"The debate is open."
A large part of the black population of the Americas at the time of slavery was not a slave: she was free because she had liberated herself ... This is the astonishing picture painted by the Genevan historian Aline Helg in No More Slaves! From rebelliousness to rebellion, the great story of an emancipation (1492-1838), the first work to bring together scattered knowledge on the subject in a global drawing.
- Time: Slaves, you write, get free in three ways. The leak, to start ...
- Aline Helg: This is the most logical movement: we escape an unbearable condition ...
During the first two centuries of colonization, it can be estimated that 10% of slaves manage to escape. In the hinterlands that are not yet controlled by the state, these escaped slaves - called "chestnuts" - mix with other fugitives and Indians.
Some Maroon communities became so important that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries the English and Spanish monarchies signed treaties with them, recognizing their freedom provided they did not receive new chestnuts and help the monarchy militarily when needed ... Many of these communities still exist today, and keep special rights.
There is the well-known example of San Basilio de Palenque in Colombia, others in Suriname. Unfortunately, as in the case of the Indians who survived the colonization gap, their lands are now falling prey to the big mining companies.
- Many slaves were bidding their enfranchisement ...
- This is the most unknown modality: the redemption of one's own freedom. This possibility existed in Roman law, it is included in the Iberian laws of the 11th-12th century and it then goes to America in all Spanish and Portuguese territories.
There are specific rules: the amount to be paid to the master must not be higher than the purchase price; it is possible to redeem his freedom by installments; a slave can redeem the freedom of a third party, often his child ... All this is very developed in the Hispano-Portuguese colonies, until the end of slavery, in 1886-1888. In the French, English and Dutch colonies, this possibility exists at the beginning, but as the plantation system develops, it is eliminated. Overall, it can be estimated that one-third of the slaves of Hispano-Portuguese cities could buy their freedom. Obviously, their descendants were free too.
- The slaves who free themselves are mostly women ...
- A macho reading has long explained this phenomenon by saying that they were concubines of white men. In fact, the study of the registers shows that the majority of slaves bought back their own freedom. How?
Women were more numerous than men in the cities, where they had the right to work on their own on Sundays and holidays; they gradually accumulated a nest egg by washing clothes or selling on the markets ... On the other hand, there was a way of freeing oneself reserved for men, which consisted in enlisting as soldiers, especially during the conquest. and at the beginning of colonization. There were black slaves with the conquerors, who sometimes became encomenderos: they received in endowment communities of Indians, whom they directed and that they exploited.
This possibility also developed during the wars of independence, when the armies were still lacking valid men.
- There are finally revolts ...
- I define these as mobilizations grouping together at least a tenth of a given slave population, and involving acts of violence.
The revolts were very few, contrary to what we believed. The first of scale is that of Berbice (between the deltas of the Orinoco and the Amazon) in 1763. There is, of course, that of Santo Domingo from 1791, which results in the liberation of the slaves of the island (400 000, on arrival), the defeat of the troops of Napoleon and the proclamation of the Republic of Haiti by former slaves: this is the great turning point, long ignored, the history of the Americas ...
The last three great revolts occur in the English West Indies as abolitionism begins to gain strength in England; they create dialogue and mutual support with abolitionism, which they help to bring about.
Whence comes the misunderstanding according to which the revolt would have been frequent?
- The theme of the slave revolt is very present in books written in the Americas during the 80 years: an era marked by visions of heroism and the figure of the guerrilla ...
The problem is that these studies took the court documents for cash, reading like revolts of events where the slaves did not do more than imagine and talk about rebelling. However, for the laws in force, to consider killing a white man is as serious as to really kill him, and the confessions are always torn out under torture.
In the British West Indies, prisoners were hung by the arms in cages where they faced each other; If they spoke during their agony while pronouncing the names of other slaves, they were considered accomplices and subjected to the same torture ... Rare in fact, the slave revolt is however a recurring scenario in the spirit of colonists, who appears in 1537 in Mexico City and crosses the entire continent. This is logical: over the entire period and territory of the Americas, there are four times more deported Africans than white immigrants. Whites are very much in the minority, they are always afraid.
- The slaves, you write, adapted their strategy according to the changes in the international situation and flaws in the system of domination. How did they go about being informed?
- It's simple: as their masters took them for fools, they held their discussions in the presence of slaves ... Imagine: planters meet with the governor smoking cigars, they criticize the king's decisions and notice that there has fewer troops because of the war between France and England; the slaves serve the cognac and listen; some people can read and check the news in the newspaper ...
Another little-known aspect is the speech developed by slaves to defend their freedom. There are lawsuits in the Iberian world in the late eighteenth century where slaves refer to the philosophy of natural rights: God created all equal men ... In Protestant settlements, where evangelism involves reading the Bible Slaves will use the story of the enslavement of the Hebrews in Egypt and their liberation to build a sort of theology of liberation before the time. They rely on the Bible to say: It's just because God wants it, and our master has to obey him ...
- What does all this say about being slaves?
- First of all, it says the solitude in which they were. Abolitionism only begins in the 1760 years. Until then, slaves are completely alone in societies that do not even recognize them as beings: they are "movable goods" according to the law ...
In these conditions, having a project of life consisting in freeing oneself shows a strength, an extraordinary resistance, a sense of oneself which is magnificent. We are far from the image, which has been painted for a long time, of the slave completely insane, with no resources to escape it. On the contrary, slaves were actors in their own history; despite their condition, they sought to play a role in their lives.
- This is how "another America was discreetly built", according to your formula. What does the world of "color free" look like?
- It's a world of city workers, of city women, family heads. It is also a rural world of llaneros - the plains cowboys - and peasants.
A world that will be marginalized after the colonies' access to independence, then "racialized" at the end of the 19th century. There will be a big comeback: barely slavery is abolished that "scientific" racism takes over.
As for the abolitionists, well, they abolished slavery by compensating the masters, but they dropped the old slaves soon after. This world suffers so much in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
During the development of the nation-state and the exporting economies, it struggles to find its place in the nation. Even though demographically, the population of the "free from color" often represents the majority ... Today, the cultural and technological contributions of slaves to the formation and development of the Americas have been recognized: there is no country of America that can be defined without mentioning these enormous contributions. These are all the more extraordinary as the slaves produced them in the small interstices that remained available in their lives.
Aline Helg, "Never again slaves! From insubordination to revolt, the grand narrative of an emancipation (1492-1838) "(The Discovery)