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Book Review


Sue Peabody and Keila Grinberg, eds. Slavery, Freedom, and the Law in the Atlantic World: A Brief History with Documents. Boston and New York: Bedford St. Martin's Press, 2007.
xix + 224 pp. $15.95 (paper)


     The line between slavery and freedom was never fixed in the Atlantic World; rather, it was fluid, depending on time, place, and political situation. Elites, commoners, enslaved and indentured people throughout the Atlantic World influenced the adaptation of their legal systems to define the boundaries between freedom and unfreedom. This slim volume, part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture collection of edited primary sources, provides a strong starting point for beginners, or an excellent summary and document compilation for more advanced students. The text begins with a twenty-eight page introduction followed by forty-six documents broken down by country and/or colony. Editors Sue Peabody and Keila Brinberg explain that their theme is freedom juxtaposed against slavery. They focus on legal innovations which changed the contours of freedom and slavery, particularly those which occurred during Atlantic World revolutions and independence movements.

     The introduction provides a strong grounding in each region's labor and legal cultures with reference to the interactions between different nations in the Atlantic. Four sections outline British and American slavery, the French Atlantic with particular attention to the Haitian Revolution, the Spanish Atlantic, and Brazil under Portuguese rule. Peabody and Grinberg briefly ground each region's slave system in its medieval customary and legal precedents. They then discuss the major changes and watershed events which influenced the development of slavery. Each section concludes with how the region achieved permanent abolition of slavery. The authors are careful to note in their conclusions that while legal bondage no longer exists in any of the regions, it has created a historical legacy of racial discrimination.

     The documents follow the introduction and range from formal, state generated texts such as manumission suits, royal orders, decrees, constitutions, and petitions to social and cultural evidence, including letters and graphic images. Together, they emphasize the diverse nature of slavery in the Atlantic World. For example, the section "Portugal and Brazil" begins with a 1603 royal ordinance by King Philip that marked the transition from slavery as regulated by ecclesiastical law to slavery as a commercial enterprise regulated by the crown. This document demonstrates that slavery was initially a status based on a designation as Christian or non-Christian (in this case, captured Moors were enslaved) and later became a status based on nativity and/or race. Subsequent documents include legal codes and emancipation suits, which educators frequently use to demonstrate the contingency of slavery and freedom. Peabody and Grinberg add depth to this section with two images. One is an image titled "Iron Mask and Collar for Punishing Slaves" (Document #39) taken from an illustration in a travelogue. The document's introduction explains that masters used the apparatus to punish slaves who ate earth. The editors note that modern scientists believe that such behavior was the result of severe nutritional deficiencies. This context simultaneously highlights the brutality of slavery in a visceral visual image while also making clear how environment and severe malnutrition shaped the everyday realities of slavery. Two subsequent documents (#43 and #44) cover Brazil's 1871 "Free Womb Law" which began the process of gradual emancipation. The first document, taken from a political satire magazine, features a cartoon lambasting the law. The second document provides excerpts from the text of the "Free Womb Law." Astute students will recognize that slavery permeated almost every aspect of colonial life, from food production to politics to religious and cultural traditions.

     For instructors, this collection offers many possibilities. This text would make a strong addition to courses focusing on historical labor systems, slavery, the Atlantic World, or European imperialism. The documents are varied enough for comparative work exploring the similarities and particularities of each region's bondage system. For example, students could begin with an examination of "France's Freedom Principle and Race" (Document #5) and "The Somerset Case: England's Freedom Principle" (Document #10). Then, students could place these documents in the broader context of the Atlantic World by examining the rise of abolitionism in Haiti and England's North American colonies using Documents #8 (a set of three texts covering the Haitian Revolution) and #11, "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780." In doing so, students will gain a sense of how transnational and transoceanic freedom movements shaped Atlantic World slavery. For classes focusing on the Atlantic World more generally, this text offers a lens through which students will see how a shared labor and economic system created both continuity and discord.

     Of course, with any edited collection, authors make choices about which texts to include. As the editors claim, the collection emphasizes freedom. Toward that goal they have done an exemplary job. Readers see the many routes different regions took to national abolition and the many ways enslaved people fought for individual manumission within existing slave systems. In terms of individual manumissions, the documents manage to accomplish the difficult task of conveying enslaved people's voices—although judicially mediated—through their quests for freedom. As anyone working on slavery knows, recovering or finding the voices of slaves is an elusive task with which scholars struggle. Legal scholars will find that the judicial documents lack key passages laying out the legal reasoning behind a holding. For high school instruction, the legal documents, which so often appear recondite and inaccessible for beginning students, have been edited in a way that illuminates the basic issues without getting bogged down in historic legalese. Still, the texts present challenges and high school instructors may consider limiting usage to Advanced Placement classes or smaller classes in which students can slowly work through the texts with instructor guidance. This collection will serve as a fine introduction to primary sources for beginning undergraduates. For more advanced undergraduate students, these documents provide a good starting point for further excavation. In a concise collection, Peabody and Grinberg have accomplished admirably the difficult task of showing the complexity of slavery, the contingency of freedom, and the ongoing negotiations between master and enslaved people.

Yvonne M. Pitts is an Assistant Professor of History at Purdue University, specializing in American legal and constitutional history. She can be reached at


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