Anti-slave-trade Law, ‘Liberated Africans’, and the State in the South Atlantic World, c. 1839 – 52

12 Mar 2018

From 1807 onwards, bilateral slave-trade treaties stipulated how naval squadrons would rescue slaves from slave ships, and how states should arrange the settlement and apprenticeship of these slaves, to transform them into ‘liberated Africans’. Comparing interactions between the state and liberated Africans at sea along the South African and Brazilian coasts, and in the port towns of Cape Town and Salvador, reveals how the legal status of liberated Africans changed over time. Current scholarship has framed liberated Africans in terms of whether they were attributed rights or suffered re-enslavement, and thus focused on their solidarity through claiming rights, ‘ethnic survivals’ or creolization. Instead, this paper argues anti-slave-trade legislation ascribed to liberated Africans a set of unguaranteed entitlements – promises regarding status and treatment without obligating states to uphold that status or treatment. By focusing on the precise aspects of legislation that operated at each point in the process of anti-slave-trade activity – rescuing slaves from slave ships, transportation to a port, processing through a court, and apprenticeship – this paper unearths how the law came into force in the encounter between state officials and liberated Africans, as part of the complex transition from slavery to free labour.