[36] However, in the mid-eighteenth century, the presentation of this demand suggests that the practice of keeping enslaved families together had not been normalized yet. The enslaved recognized the need to advocate and organize toward it themselves, and this example of mobilization from 1768 contributed to a legacy of family unity in various Colombian haciendas across the nineteenth century. Moreover, their negotiations did not only communicate demands but threats as well. The enslaved threatened to set fire to the farm, to rearm themselves against any subsequent foreman, and to kill both the cattle and the crop raised on the property if Madariaga reneged on his word.[37] This demonstrated a keen understanding of how to use what their owner valued—the ability to profit from what was produced by the enslaved—in order to secure collateral that would assure the materialization of their demands.

There appear to be reverberations of those original seeds of political consciousness through time. Violence remained a justifiable bargaining tool in the repertoire of the enslaved. However, the enslaved in Santa Marta did not seek emancipation as the enslaved in Zaragoza had. Rather, they adopted a conditional acceptance of their status as unfree laborers, so long as their treatment was adequately fair within the confines of slavery. Therefore, it is evident that the political consciousness of the enslaved, while grounded by an agreed-upon central notion of by any means necessary, still allowed for flexibility. Clearly, resistance goals varied depending on the values of each particular community, often reflecting the enslaved communities’ location as proximate to slave trading ports, to the territory’s interior, to palenques, and to Indigenous communities.

Madariaga’s slaves made a specific reference to these satellite communities: they threatened to “flee to unite with the ‘brave Indians.’”[38] This reference to Indigenous groups living in the interior reveals the influence these groups had on the enslaved who had fled from their posts. They provided additional material and social resources to assure the survival of these fugitive slaves as well as the ideological stimulation required for them to consider alternative forms of social organization.[39] Despite the remoteness of these communities, the enslaved in Santa Marta were aware of the existence of palenques in the first place. In threatening to unite with cimarrones and Indigenous peoples, which were mystified precisely due to their distance from the ports, the enslaved tapped into a deep fear held by owners. In this case, it appears that Madariaga’s slaves did not seek to form independent communities with other Afro-Colombian or Indigenous communities as their primary goal, but they did identify this as a viable option—a last resort of sorts. Together, these strands of evidence suggest a network of communication and flow of information circulating new opportunities for Afro-Colombians to imagine what life could be like within the confines of slavery or beyond.

Our third and final case study comes from the 1780 legal case of the enslaved woman Francisca Rojas. This case looked beyond independent community building and direct negotiation and instead enacted the use of the Spanish royal courts as a third, key form of resistance. During the colonial period, the enslaved occasionally used the parameters of the law for the purposes of manumission or self-purchase. In the decades leading up to the nineteenth century, this practice resulted in an ambivalent legal status for the enslaved; despite being subjected to forced labor, they maintained a certain leeway to utilize the courts as a tool for resistance, for the presence of the enslaved as a party or an interest in the courts was commonplace.[40] Thus emerged this particular case from the city of Neyva, that of Francisca Rojas in 1780.[41] Francisca, an enslaved woman owned by Roque Arias de Prada, sought protection from her owner’s abuse, and one such solution was for her to be appraised and sold to another owner.

This process was overseen by legal representative Josef Antonio Maldonado. Although Francisca was the one who was seeking her freedom, she was not the plaintiff in this case. Rather, Maldonado was representing her owner, Prada. The appraisal and selling process was presented as being in the best interest of Francisca’s owner, as Maldonado called for the following: “that this slave, due to the danger that she [Francisca] attempts to flee, must be subjected to separation.” In other words, the legal concern deemed worthy of consideration by the courts was not the physical abuse Francisca endured at the hands of her owner but rather the threat that one of Prada’s slaves could flee (with, potentially, an additional fear that this act of flight could bolster the palenques that populated New Granada’s interior). Maldonado stated a firm belief that “no Black person has the right to neglect the provision of free labor.”[42] Thus, his goal for Francisca was to modify her environment to more effectively control Francisca and make production and profit from her labor possible.

Clearly, Francisca needed a way to address the ongoing abuse she had endured. However, it was possible that Francisca understood that she could not have been represented directly in court, for the ambivalent legal status held by the enslaved at this time did not regard them as citizens with the right to due process.[43] While negotiating her placement directly in court was not possible, she did not rule out the royal court as a potential tool for resistance. She could have understood that the colonial government (with Maldonado standing as an embodiment of the Spanish court system on the eve of the nineteenth century) recognized a firm, common belief that the Spanish were owed labor by those they enslaved. By making it so that Prada felt it was necessary to employ legal action against his own slave, she was able to manipulate the legislative system to obtain protection and removal from an environment of violence in the long term. In other words, being separated from her owner was Francisca’s goal, but this goal needed to be obscured. Returning to the notion of a hidden transcript, Francisca materialized her own hidden transcript by disguising the message or goal of her subordinate group.[44] Francisca effectively disguised her personal interests to be interpreted as her owner’s economic interest. She materialized her own liberation through relocation.

Finally, Maldonado speculated on the origins of Francisca’s rebellious behavior. He claimed to “[know] the origin of the existing unrest . . . the influences and allure with which the slave’s last owner . . . Don Ysidro Palencia, has used to arouse and persuade them to such beliefs.”[45] He suspected that some aspects of her experience under a previous owner influenced her present action. Perhaps Francisca’s prior owner had allowed her greater flexibility in expressing contempt, questioning the treatment that secured her labor, and, potentially, in negotiating these points of contention with her owner. Alternatively, had Francisca had the opportunity to socialize with other enslaved people owned by Palencia, similar conversations that prompted questioning of cruel treatment or plans for resistance may have circulated. Regardless, Francisca’s spirit of restlessness persisted, as Maldonado vouched for her separation from her present owner. Prada was never capable of subduing her defiant nature, as Maldonado stated simply “that it was not possible to subject [Francisca], or to confine her to servitude.”[46]

Francisca’s story is one of a unique use of the courts, a legislative body traditionally perceived to be oppositional to slaves’ rights. The uprising in Zaragoza in 1597 differed from that of the negotiation in Santa Marta in 1768, which differed from that of Francisca’s resistance in 1780, as each resulted in different outcomes. First, an expansion of independent community building, liberation from forced labor, and self-ownership were clear priorities for the enslaved in Zaragoza. Secondly, an improvement of living conditions with a demand for fair treatment centered the core need of family unity and a say in the election of one’s overseers in exchange for labor in Santa Marta. Lastly, a subversive manipulation of the legal system to protect oneself from violence suggested a form of strategizing that drew inspiration from a long history of varied resistance in Neyva. It becomes clear, then, that liberation held multiple meanings among the enslaved in New Granada across history. In reality, a diversity in strategy prompted a mixing of ideas that traveled along informal networks of communication, which expanded conceptions of autonomy and liberation, to transcend both physical distance and periods of time.

Information Networks

The influence that various forms of resistance had on distinct communities of the enslaved across New Granadan territory is notable. If distance and time period made direct communication improbable or impossible, how, if at all, did these communities of enslaved individuals communicate with each other? How did one learn about these various acts of personal and collective rebellion? Testimony directly from the enslaved provides insight into how information traveled on the eve of Colombian independence, and a close reading of their statements reveals enslaved perceptions of the republic’s political state and their legal standing at the time.

The enslaved were witness to a shift in the political relationship between Spain and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century. Anti-colonial sentiment had been gaining particular momentum, with a breaking point during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, referred to as the “wars of independence.”[47] As a result, the Antioquia State Constitution was sanctioned on May 3, 1812. This new constitution was devised on the eve of Colombia’s independence and was based on Enlightenment thinking in response to the ongoing complaints about the Spanish Crown’s tyranny. It asserted that the colonists had a God-given right to detach themselves from the Crown due to its infringement on their rights. Identified as “the rights of Man in society,” they were based on four key principles: “liberty and legal equality, security and property.”[48] In other words, these initial legislative pushes towards independence that were devised by a nascent Colombian republic were justified by God’s permission, not by the permission of any earthly parties.

In the wake of this political transition, the city of Medellin received written communication from an unexpected constituent. In August 1812, the city was presented with a document, a notice provided by a coalition of 206 slaves who asserted themselves as the representatives of Medellin’s 10,700 slaves. They wrote in response to the recently sanctioned Antioquia State Constitution. Explaining that they had received notice about the natural rights guaranteed in the Constitution, the coalition of slaves demanded the rights and freedoms outlined in that law to be rightfully and equally donned upon the state’s entire populace, including the enslaved.[49] An excerpt from their testimony reads as follows:

Gentleman of the Supreme Tribunal Justice, we, the ten thousand six hundred slaves of this Town of Medellin and its districts and jurisdictions, as a collective, we prostrate ourselves before Your Lordships with the intention of informing Your Graces that, a long time ago now, we received news and have learned through the words of our own masters that freedom has reached us, freedom we denied [...] we have come to know how God our Lord has made us free and independent from such slavery.

[...] that for a long time we have been enduring the unbearable yoke of enslavement, some of us with more to labor, others with much disdain for their masters, others unhappy in seeing their children sold to foreign, faraway lands, it is not fair [...] even more unfair is the fact we are not subjects to anyone and we are all equal as was declared in the order by the new government, which Your Mercies, this first Tuesday of July of this year.

[...] we ask where is liberty? Well, we have even suffered on behalf of the free people, those who have taken to scorn the same traces of injuries, now with the rumors of other ways of treating us as vile and cowardly due to what we have determined to present in front of Your Excellencies [...] with the news we have received that Your Mercies promise that he who asks to speak to the Supreme Government shall be heard as is fair and just.[50]

To begin an overarching analysis, the self-proclaimed representative body employed the tactic of anonymity. Scott argues that this anonymity is a tactic to help communicate what is traditionally a hidden transcript, the opinion that the existing political state is unjust can be more directly communicated and demanded when communicated by an anonymous source.[51] Assembling as a union of 206 slaves, they remained void of identity and thus shielded from punishment or retaliation.

This coalition continued on to reveal their estimate as to how large Medellin’s enslaved population was. Presenting an estimate of 10,700, how could they have calculated this number? In 1825, thirteen years after this document was published, 47,209 slaves were living in all of Colombia.[52] Considering that Medellin was a major city that relied upon slave labor, 10,700 could be a reasonable population estimate. This suggests that they applied a systematic approach, recognizing the size of various industries (such as agriculture, mining, and domestic labor), formed estimates as to how many operations for each respective industry were located in the city of Medellin, and standardized an estimate as to how many slaves could have been expected to labor at each business. This implies an intricate understanding of the organization of slave labor in the city, a knowledge that would only be possible by siphoning information about dissimilar forms of labor from the population of thousands of slaves into this pool of 206 representatives.

Secondly, the enslaved commented on the delay in receiving these natural, and now protected, rights. Drawing a more refined focus on the specific language employed by this representative coalition of slaves, the document asserted that it had been “a long time” that the enslaved became aware of the development of a new constitution. La Constitución de Antioquia was sanctioned on May 3, 1812, three months before this statement’s presentation. They specify when they received notice of the Constitution being circulated two months later, noting that “we are all equal as was declared in the order by the new government, which Your Mercies, this first Tuesday of July of this year.”[53] The enslaved appear to have been granting the state government a grace period to roll out the freedoms granted by the Constitution before questioning why their liberation had not yet come to fruition, with their complaint being that their freedom should have been effective immediately following the Constitution’s publication.

Moreover, they identified two sources for this information, one being “by news” and the other being “through the words of our own masters.” Knowledge of change via the news implied either that this news traveled by word of mouth, or that some segment of the enslaved population was literate and thus capable of reading written notices about the political state of the republic. The fact that the specific publication date of the Constitution was noted in the testimony shows that literacy was a key tool for comprehension of the law. Since literacy is a skill that can be self-taught, but is often taught by others, the spread of literacy as a skill among the enslaved implies a network of support among those enslaved who lived in close proximity.[54] Those who were literate then shared news with other slaves. Additionally, gaining knowledge by speaking with or overhearing the conversations between different owners entailed that the enslaved were in tune with discourse regarding general ideas of freedom and that they engaged with these ideas critically to conceptualize ways they could achieve it. Again, by means of an oral transmission of information, news of impending liberty was disseminated within enslaved groups in close proximity to each other, but also between scattered pockets of enslaved communities in Medellin. As a result, this circulation of information produced a conclusion: new legislation that promised freedom to the citizens of Medellin from Spain had been enacted, and this law of liberation was necessarily extended to the city’s enslaved population—a liberation from slavery.

This firsthand account also suggests that networks of communication defied regional or national borders. As historian Marcela Echeverri has noted, there is a long-standing assumption that regional isolation kept segments of Colombia’s enslaved population from interacting with each other. In reality, one finds that certain centers, such as the Pacific lowlands, were “gateway[s] for information” between other cities, like Popayan, or other states, like Peru. It was in frontiers such as these that Indigenous communities could coexist with enslaved or fugitive Africans and exchange ideas, regardless of physical or territorial boundaries.[55] Considering that the coalition of slaves who composed this testimony required knowledge about different economic sectors, such as mining, agriculture, and domestic work, the practice of transcending boundaries and exchanging ideas orally that existed in Popayan, just south of Medellin, appears to have extended to the north.

Since the Constitution was enacted to communicate formally a rupture of the colonial pact with Spain, it also served as a transatlantic document. The fact that the enslaved could receive and critically engage with it attests to a network of communication that traversed not only regional boundaries, or national boundaries, but one that extended intercontinentally. Within it, the enslaved understood that the republic itself proclaimed these rights to be God-given, and as inhabitants of the republic, they extended these rights granted to New Granada’s population to themselves as well. The right to liberty from slavery thus transcended any opposition by their owners, by the greater slave labor industry, or by contradictory colonial or royal legislation. This is clear from the statement that “we have come to know how God our Lord has made us free and independent from such slavery”—or that God Himself granted their liberation from slavery. This reflected the language used in the Constitution’s text, which stated “God has conceded indiscriminately to all men certain natural rights.”[56] Thus, it is probable that some slaves could read the contents of the Constitution directly, lift it, and then place it into their own testimony.

This emphasis on divine legitimacy echoed a value long held by the enslaved. In the case of Madariaga’s slaves in 1768, they had required Madariaga to swear on the body of Christ that he would honor their demands.[57] In 1812, with God’s grace deemed sufficient justification for the liberation of a state and all of its people, the weight of religious promise to seal an agreement had become further entrenched as a core political practice among the enslaved. This additional layer of divine intervention expanded the political ground upon which the enslaved could legitimize their freedom. This is another tool often used by subjugated groups to push for a political goal embedded within their hidden transcript, that of a “tendency [for the powerless] to believe [and assert] that an end to their bondage was at hand, that God or the authorities had granted their dreams… [which allowed] vulnerable groups [to] express their hidden aspirations in public in a way that both enables them to avoid individual responsibility and aligns them with some higher power whose express commands they are merely following.”[58] The political consciousness thus far developed over the history of Black resistance largely centered on the need for autonomy and self-defined liberation. With the added tools of literacy, discourse over new conceptions of liberty, and the circulation of the republic’s burgeoning political philosophy, the fact that the right for the republic to exist came from God could combine with these notions of autonomy to license the end of enslavement.

By writing directly to the governing body of Medellin, another form of resistance emerged. This form transcended the limitations that existed in the previous example of Francisca’s legal action, for this document disarmed the influence of the courts to draw instead from God as the ultimate ruling power. Moreover, the enslaved did not limit themselves to advocating only for their own liberation, for they proclaimed that “we have even suffered on behalf of the free people.”[59] As New Granada functionally remained a colony of Spain in 1812, the townspeople of Medellin had not yet achieved their own freedom from subjugation. The enslaved had a keen understanding of the political atmosphere in the viceroyalty, one sharp enough to note how the social and political conditions colored the experience of Medellin’s townspeople and to voice a pointed condemnation of it. By extending themselves as representatives to all people of Medellin, the enslaved authors were not acting merely in the interests of other enslaved people but rather perceived and presented themselves as a political entity with vested interests in seeing a political doctrine, bolstered by divine intervention, realized, and thus justice upheld.

Emboldened by a newfound justification for their liberty, they demanded to be heard “with the news we have received that Your Mercies promise that he who asks to speak to the Supreme Government shall be heard as is fair and just.”[60] Even though the Constitution made no explicit reference to the rights of the enslaved, the language used to outline the rights of “all men” led to expectations amongst the enslaved to be granted equal consideration in a court of law in accordance with the principle of justice. This legislation was a first step in Colombia breaking away from its own colonial subjugation, but the slaves’ interpretation of it reflected an impending truth: if a new republic was to be rooted in the virtues of liberty, “political freedom cannot coexist with African slavery.”[61] Their demands for liberation in a national era become politically justified due to their extrapolation of that fact. What followed this Constitution was a series of legislative pushes towards sovereignty, a component of which, as briefly discussed, was focused on gradual emancipation for both Colombia as a nation and the enslaved as a civil body. This constitution was the first example of an increasingly sovereign Colombia’s pattern of “[raising] expectations of freedom without providing it.”[62] In 1812, on the eve of Colombia’s independence, the republic did not intend to liberate its enslaved population, and yet, mobilized by an international network of communication and a political consciousness that incorporated core values of autonomy with religious justification, Colombian slaves were prepared to question the legitimacy of slavery and dissent in the name of liberation.

Evolution and Effects of a Political Consciousness

Evidently, these networks of communication across the colonial period exposed the enslaved to new ideas of freedom and new imaginations of what life both within and beyond slavery could look like. However, looking forward, how did the formation of political consciousness across the colonial period shape the actions of slaves during independence? To understand this continuity, intellectual scholar Laurent DuBois asks us to “begin from the assumption that there was an intellectual life within slave communities, and that this life involved movement between ideas and actions . . . between past, present, and future.”[63] In the absence of a written record explicitly referring to this intellectual life, he highlights “insurrections that reflected a collective attitude of refusal or revolt.”[64] That he included refusal and revolt expands the notion of resistance from one that was of total flight and opposition to slavery to one that granted slaves autonomy over more focused factors of their lived experiences through their refusal to comply with particular aspects of their labor and social life.

Action as a result of this dynamic intellectual life was evident in the case of the Zaragoza rebellion of 1597 and the Santa Marta negotiation of 1768. With the added understanding of the natural rights granted by the Enlightenment, the enslaved entered the era of independence with a strengthened sense of autonomy. DuBois further infers that, since the enslaved maintained a certain level of political awareness, informed by literacy and oral communication, the enslaved in these cases and beyond can be regarded as “independent political and intellectual actors, inspired by their own experiences, and hardly dependent on masters or European administrators for their agency.”[65] In the 1812 testimony, the coalition of slaves clearly dismissed the opposition their owners had to their liberation. They further dismissed the authority of colonial and European powers as their actions did not align with the provision of natural rights guaranteed to them—a skepticism towards colonial government that shaped how the enslaved responded to the gradual emancipation laws sanctioned during the period of budding sovereignty for the Colombian republic.

Two such pieces of legislation that reflect the cognitive dissonance between the political aims of the young republic and those of the enslaved are the Royal Order 1 of 1789 regarding Education, Treatment, and Occupations of Slaves, an informal slaves’ bill of rights, and the Free Womb Law of 1821. The Royal Order was a decree issued by the King of Spain as an effort to regulate the treatment of slaves in the Spanish colonies.[66] The decree assigned a set of responsibilities to slave owners, namely their requirement to “to instruct [the slaves] in the principles of the Catholic Religion,” and to grant them time off on “all Holy days, during which they would not be obligated, or permitted, to work.”[67] While the crown appears to have been concerned about religious observance among the enslaved, it is clear that both prior to and after this decree the enslaved adopted the Catholic religion and employed it as a bargaining chip in their resistance and a regular component of their political practice: they did not need a declaration from any colonial or European government to implement this.

The Royal Order also permitted some bodily and social liberties while still exerting controlled limitations on them. The decree guaranteed the right of the enslaved to engage in “simple and straightforward entertainments” with key restrictions as to whom they could socialize with, namely the “separation of the sexes… [and] chaperoned with the same owners.”[68] This appears to be the Crown’s attempt to limit socialization and opportunities to conspire in dynamic networks of communication, while still recognizing some degree of humanity and leisure for the enslaved. Finally, it allowed the opportunity for manumission for older slaves and outlined financial consequences for owners who abused or encroached upon the rights of their slaves.[69] Essentially, the Crown’s steps towards gradual abolition began at the end of the eighteenth century, while the enslaved had been mobilizing towards it since the start of the slave trade in the Americas.

The Free Womb Law of 1821, on the other hand, was one in a series of gradual emancipation laws enacted by the newly liberated colony, rather than the Royal Order, which was composed by the Spanish Crown.[70] Also known as the Ley de 21 de julio sobre la libertad de partos, manumisión, y abolición del tráfico de esclavos, or the Law of the 21st of July regarding the liberty of births, manumission, and abolition of the slave trade, this law rolled out a twofold plan to phase out slavery in Colombia. It banned the slave trade in the new republic and freed any child born to an enslaved woman after 1821, regardless of the mother’s status as a slave.[71] This gradual transition to abolition, one that would come to fruition in about a generation’s time, appears, on the surface, to be both transformational and beneficial to the enslaved. The Free Womb Law of 1821 is an example of what Barragan refers to as “liberal freedom,” or the project of freedom on an individual basis that emerged from “Latin American liberalism in the national era.”[72] As Colombia emerged as a new, liberal republic, it became increasingly obvious that allowing slavery to continue infringed on a fundamental belief of liberal freedom—that of the protection of natural rights. However, slavery as an institution could not be immediately abolished, for the enslaved were legally defined as property, and compromising on the right to property for Colombia’s inhabitants was also an infringement on a key principle of liberal freedom. Thus, gradual emancipation was invoked as a legal strategy to justify the coexistence of slavery, the protection of the right to property, and the liberal nation-state.

However, the enslaved approached these laws with hesitation. While the elites sought to introduce abolition for their own goals of nation-state building, they wanted this liberation to come on their own gradual, legislative terms. The law provided a much more gradual path towards autonomy in comparison to some alternative strategies to attaining freedom, such as joining a palenque, negotiating with one’s owner, or seeking relocation through the courts. The fact that they did not incorporate the opinion or counsel of the enslaved reveals that this conditional liberation was another form of subjugation. As Scott tells us, “a dominant elite under such conditions is ceaselessly working to maintain and extend its material control and symbolic reach.”[73] In this case, even as the state moved towards liberation, it did so while exercising a careful and heavy hand of control over the slaves. Echeverri bolsters this claim, noting that “abolition [and] citizenship were themselves adapted to elite interests in maintaining labor under control.”[74]

Liberal freedom was juxtaposed with what Barragan calls “vernacular freedom.”[75] Vernacular freedom materializes as a more dynamic and personalized definition of freedom held by subjugated groups. The enslaved evoked vernacular freedom as a response to the promises of liberal freedom, suggesting an understanding among the enslaved that deferred liberation was actually a reification of slavery and control. Vernacular freedom was the ability to approach colonial legislation with skepticism and respond by materializing liberation dictated on the slaves’ own terms.[76] It is this vernacular freedom that reveals how the political consciousness of the enslaved that had been forming across the colonial period bled into the actions they took to secure their liberation in the national era independent of the legislation or limitations constructed by colonial and/or European governments.

One such example appears in an 1850 record which lists a number of fugitive slaves registered in Cartagena. Their presence spanned the coastal and interior Colombian territories, from Cartagena and Barranquilla to Sabanalarga, Mahates, and Corozal. Their ages are of particular significance: they are divided into categories of younger than forty to older than sixty. Considering 1850 was well into the period of gradual emancipation, and right on the eve of the Manumission Law of 1852, one might expect a decrease in the need for and frequency of flight and marronage. This decreased need might lead one to expect that predominantly an older demographic engaged in rebellious behavior. However, instances of flight were recorded consistently from 1830 to 1849, with a majority of the eighty-two names of fugitive slaves listed across all territories being classified as younger than forty years of age.[77] This act of defiance reveals that, despite the discourse of liberty that characterizes the national period, the enslaved were denied liberal freedom. Evidently, demonstration and organized action towards vernacular freedom, despite the promises of liberal freedom, were enacted well into the nineteenth century. As Scott argues, the hidden transcripts of the enslaved were not limited to speech and discourse; they are necessarily encapsulated in action as well.[78] Thus, acts of defiance during this period spoke directly to this sense of vernacular freedom that was fundamentally dissonant with the liberal one.

Not only were the fugitive slaves fleeing, but they were engaging in other oppositional behavior: under “main vices” they were labeled as being “insubordinate, fugitive, vagrant, disobedient.” The report cites other behaviors that suggest a refusal to work under the conditions of forced labor. Much like the case of the 1812 Constitution and testimony, the rights promised by impending legislation regarding sovereignty and liberation had not yet materialized for the enslaved in the developing republic. Therefore, the persistence of cimarronismo and palenques, and of resistance and refusal, into the national era makes it clear that the enslaved, as a politically dynamic and conscious body, did not stop mobilizing in the wake of gradual abolition. Rather, they inhabited a ground between a public transcript (that of gradual abolition put forth by the elites) and a hidden transcript (that of skepticism towards the materialization of their freedom). The enslaved arrived at a conclusion that abolition was not inevitable and that liberation would only come from continued action by their own hands.


Since the Viceroyalty of New Granada became a part of the transatlantic slave trade, up to and after the abolition of slavery in 1852, the enslaved engaged in myriad forms of resistance, including revolt, negotiation, legal action, and written advocacy. They did so to redefine the conditions of their experience within and beyond slavery. These repeated acts of negotiation, and the internal information networks that carried news of resistance to enslaved communities across the Colombian territory, nurtured a dynamic political consciousness among them. Freed and enslaved peoples, in voicing the hypocrisy of a liberal state that maintained slavery as an institutional practice, ultimately challenged the practice’s legitimacy, and continued to resist infringement on their natural rights, on their own terms, well into Colombia’s national period.

The scholarship on Black resistance in the Americas continues to evolve, with most recent scholarship tending toward centering the autonomy and the consciousness of the enslaved as they navigated the conditions of their subjugation across the centuries.[79] Scholars have worked toward refuting dangerous assumptions that have been formative within the historiography of slavery—ones that have suggested regional isolation and complacency among the enslaved in the period leading up to abolition.[80] As more research is done, it grows increasingly evident that the enslaved materialized their own liberation and facilitated their contest over persisting obstacles to freedom.[81] This article, in considering the variation of Black resistance strategies employed from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, further develops this portrait of autonomy. Not only did varied approaches to resistance operate based on individualized definitions of autonomy and personal goals of respect, fair treatment, and liberation, but they were also enacted in spite of the budding republic’s legal transition to gradual emancipation.

Critical engagement with the enslaved as significant, independent actors in history can only stem from recognizing a shared, active intellectual life among them. As it stands, the historiography has largely neglected the impact intellectual life among the enslaved had on their perception of the legal process of gradual emancipation, and the lived reality of their continued subjugation. This article emphasizes the continuity of resistance across centuries while highlighting the effects these acts of resistance, in that shared long-term context, had on shaping the intellectual life of the enslaved. This intellectual life was organized around a dynamic political consciousness, one nurtured by a transregional, transnational, and transcontinental information network. This network reveals a much more critically engaged and politically active reality for the enslaved than has been previously acknowledged.

Looking toward further avenues for research, it remains under-investigated how this political consciousness of the (formerly) enslaved population, and the political and social action that resulted from it, influenced both the legislation and the living conditions of those freed in the post-emancipation period of Colombian history, namely from 1852 to the turn of the twentieth century. This research could provide insight into how formerly enslaved Colombians, once they became citizens of the independent nation, reconciled a political consciousness that rendered them as an independent civil body functioning beyond the reach of the republic’s laws with their new status as official constituents. Such an analysis would reveal how the experience of slavery guided the assortment of political interests and systems of social organization of Afro-Colombians into contemporary times.

One pertinent example of current social organization is that of the persistence of palenques into the present day, namely of San Basilio de Palenque.[82] Studying the social organization of these Black communities in Colombia—and particularly tracing the palenque’s religious, political, and cultural influences back to the experience of enslavement, resistance, and unity—would connect the powerful historical record of Black resistance to a tangible present. As Scott reminds us, “what survives and flourishes within the folk culture of . . . slaves . . . is largely dependent on what they decide to accept and transmit.”[83] In other words, to continue developing the field’s understanding of the enslaved as active, influential historical actors, one could trace how foundational political and intellectual virtues developed among freed Colombians across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and ultimately shaped the values and experience of the descendants of Colombian slaves today. In conjunction with this article, future scholarship would contribute to a disciplinary shift toward acknowledging the enslaved and their descendants as a dynamic and politically conscious body—one that understands that liberation, at any stage and in any form, is not passively received, but actively created.


Primary Sources

Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes. “Constitución Del Estado de Antioquía: Sancionada Por Los Representantes de Toda La Provincia y Aceptada Por El Pueblo El 3 de Mayo Del Año de 1812.” 2006.

Esclavos. Archivo Histórico de Rionegro, Rionegro, Colombia.

La Esclavitud en Colombia: Yugo y Libertad (1557-1852), Negros y Esclavos. Archivo General de la Nación, Bogotá, Colombia.

Rey de España. Real Cédula 1 de 1789: Sobre educación, trato y ocupaciones de los esclavos, May 31, 1789. In Régimen Legal de Bogotá D.C. “Real Cédula 1 de 1789 Bogotá Colonial.” Accessed June 10, 2024.

Secondary Sources

Barragan, Yesenia. Freedom’s Captives: Slavery and Gradual Emancipation on the Colombian Black Pacific. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Blanchard, Peter. Under the Flags of Freedom: Slave Soldiers and the Wars of Independence in Spanish South America. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

Chaves, Maria Eugenia. “‘Nos, Los Esclavos de Medellín’: La Polisemia de La Libertad y Las Voces Subalternas En La Primera República Antioqueña.” Universidad Central 33 (October 2010): 43–55.

Colombia Country Brand. “Palenque, the First ‘free Town’ for Africans in America: Brand Colombia.” February 16, 2021.

Cowling, Camillia. “‘As a Slave Woman and as a Mother’: Women and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro.” Social History 36, no. 3 (2011): 294–311.

DuBois, Laurent. “An Enslaved Enlightenment: Rethinking the Intellectual History of the French Atlantic.” The Atlantic World (2014): 249–64.

Echeverri, Marcela. “Antislavery and Abolition in the Spanish American Mainland.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History (2023).

———. Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolution: Reform, Revolution, and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780-1825. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Helg, Aline. Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Helg, Aline, and Lara Vergnaud. Slave No More: Self-Liberation Before Abolitionism in the Americas. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Intangible Cultural Heritage. “UNESCO - Cultural Space of Palenque de San Basilio.” Accessed January 11, 2024.

Jimenez, Leonardo Reales. “Slavery, Racism, and Manumission in Colombia (1821-1852).” Revista Análisis Internacional (2015): 73-93.

McFarlane, Anthony. “Cimarrones y Palenques en Colombia: Siglo XVIII.” History and Space, no. 14 (2018): 53-78.

Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Tovar Mora, Jorge Andrés and Tovar Pinzón, Hermes. El oscuro camino de la libertad: los esclavos en Colombia, 1821–1851. Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Economía, 2009.

Wheat, David. “The First Great Waves: African Provenance Zones for the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Cratagena de Indias, 1570-1640.” The Journal of African History 52, no. 1 (2011): 1–22.


[1] In the study of slavery, there is significant debate between using the word slave as opposed to enslaved person. In this article, I elect to use both terms.

[2] Investigation of a slave uprising in Santa Marta, organized by Andres Madariaga’s slaves, and which resulted in the death of Felipe Carbonell and Antonio de Castro, 1768, box 3, folders 910–932, Negros y Esclavos (Magdalena), Archivo General de la Nación, Colombia (hereafter cited as Investigation, Negros y Esclavos). All records pertaining to each case study studied in this article were written in Spanish. All quotations referenced in the body of this article hereafter are my translations of the original text (from the original Spanish text into English). This translation was done for purposes of clarity and fluidity.

[3] Prior to independence, the nation of Colombia was known as the viceroyalty of New Granada. Since this article will examine the slavery in Colombia across both the colonial and the independence periods, the terms “New Granada” and “Colombia” will be used interchangeably.

[4] David Wheat, “The First Great Waves: African Provenance Zones for the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Cartagena de Indias, 1570–1640,” The Journal of African History 52, no. 1 (2011): 12–16.

[5] For a better understanding of the distribution of African slaves across the viceroyalty of New Granada, see the following regional studies: Aline Helg, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Marcela Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolution: Reform, Revolution, and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780-1825 (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Anthony McFarlane, "Cimarrones y Palenques en Colombia: Siglo XVIII," History and Space, no. 14 (2018): 53-78.

[6] McFarlane, “Cimarrones y Palenques en Colombia.”

[7] Marcella Echeverri, “Antislavery and Abolition in the Spanish American Mainland,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History (2023).

[8] Francisca Rojas, esclava de Roque Arias Prada, vecinos de Neiva: su solicitud de amparo contra la sevicia de su amo, y de que se le avaluase para ser vendida a otro, 1780, box 3, folders 612-617, Negros y Esclavos (Tolima), Archivo General de la Nacion, Colombia (hereafter cited as Francisca Rojas, Negros y Esclavos).

[9] Camillia Cowling, “‘As a Slave Woman and as a Mother’: Women and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro,” Social History 36, no. 3 (2011): 294–311.

[10] For more information on the provisions of gradual abolition, see Yesenia Barragan, Freedom’s Captives: Slavery and Gradual Emancipation on the Colombian Black Pacific. (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2022) and Leonardo Reales Jimenez, “Slavery, Racism, and Manumission in Colombian, 1821-1852,” Revista Análisis Internacional 6, no. 1 (June 2015): 71-93.

[11] Ley de manumision ó de abolicion de la esclavitud, 1851, box 136, folders 69-71, Libros Manuscritos y Leyes Originales de la Republica, Archivo General de la Nacion, Colombia (hereafter cited as Ley de manumision, Libros Manuscritos y Leyes Originales de la Republica).

[12] For a broad overview of various forms of resistance across the Americas, see Aline Helg and Lara Vergnaud, Slave No More: Self-Liberation Before Abolitionism in the Americas (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019)

[13] Helg and Vergnaud, Slave No More, 13.

[14] For more information on how the slaves used military service as a strategy to obtain freedom, see Peter Blanchard, Under the Flags of Freedom: Slave Soldiers and the Wars of Independence in Spanish South America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008); Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists, 19–61; Helg, Slave No More, 64–81; and Echeverri, “Antislavery and Abolition in the Spanish American Mainland.”

[15] Helg, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia.

[16] Maria Eugenia Chaves, “‘Nos, Los Esclavos de Medellín’: La Polisemia de La Libertad y Las Voces Subalternas En La Primera República Antioqueña,” Universidad Central 33 (October 2010): 43–57.

[17] For more on how the significance of the enslaved as a politically active group has been minimized, see James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 183–201, and Laurent DuBois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment: Rethinking the Intellectual History of the French Atlantic,” The Atlantic World (2014): 249–64.

[18] Helg, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia.

[19] Chaves, “‘Nos, Los Esclavos de Medellín.’”

[20] Helg and Vergnaud focus on self-liberation prior to abolition, so while they provide a comprehensive study of resistance strategies leading up to abolition in the Americas, they fall short of examining how these resistance strategies shaped the experience of freed persons towards the end of the national period and into the era of abolition.

[21] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance.

[22] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 4.

[23] Barragan, Freedom’s Captives, 20.

[24] Barragan defines the “time of gradual emancipation rule” from the passing of the 1821 Free Womb Law to the 1852 Manumission Law.

[25] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 198.

[26] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 199.

[27] For more on Black political consciousness and intellectual history, see DuBois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment.”

[28] Wheat, “The First Great Waves.”

[29] Real audiencia de Santa Fe, su acuerdo sobre la rebelion de los negros esclavos de Zaragoza, 1597, box 4, folders 372-373, Negros y Esclavos (Panamá), Archivo General de la Nacion, Colombia (hereafter cited as Real audiencia de Santa Fe, Negros y Esclavos).

[30] Real audiencia de Santa Fe, Negros y Esclavos.

[31] Real audiencia de Santa Fe, Negros y Esclavos.

[32] Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists, 8-16.

[33] McFarlane, "Cimarrones y Palenques en Colombia," 56.

[34] Investigation, Negros y Esclavos.

[35] McFarlane, "Cimarrones y Palenques en Colombia," 63.

[36] Rey de España, Real Cédula 1 de 1789: Sobre educación, trato y ocupaciones de los esclavos, May 31, 1789, in “Real Cédula 1 de 1789 Bogotá Colonial,” Régimen Legal de Bogotá D.C., accessed June 10, 2024, (hereafter cited as Informal Slave Bill of Rights).

[37] McFarlane, "Cimarrones y Palenques en Colombia," 63.

[38] McFarlane, "Cimarrones y Palenques en Colombia," 63.

[39] Echeverri, “Antislavery and Abolition in the Spanish American Mainland,” 4.

[40] Echeverri, “Antislavery and Abolition in the Spanish American Mainland,” 22.

[41] Francisca Rojas, Negros y Esclavos.

[42] Francisca Rojas, Negros y Esclavos.

[43] The enslaved population of New Granada, and eventually of the Republic of Colombia, would be granted full rights and status as citizens with the implementation of the Manumission Law of 1852. This implies that prior, none of these rights was designated to the enslaved.

[44] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 138–139.

[45] Francisca Rojas, Negros y Esclavos.

[46] Francisca Rojas, Negros y Esclavos.

[47] Echeverri, “Antislavery and Abolition in the Spanish American Mainland,” 1.

[48] Chaves, “‘Nos, Los Esclavos de Medellín,’” 44–45.

[49] Chaves, “‘Nos, Los Esclavos de Medellín.’”

[50] “Contra varios etíopes por haber intentado su libertad con violencia,” August 1812, box 193, folders 1-3, Esclavos, Archivo Histórico de Rionegro, Colombia (this excerpt was originally recorded in Spanish, and the text in the body of this article reflects my faithful Spanish-to-English translation of the source material; hereafter cited as Contra varios etiopes, Esclavos).

[51] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 140.

[52] Jorge Andrés Tovar Mora and Hermes Tovar Pinzón, El oscuro camino de la libertad: los esclavos en Colombia, 1821–1851 (Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Economía, 2009), 53.

[53] Contra varios etiopes, Esclavos.

[54] DuBois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment,” 3.

[55] Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists, 3–12.

[56] “Constitución Del Estado de Antioquía: Sancionada Por Los Representantes de Toda La Provincia y Aceptada Por El Pueblo El 3 de Mayo Del Año de 1812,” Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes, 2006.

[57] Investigation, Negros y Esclavos.

[58] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 148.

[59] Contra varios etiopes, Esclavos.

[60] Contra varios etiopes, Esclavos.

[61] Chaves, “‘Nos, Los Esclavos de Medellín,’” 48–53.

[62] Barragan, Freedom’s Captives, 21.

[63] DuBois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment,” 3.

[64] DuBois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment,” 2.

[65] DuBois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment,” 8.

[66] Informal Slave Bill of Rights.

[67] Informal Slave Bill of Rights, Chapter 1.

[68] Informal Slave Bill of Rights, Chapter 4.

[69] Informal Slave Bill of Rights.

[70] Mora and Pinzón, El oscuro camino de la libertad.

[71] Barragan, Freedom’s Captives, 9.

[72] Barragan, Freedom’s Captives, 6.

[73] Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, 197.

[74] Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists, 3.

[75] Barragan, Freedom’s Captives, 7.

[76] Barragan, Freedom’s Captives, 3-8.

[77] Lista nominal de esclavos cimarrones prófugos de la Provincia de Cartagena, formada en cumplimiento del Decreto Ejecutivo de 21 Junio de 1842, con anotación de sus “vicios dominantes,” 1850, box 1, folders 285-286, Archivo General de la Nación, Colombia.

[78] Scott, Domination and Arts of Resistance, xii.

[79] Helg and Vergnaud, Slave No More.

[80] Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists.

[81] Barragan, Freedom’s Captives.

[82] For more information on San Basilio de Palenque’s history, see “UNESCO - Cultural Space of Palenque de San Basilio,” Intangible Cultural Heritage, accessed January 6, 2024; and “Palenque, the First ‘free Town’ for Africans in America: Brand Colombia,” Colombia Country Brand, February 16, 2021.

[83] Scott, Domination and the Art of Resistance, 157.

Summer 2024 Vol. 9, Issue 2

Cover image courtesy of issue contributor Martin M. Mastnak.

About the Author

Isis Arevalo is a senior at Princeton University studying history with certificates in Spanish and American studies. Broadly, she is interested in exploring the social history of American cities at the turn of the twentieth century, specifically looking at the ways in which race, class, and gender have shaped the lives of migrants arriving at urban centers. Outside of academics at Princeton, you can find her competing on the mock trial team, on stage hosting the student-run late-night talk show, or working as an editor for the Princeton Historical Review!