Manumission in Eighteenth Century Jamaica

David Beck Ryden, “Manumission in Late Eighteenth-Century Jamaica,” New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 92:3-4  (2018): 211–244.

I’m very pleased that my most recent research on manumission in late-eighteenth century Jamaica has been published in the New West Indian Guide, the oldest scholarly journal with a focus on the Caribbean.

Manumission (the liberation of individual slaves) took place in many slave societies throughout history for a variety of reasons.  In this article, I use over 300 manumission deeds from Jamaica to explore the rationale for freedom grants, demography of the manumitted population, characteristics of the manumitters, and prices paid for freedom, when cash was exchanged.  In Jamaica, the proportion of slaves who were manumitted was very small, but one has to keep in mind that the entire population of bondsmen and women was very large on the island.  Nonetheless, manumission occurred on a regular basis and had a major bearing on the racial makeup of the island’s small free population. The voluntary granting of freedom took place in every parish on the island, however, there was marked concentration of deeds being signed in Kingston, St Catherine, and Port Royal: like other parts of the Atlantic World, manumission was disproportionately an urban phenomenon.

The source for this paper is based largely on the British Library’s endangered archive program’s Jamaica collectionJamaica Archives.  I used Volume 11 of the the Manumission Libers in order to build a database that captures information of over 300 manumitters and over 400 manumittees. The original hand-written manuscripts are at the Jamaica Archives, which I first explored in the 1990s. This record office has extensive collections that continue to offer major insights into seventeenth and eighteenth century Jamaica.  I will hopefully have these data made available in a SPSS and Excel format, soon.

The quantitative results paired with eighteenth-century commentary reveal how individuals negotiated their way to freedom and how white elites held contradictory understandings of racial and class-based boundaries.

The editor of the journal,  R.M.A.L. Hoefte and the team at Brill were incredibly helpful and patient with me throughout the editorial process and I thank them.  The New West Indian Guide is very much on the cutting edge, releasing the article as open access, CC. Be sure to download a pdf version of the article: it is free of charge!





Author: David Ryden

I am an economic historian who focuses on the political-economy of slavery and abolition. My primary research is on Jamaica and its planting interest.

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