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i n 1809 susannah ostrehan was dying. Just months before she had listed all the things she owned in her will. It was a lavish inventory , carefully recorded, with bequests to many people. There were many slaves in her inventory but of all the people she owned, the most important must have been her own mother. Her parent’s future welfare was her most pressing concern. She wanted to make sure that her mother was not just nominally a free person, but that she would be properly free. The meticulous wording of her testament reflects a daughter anxious about the future. She knew Barbados was a difficult place for a free woman of color, but it was far harder for an enslaved woman.¹ Susannah Ostrehan’s last wish was that her parent would live her last days as a free woman. However, this manumission was not so easy to effect in the Barbados of the early nineteenth century; Ostrehan had to rely on a bevy of people to make it happen. In an empire of private property, dispensing with houses, furniture, and personal possessions was simple, but in Barbados freeing people was a different matter altogether.At the turn of the nineteenth century the colonial governor had become worried by the large number of manumissions in the colony, in particular the manumissions of women,so in 1801 he had raised the cost of obtaining locally produced freedom certificates from 50 to 300 for women and to 200 for men. Aside from paying the exorbitant fee, anyone wishing to manumit a slave had to show good cause to the capricious Barbadian vestries, offices not disposed to giving freedom to slaves.² In this world, benevolent owners often had to invent various stratagems and ruses to effect the freedom of their enslaved property. This was especially the case for free colored women, whose vulnerability was often exploited and who could expect few concessions from a legal system weighted against them.³ One strategy,used time and time again,was to claim that the A Lasting Testament of Gratitude susannah ostrehan and her nieces chapter four A Lasting Testament of Gratitude ~ 81 money for the purchase of a slave was the slave’s own money, or that they had repaid the amount in full, allowing them to be thus declared free, even though there may not have been any such monetary transaction. Owners like Susannah Ostrehan often claimed that slaves had bought their freedom with their own savings—with the payment of the manumission fee somehow not being recorded. Another strategy was that the owner would will an enslaved person to a poor individual under the proviso that the new owner would undertake to free the slave. The manumission fee could then be waived because the new owner was technically insolvent and unable to pay, but was still beholden to the dictates of the deceased’s will. Sometimes owners would simply state that someone else had paid the price of the manumission in a different colony.Grenada and Dominica were sometimes used in this way,since the price for manumission in those colonies was only 10.⁴ By the early nineteenth century the Barbadian society to which Susannah Ostrehan belonged was filled with confusion as to the legal status of many informally emancipated people whose putative owners had avoided, misrepresented, or otherwise obfuscated the situation in attempts to get around the poorly resourced parish councils tasked with policing and controlling freed persons.⁵ This situation was made more confusing by the poor state of much of the recordings of manumission, which involved no clear system or “certificate” as such. Church receipts from wardens, deeds of manumission from England, wills, or other evidence and testimony were often offered as proof. Papers, of course, could be easily lost, damaged, or destroyed in bad weather and hard times. The possibility of forgery was obvious.There was much debate in the early nineteenth century about providing a formal registry of free people of color to help differentiate between those who were free and those who were enslaved, but nothing came of it.⁶ In 1823 a registry was again recommended by the colonial secretary in his general comments about the amelioration of slavery. But it was not until the 1826 Slave Consolidation Act that a formal procedure was introduced that established the status of freed persons. Various measures were introduced to clamp down on the loose system, from fines for owners...


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