During the last five years a series of important new studies on manumission in Latin America have appeared.1 Although manumission had been discussed previously by almost every student of slavery in Latin America, earlier analyses were handicapped severely by the nature of the sources consulted. Travelers’ accounts, imperial legislation, governmental reports, and census materials were used in these older studies to estimate the number of manumissions granted and to identify the segments of the slave population that were most likely to be freed. While these sources continue to have a demonstrated utility for the study of slavery, they provide little concrete data for the study of manumission. All of the recent investigations share a common source, actual manumissions recorded by notaries, and a common method, quantitative analysis.

Since manumission was a legal act, the transfer of property rights from owner to slave, nearly all manumissions granted in civil jurisdictions with a resident notary were recorded throughout Latin America. Although some manumissions in rural areas may have occurred without this formality, very few manumissions granted in the urban centers of Portuguese and Spanish America were not recorded in notarial registers.2 Each manumission document provides a broad range of descriptive data about both slave and master that arranged in serial form permits accurate measurement of total manumissions, types of manumission granted, and identification of those portions of the slave population and owner class that participated in the process.3

This article examines manumission in Buenos Aires during the final thirty-five years of the colonial period. The period studied begins with the creation of the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata and the selection of Buenos Aires as its capital in 1776 and ends with the first stage of the independence struggle in 1810. During the intervening period, Buenos Aires emerged as the undisputed commercial and political center of the Platine region. The city’s enhanced political role associated with the creation of the new viceroyalty stimulated rapid population growth. The decision of the imperial government to increase the size of military and naval garrisons in the region and to augment the administrative bureaucracy of the city produced an increased demand for goods and services that, in turn, attracted laborers, artisans, and professionals from Spain, other European nations, and the cities of the colonial interior. In addition, Buenos Aires increasingly became the destination for substantial numbers of slaves, both from Africa and Brazil.4 Although the majority of these involuntary immigrants were resold to the mining centers of Upper Peru, large numbers of slaves were retained in the city to meet local labor demands.

Because massive immigration from Europe to Argentina, particularly to Buenos Aires, in the nineteenth century overwhelmed the demographic remains of the city’s colonial socioracial structure, it is difficult for modern students to conceive of the important role played by Africans and their descendants in colonial Buenos Aires.5 City census materials indicate that Negroes and mulattos comprised approximately one-third of the urban population during the viceregal period. These same sources also suggest that a substantial majority of both racial groups were slaves throughout the period.

Not only were large numbers of Negroes and mulattos present in the city, but they also played an important role in the urban economy. Slaves and their free descendants supplied much of the city’s unskilled labor. In addition, these groups figured prominently in the artisan crafts where they competed increasingly with immigrant craftsmen from Europe.6 It is evident that many of the city’s petty entrepreneurial occupations—water vendors, laundresses, street peddlers, and carriers—were dominated by slaves. Only at the highest levels of the urban occupational hierarchy were Negroes and mulattos effectively excluded from full participation during the colonial period.

Active involvement in the urban economy provided elements in the slave population of colonial Buenos Aires with the opportunity to accumulate savings and correspondingly helped to define both the volume of manumission and the types of manumission granted. During the thirty-five-year period studied, 1,482 manumissions were recorded by notaries in Buenos Aires and in nearly sixty percent of these cases freedom was purchased by the individual freedman or his family.7 Although manumission was more common in Buenos Aires and in other regions of Latin America than in North America, it is clear that religious and humanitarian factors were less important than earlier investigators had suggested.8 In Buenos Aires, for example, there was only one manumission of a child at baptism and there were no cases where the slaveowner identified himself as the godfather, padrino, of the freedman. Spanish law did provide some protection for slaves who sought freedom, but in only 34 cases in Buenos Aires did civil authorities intervene on behalf of a slave whose owner refused manumission. That is, the colonial societies of Latin America tolerated manumission, but the process was not encouraged actively by either Church or state. Instead of these institutional explanations of manumission, recent studies have suggested that the economic and demographic characteristics of each community determined both the volume of manumission and those segments of the slave population that would benefit from it.

Manumission data from Buenos Aires are in general agreement with published data from other regions of Latin America. The fact that these similarities can be noted for such a wide geographic expanse over nearly two centuries suggests that although local economic conditions, local labor supplies, volume of the slave trade, and the resultant market value of slaves all had some impact on manumission, these variables did not control the process completely. Table I displays the marginal distributions of four variables, color, gender, age, and form of manumission, for Buenos Aires, Bahia, and Paraty in Brazil, Lima, and Mexico City. The comparative data suggest that similar constituencies in the slave populations of Latin America usually benefited from the manumission process.

In each analysis of manumission where color was noted, a majority of those slaves who gained freedom were Negroes. It does appear, however, that mulattos enjoyed some advantage in the manumission process. Because contemporary census data are often unreliable or nonexistent, it is difficult to measure this apparent advantage with any authority. A recent analysis of the 1810 census of Buenos Aires found that Negroes accounted for more than eighty percent of the total slave population.9 Although this figure is suspect because of the extremely large number of cases where the slave’s color was not recorded (seventy-two percent unknown), it does appear that mulattos were substantially less than forty-nine percent of the slave population in Buenos Aires. Stuart B. Schwartz has noted the same advantage for mulattos in Bahia, 1684-1745; and James P. Kiernan reported similar results for Paraty.10

Female slaves appear also to have had an advantage in the manumission process. Every recent study of manumission in Latin America has found that a sizeable majority of those freed were females. As Table I illustrates, the gender characteristics of the manumitted were remarkably similar throughout the region, despite the fact that the slave trade maintained a male majority in the slave population in each of these locales during the periods studied.11

Less uniformity of results is evident for the variables, age and form of manumission. Only in the cases of Lima and Mexico City were a majority of those freed children. This may be explained by the small sample size in this study or by some local factor not identifiable in the manumission documents.12 The largest percentage of adult freedmen was found in Buenos Aires, where the age of those manumitted was most precisely and regularly noted in the documents. Purchased manumissions were also most common in Buenos Aires. This characteristic was probably a function of the age distribution of those freed since children were the most likely recipients of gratis manumissions in all of the societies studied. In each of the cities studied so far, gratis manumissions were fairly common, but only in Mexico City was gratis manumission more prevalent than purchased manumission. A substantial proportion of freedmen received conditional manumissions. In these cases the slave was promised freedom at some future date, usually upon the death of the owner, or after the completion of a specific task such as a slave carpenter building a new home for his master. In some cases where manumission was tied to the future good conduct of the slave, a freedman who failed to fulfill the stated conditions could be returned to bondage.

The manumission data collected from the notarial records of colonial Buenos Aires permit an analysis of interrelationships among a broad range of variables that describe partially both owners and freedmen. An examination of the data demonstrates that some of the explanations for manumission found in the literature need to be revised or discarded. In the case of Buenos Aires, there appears to be no evidence that considerable numbers of slaves manumitted between 1776 and 1810 were the progeny of their owners. It is, of course, impossible to identify precisely all cases of owner paternity from the manumission documents since there was certainly no compulsion to admit the paternity of a slave child. It is also difficult to discover cases where masters freed children fathered by their sons or other white males resident in their households, or cases where purchased manumissions were arranged by white fathers who were unrelated to the slaveowner. A close analysis of manumissions granted children, however, will help place the question of paternity in perspective.

There were 224 children under age fourteen freed in Buenos Aires during the period studied. Men freed 132 of these and women freed the remaining 92. An identical percentage of children freed by both groups were mulattos, sixty-six percent. This apparent advantage enjoyed by mulatto children was found also among children under six years, the age cohort where the illegitimate progeny of slaveowners or other white males would probably be found. There were 128 children under six manumitted and in 120 cases the color of the child was cited by the notary. Eighty-two of these children were mulattos. Although 48 of these mulatto children were freed by male owners, only 12 received a gratuitous manumission from a living owner. Four more were freed in the wills of male owners. The remaining 32 mulatto children freed by male owners had their freedom purchased by their parents. Although it cannot be assumed that male owners would not require a a payment before freeing their progeny or that a male owner freeing a mulatto child gratuitously was the child’s father, it seems unlikely that paternity explains more than a small fraction of these cases. There is also the possibility that some of the 34 mulatto children under six years freed by women were the progeny of sons, deceased husbands, or other male relatives. It does appear, however, that the number of paternity-related manumissions was less than the 82 cases where mulatto children under six were freed, amounting to under five percent of the total manumissions recorded between 1776 and 1810.

Table II displays the age distributions of Negroes and mulattos freed in Buenos Aires. Mulatto children were much more likely than their Negro contemporaries to be manumitted. Only as adults did the proportions of Negroes freed approximate the percentage of Negroes in the total slave population. Although the distinct age distributions found for these two groups cannot be completely explained by an analysis of notary records, some effort must be made to explain why twenty-four percent of all mulattos freed were children under fourteen years, while only eleven percent of the manumitted Negroes were in this age cohort. Two interrelated explanations can be offered tentatively. It is clear that knowledge of the manumission process and specific awareness of the successful efforts of other slaves who had achieved freedom were useful to the slave who sought freedom for himself or his children. Since the slave community of Buenos Aires was largely illiterate, information about the manumission process was acquired through personal contacts with other slaves. Therefore, slaves born in Buenos Aires or in other areas subject to Spanish law and custom had a decided advantage in the manumission process over recent arrivals from either Africa or Brazil. Although tens of thousands of African-born slaves entered Buenos Aires during the period studied, only 55 of the 995 freedmen for whom birthplace could be determined were born outside Spanish America. The vast majority (922) of freedmen were born within the jurisdiction of Buenos Aires.

Skin color can be used as a rough index for familial presence in America. In general, it was more likely that a mulatto’s antecedents had been present in Buenos Aires longer than had the familial antecedents of a Negro. As a group, therefore, mulattos were more creole, more experienced in and knowledgeable about local culture, and more aware of opportunities for manumission. Beyond this, it is evident also that the preferences and prejudices of the owner class also influenced the manumission process and that this influence was most clear in the manumission of children. As pointed out by Schwartz in his study of Bahia, slaveowners tended to express a natural affection and interest for children born in their households that was not related necessarily to biological paternity.13 Since mulatto children more closely approximated white somatic norms, they were even more likely than darker-skinned children to benefit from the paternalistic interest of their owners.14 As a result, mulatto parents were more likely to translate knowledge of the manumission process and the paternalistic concern of owners into freedom for their children than were Negro parents.

The gender of the slaveowner exercised an important influence on both the opportunity for a slave to gain freedom and the type of manumission granted. As should be expected, male owners freed more slaves than did female owners. Male owners were responsible for sixty-two percent of the 1,482 manumissions granted in Buenos Aires. Since men dominated the economic life of the city and had consequently greater access to the capital resources necessary to purchase and maintain slaves, their share of manumissions appears smaller than anticipated. It is more striking that thirty-three percent of the manumitted slaves were owned by women, eighty-seven percent of whom were single or widowed heads of households.15

In general, men freed more valuable slaves than did women. Although the specific occupations of freedmen were given only in a small minority of cases, male owners did free 69 of the 89 skilled artisans freed in Buenos Aires during this period. Males were also slightly more likely than women to free adult male slaves aged fourteen to forty-five, the most valuable slave cohort. While slightly less than ten percent of the 486 slaves freed by women were adult males fourteen to forty-five, fifteen percent of the 910 slaves freed by men were from this group. There was also a less clearly defined tendency of male owners to free more than one slave in a single act of manumission, sixty-three percent of the 257 cases where two or more slaves were freed. These tendencies were functions of the larger slaveholdings and greater economic resources of male slaveowners. As indicated in contemporary census records, men were disproportionately represented among the owners of large slaveholdings and were more likely to own male slaves in their most productive years.

Male and female owners who freed slaves during the period were also differentiated by the manner in which they had come into possession of the future recipients of manumission. If these freedmen are divided into two categories, those acquired by purchase and those acquired by inheritance or birth in the owner’s household, we find the owner’s gender directly correlated with the manner of acquisition. While sixty-seven percent of the slaves freed by females were inherited or born in their households, sixty-eight percent of the slaves freed by males were purchased. This divergence is best explained by the more passive economic role played generally by upper-class women in colonial Buenos Aires. Although a substantial proportion of the city’s free adult female population worked regularly and provided an important component of the petty commercial and service sectors of the economy, women from the white slaveowning class were closely restricted by taboos that inhibited their full participation in the economy. Particularly for those single women and widows of this class who managed their own households, the earnings of their slaves were often a major source of income. In these cases, the labor of the slave, or slaves, provided much of the income that sustained the household and thereby eliminated the need for the female slaveowner to sacrifice her family’s social status through direct participation in the economy. In fact, it is increasingly clear that many slaves in Buenos Aires were acquired by white males in high-status occupations as a form of income-producing legacy for their female heirs much as the modern middle-class male purchases life insurance.16

The gender of the slaveowner was closely associated with the type of manumission granted. Table III displays the relationship between these two variables. Women were slightly less apt than men to grant a gratuitous manumission. They were twice as likely, however, to manumit a slave, or slaves, in their will. This tendency is related to the comparative resources of the two groups and does not indicate a diminished generosity. Women, overall, were less likely to require payment as a precondition for freedom. This appears to be one manifestation of the way in which the two groups acquired their slaves. Since women more often acquired slaves by birth in their homes or inheritance from the estate of a family member, they had a longer more personal relationship with the slave and would be less prone to demand payment for freedom. In order to test this association the same cross tabulation was run again, this time controlling for the form of acquisition. Even among this smaller group of slaves, all acquired by birth or inheritance, women owners were still more likely to free the slave without compensation, forty-seven percent (125), than were men, thirty-nine percent (91), but the difference between the groups was narrowed slightly.

There was only a weak association between the age of the slave at manumission and the type of manumission granted. Table IV illustrates this relationship. As would be expected children were more likely to receive gratuitous manumissions, forty-one percent of the group, but it is more important to note that a substantial majority of this group, the most likely recipients of paternalistic largesse, had their freedom purchased, or in a few cases were themselves bound to additional service. There is a strong similarity in the distribution of types of manumissions for children and adults over forty-five years of age. This was, at least partially, related to similar market values for these two groups of slaves.

There is no evidence that manumission was used regularly by owners in Buenos Aires to dispose of slaves who had become a financial burden through illness, injury, or advanced age.17 Slaves forty-six years old or older received only ten percent of the total manumissions granted during this period, and the majority of these older slaves purchased their freedom. Gratuitous manumissions granted to older slaves account for only four percent of all manumissions awarded. Although there were undoubtedly some instances where owners cynically freed slaves who were no longer able to fend for themselves, there were only five cases where the documents noted specifically that the slave was in poor health and in three of these cases freedom was purchased. It is known that many slaves who were sick or incapacitated in some other way were abandoned by their owners. The records of the cabildo of Buenos Aires indicate that this happened often enough for that institution to repeat regularly a prohibition against abandoning sick or injured slaves in the city streets in order to limit the spread of infectious disease. This action by the city council suggests that the abandonment of weak, sick, and injured slaves was an important manifestation of the inherent cruelty of slavery, but the data in Table IV indicate that this was not a function of the manumission process. A master who would leave his slave to die in the street was not likely to pay the notarial costs related to manumission.

An association did exist between the manner in which the slave was acquired and form of manumission received as Table V illustrates. Slaves who were born in the master’s household or who were inherited were more likely to receive a gratuitous manumission than were slaves who had been purchased. This relationship probably reflects two related, but distinct, phenomena. First, slaves either born in the household or inherited were likely to have a longer, more personal relationship with their owners. In a substantial number of cases, these slaves were able to translate this relationship into a gratuitous manumission. And second, the form of acquisition indicated the owner’s economic need for the slave’s labor. Slaves were usually purchased in response to specific labor needs in the home or business of the owner. Because of this, the replacement value of the purchased slave was an important consideration in any manumission agreement. As a result, the purchased slave was more likely to pay for his freedom than was a slave who was born in the household or inherited. As the table clearly shows, however, these are tendencies rather than clear causal relationships.

One final and expected manifestation of this phenomenon is that purchased slaves tended to be older at the time of manumission than were slaves born in the household or inherited. Whereas 600 of the 616 purchased slaves who gained freedom were fourteen or older, only fifty-seven percent of those who were acquired by birth or inheritance were adults at time of manumission. It is clear that this latter group enjoyed disproportionately whatever advantages could be extracted from the paternalistic elements of the institution of slavery as it existed in colonial Buenos Aires.

It is worthwhile to suggest as a hypothesis for further study that these two groups of slaves evolved distinctive strategies for acquiring freedom. Slaves acquired through birth in the household or inheritance would be more likely to rely on the paternalistic interest of their owners and develop those skills, habits, and behaviors that were favorably evaluated within the limited world of the household. Slaves who had been purchased, on the other hand, were less able to manipulate the paternalistic elements of the master-slave relationship and therefore emphasized those skills, habits, and behaviors that could be most successfully sold in the local marketplace. At present this hypothesis must remain untested since the manumission documents provide no data on the post-manumission experiences of these freedmen. If it is correct, however, the more entrepreneurial behavior of the purchased slaves, or, more correctly, the slaves who purchased their freedom, would probably be demonstrated by their greater material success in freedom.18

Initially, these differing patterns appeared to be associated with the color of the manumitted slave. As might be expected, a much higher percentage of manumitted mulattos had entered their owner’s household at birth or had been inherited. Whereas sixty-nine percent of all manumitted Negroes had been purchased by their owners, only forty percent of manumitted mulattos had been similarly acquired. In addition, mulattos were more likely to receive gratuitous manumissions than were Negroes, thirty-nine percent of all mulattos compared to thirty-one percent of all Negroes. Were mulattos more closely tied to a paternalistic reward system? Were they singled out by the white owner class for preferred treatment?

In order to test these possible linkages, color was cross tabulated with form of manumission, but this time the relationship was controlled for the manner in which the slave had been acquired. No direct association between the color of the freedman and form of manumission existed. A mulatto slave obtained by purchase was no more likely than a Negro slave similarly acquired to receive a gratuitous manumission. Mulattos acquired through birth or inheritance displayed only the slightest advantage in securing freedom without payment. Although neither group appears to have received preferred treatment from the owner class, there was one important difference between mulatto and Negro adults manumitted in Buenos Aires.

Although difficult to explain, among the adult slaves fourteen to forty-five, Negroes had a higher incidence of marriage than mulattos. While sixty-four percent of the adult mulattos were single, sixty-eight percent of the adult Negroes were married.19 This dichotomy is also present when the two racial groups are differentiated by gender. Adult male slaves, in general, were less likely to be married at the time of manumission than were adult females, but a majority of the Negro males, fifty-two percent, were married, while seventy-six percent of the mulatto males were single. Adult Negro females had the highest incidence of marriage, seventy-five percent. Although mulatto women were more likely to be married than were mulatto men (forty percent of adult mulatto females), they did not approach the incidence registered for Negro women. These distinctive marriage patterns appear to be related to the form of acquisition. Slaves who were purchased, usually as young adults, were torn loose from their families (family of orientation). Even if the slave was born in Buenos Aires and simply transferred to a different household in the city, the emotional and financial support systems inherent in the family were weakened and restricted. The Negro adults in this study were more likely than mulattos to have experienced this separation. As a result, Negro adults relied more heavily on the alternate kin network created by marriage (family of procreation) than did mulattos.

If there is a correlation between these social behaviors observed in the manumission documents and the attitudes, prejudices, and actions of the dominant white society, it is not readily discernable. We do know that the society was color conscious. The nearly uniform statement of color in the manumission documents reflected white opinion that Negroes and mulattos were distinct groups. We don’t know, however, if whites encouraged and rewarded different behaviors in the two groups. We can recognize the differential marriage rates among freed Negroes and mulattos, but the association cannot be explained beyond the data on form of acquisition provided in the documentation. Clearly the white owner class influenced the social organization of the slave community, but the relationship between white demands and nonwhite efforts to preserve racial and cultural autonomy cannot be completely explained by an analysis of the manumission process.

As noted in Table I, the most common form of manumission in colonial Buenos Aires involved self-purchase or purchase by a third party. In a few cases the freedman was required to meet some nonmonetary obligation, such as additional service in the owner’s household, as a condition of manumission, but most often purchased manumissions consisted of a straightforward exchange of cash for unencumbered freedom. In Buenos Aires, there was no association between the cost of a purchased manumission and the slave’s color. The gender of the slave, however, was linked to the price of freedom. Among adult slaves in their prime working years, fourteen to forty-five years old, men were more likely to pay more than 300 pesos for manumission than were women, but this tendency is defined weakly by the data. In most of these cases the male slaves were skilled craftsmen. Among semiskilled and unskilled males, the price of manumission was identical to that paid by women of the same age. There was a strong association between the price of manumission and the age of the slave. Table VI displays the association. The most striking aspect of the table is the similarity in price distributions registered for children six to thirteen and adults older than forty-five. The majority of individuals in both groups had limited market value. By way of comparison, an adult African slave, male or female, imported into the city sold for approximately 200 pesos throughout the period. The imposition of a value of 100 pesos or less on manumission represented an attempt to extract a portion of the owner’s expenses for maintaining an unproductive slave. Although this can be viewed as a small amount in absolute terms, it represented potentially an insurmountable obstacle to many slaves who sought freedom for themselves, their spouses, or their children.

We have currently no basis for comparing the amount paid for manumission with the market value of the slave. Although virtually all slave sales are recorded in the notary copybooks, no systematic analysis exists. There is some evidence in the manumission documents that the slave was not required to pay more for freedom than his market value. There were thirty-four cases where the alcalde intervened on the slave’s behalf and set the price of manumission as the estimated market value. In addition, there were seventy-two cases where the initial price paid for the slave by the owner is cited. In eighty-nine percent of these cases, the price paid for manumission is identical to the initial market value. The thirty-four cases where slaves were forced to involve the civil authorities indicated that in some instances owners attempted to prevent manumission by outright refusal or by the imposition of a punitive price. Yet in a substantial number of cases, slaves were able to purchase freedom for themselves or members of their families when they accumulated the market value of a replacement.

The prices paid for purchased manumissions in Table VI do not measure adequately the sacrifices made by individual slaves, or slave families. In order to illustrate the actual cost of freedom, the price of manumission was compared with selected daily wages earned by slaves in three broadly defined occupational categories (Table VII). Less than ten of the slaves manumitted between 1776 and 1810 were master craftsmen capable of earning more than twenty reales per day. The remaining eighty artisans were journeymen who generally earned ten reales per day. The vast majority of adult slaves who worked outside their owner’s household as unskilled and semiskilled workers— peddlers, laundresses, warehousemen, and laborers—seldom earned more than four reales per day. In virtually all of the cases where slaves worked outside the household, a substantial portion of the slave’s earnings were given directly to the slaveowner. Beyond this, of course, the slave expended a portion of his or her earnings for supplemental clothing, food, and often housing. The small amount of income that remained after these expenditures was the source utilized to purchase freedom. The relationships in Table VII, therefore, represent the most optimistic approximations of the number of working days necessary to accumulate the price of manumission. Realistically, a slave earning four reales per day would have to work for most of his or her adult life before accumulating 200 pesos. As a result only the most dedicated and resourceful slaves were able to purchase their liberty. Slave families, by pooling their resources, were able to accelerate the process of accumulation thus constituting an essential part of the manumission process. Few slaves other than the highest-paid artisans could have purchased their freedom without the support of their families.

As was expected, the financial resources of slave families were crucial assets in the effort to gain freedom for children. Slave families purchased the freedom of fifty-nine percent of all children under fourteen years freed in Buenos Aires during the period studied. For adult slaves as well, the savings of husbands, wives or parents were often essential aids to freedom. In almost all cases where the slaveowner required a cash payment for manumission, the notary recorded the source of the money. Among adult freedmen, a majority of both men and women were personally responsible for the cash payment in cases of purchased manumissions. Nevertheless, it is important to note that even in this group, the most economically active portion of the slave population, thirty-five percent of the manumissions (283) were purchased by the families of the freedmen. Adult males were just as likely to rely on their families for financial assistance as were adult females. In fact, among older slaves, forty-six years of age or older, males were more likely than their female contemporaries to require familial assistance when purchasing freedom.

Among adult slaves there was a two to one ratio between purchased and gratuitous manumissions. Since males tended to dominate the highest paid, most skilled occupations open to slaves, it is necessary to explain why 57.4 percent of the adults who purchased freedom were women. The explanation of this pattern is related to the kind of work done by men and women slaves outside their owner’s household. Most male slaves were placed in salaried positions by their owners who had negotiated wages, hours, and conditions with an employer, and in many cases the owners were paid directly for the slave’s labor. Within this employment structure, it was difficult for the male slave to accumulate capital. Female slaves who worked outside their owner’s household were participants in a very different occupational structure. They were more likely to be employed in petty entrepreneurial occupations in the city’s streets, such as selling foodstuffs, or in the service sector, such as laundresses. Earnings generated in these occupations could not be as easily controlled by the slaveowner. As long as slaves in these occupations returned adequate income to their owners, it was possible for them to save any excess that was earned. Therefore, it appears that a crucial variable in determining whether a slave could accumulate sufficient capital to purchase manumission was independence from the direct supervision of the slaveowner, not gross earning capacity. The data from colonial Buenos Aires suggest that the occupations available to slave women provided a greater potential for capital accumulation than did the occupations dominated by men.20

There were no important alterations in prices paid for manumission by children or adult slaves over forty-five years of age during the viceregal period. The price extracted for the freedom of a child appears to have been influenced more by cultural and religious practice than by market conditions. Changes in the market demand for labor also appear to have had little impact on the price of manumission paid by older slaves. Only among slaves in their most productive working years is there a relationship between alterations in the demand for labor and the price of manumission. The data show a gradual increase in the average price paid for manumission by adult slaves fourteen to forty-five years of age from 205 pesos in the period 1776-1780 to a high of 288 pesos in the years 1806-1810. Although we can only speculate, it seems that the increased militarization of the city caused by the British threat disrupted the supply of free labor and caused a slight inflation in the market price of this portion of the slave population. This change was then reflected in the price paid for manumission.

There were some important changes in the incidence of manumission and in the types of manumission granted during the period studied. Table VIII illustrates these characteristics. More than half of the slaves granted freedom during the viceregal period received their liberty during the final decade. This figure is for manumissions not directly related to the defense of Buenos Aires during two British invasions. Eighty-four additional slaves were granted freedom as a result of their heroism against the British. Clearly, the incidence of manumission increased more rapidly than did the size of the slave population. It is difficult to fix precisely the number of slaves resident in the city during this period. The city censuses of 1778 and 1810 remain the best sources for this information but present us with major difficulties. The data collection in both censuses was often unsystematic and biased. In addition, portions of the 1810 census have been lost. Finally, the manumitted slaves tended to be American-born with long-established residence in the city. The slaves enumerated in the censuses include large numbers of slaves in transit to the interior, or resident for short periods with masters who were temporarily located in the city. Therefore, to associate the number of manumissions with the actual resident slave population of Buenos Aires by using the censuses is problematical. Nevertheless, a rough approximation can be attempted. If the actual resident slave population in 1778 is estimated at 4,612, less than 0.4 percent of that population annually gained freedom through manumission. By 1810, when the permanent slave population had increased to approximately 8,432, 1.3 percent of the slaves received manumission annually.21 Although both figures represent a very small proportion of the slave population, this threefold increase in the rate of manumission is noteworthy.

The augmented incidence of manumission should not be viewed as an indication that slavery had outlived its usefulness in the city, or that the porteños of the late colonial period were moved by humanitarian considerations to free their slaves. Table IV demonstrates that gratuitous manumissions were proportionately less important at the end of the colonial period than earlier. Purchased manumissions became more common, and the number of manumissions increased, as the earning capacity of the slave population increased. Greater volume of shipping in the port, augmented trade with the interior, and resultant increases in service-sector employment all combined to give slaves increased access to money. As monetary relationships between slaves and masters became more important, paternalistic interest diminished and the proportion of gratuitous manumissions decreased. Nevertheless, slaves gained improved opportunities for manumission because of their increased earning capacity.

The results of this study of manumission in colonial Buenos Aires are in general agreement with the results of similar studies of manumission in other Latin American cities. Similar segments of the slave population (women, children, and mulattos) were represented disproportionately in the manumission process in all of the locales studied so far. Earlier historians, utilizing travelers’ accounts, census materials, and government reports, had noticed this apparent bias but had attributed it incorrectly to owner paternity of slave children and to a reward system associated with concubinage. It is now clear that these characteristics of the manumitted are better explained by relative levels of acculturation in the dominant society, slave replacement costs as measured by the marketplace, occupational opportunities available to the slave population, and the ability of individual slaves and slave families to accumulate savings. In addition, in the Buenos Aires case the characteristics of those manumitted (gender, color, and age) changed and the incidence of manumission increased in response to alterations in the regional economy. Finally, it is evident that the initiative of individual slaves and their families was crucial to the manumission process. Although some slaves benefited from the paternalistic concern of their owners and received freedom without monetary cost, these slaves tended to be drawn from the small minority of slaves who had been born in their owners’ households. The majority of slaves manumitted in Buenos Aires purchased their freedom, and for these slaves the ability to earn and save money was more important than the generosity of the slaveowner in determining access to freedom.


Frederick P. Bowser, “The Free Persons of Color in Lima and Mexico City: Manumission and Opportunity, 1580-1650” in Stanley L. Engerman and Eugene D. Genovese, eds., Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies (Princeton, 1974); Stuart B. Schwartz, “The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil: Bahia, 1684-1745,” HAHR, 54 (Nov. 1974), 603-635; Arnold Kessler, “Bahian Manumission Practices in the Early Nineteenth Century,” unpublished ms. presented to the American Historical Association (San Francisco, 1973); James Patrick Kiernan, “Baptism and Manumission: Paraty, Brazil, 1789-1822,” unpublished ms. presented to the Social Science History Association (Philadelphia, 1976) and “The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil: Paraty, 1789-1822” (Ph.D. Diss., New York University, 1976); Katia M. Queiros Mattoso, “A propósito de Cartas da Alforria na Bahia, 1779-1850,” Anais de Historia, 4 (1972), 23-25, and “Os Escravos na Bahia no Alvorecer de Século XIX,” Revista de História (São Paulo), 48 (1976), 109-135; and Lyman L. Johnson, “La manumisión de esclavos en Buenos Aires durante el virreinato,” Desarrollo Económico, 16 (Oct.-Dec. 1976), 331-348.


James Kiernan found cases of infant manumission in Paraty that were registered in baptismal records but not in notarial copybooks. Since many colonial baptismal records for Buenos Aires were destroyed in the violence of the 1950s or are difficult to consult, we cannot be sure that additional manumissions of infants did not occur. However, a search of baptismal records available through the Church of Latter Day Saints failed to produce cases of baptismal manumissions not recorded also by notaries in colonial Buenos Aires.


The records used for this study are found in the Archivo General de la Nación, Buenos Aires (hereafter cited as AGN), Protocolos de Escribanía, Registros 1-7. The variables recorded by the notary include: owner’s gender, owner’s residence, owner’s civil state, owner’s occupation, owner’s race, manner of acquiring slave, form of manumission, slave’s gender, slave’s age, slave’s color, slave’s birthplace, slave’s civil state, slave’s occupation, number of slaves freed, familial relationship among freed slaves, and form of payment in purchased manumissions.


The best study of the slave trade to Buenos Aires is still Elena F. S. de Studer, La trata de negros en el Río de la Plata durante el siglo XVIII (Buenos Aires, 1958). De Studer found 12,473 slaves introduced to Buenos Aires from Brazil, 1742-1806, and 13,460 slaves brought directly from Africa during the same period. In addition, all evidence points to a substantial introduction of contraband slaves during the colonial period. Finally, thousands of slaves were captured by privateers during the war with Britain, 1806-1808, and sold in Buenos Aires. A conservative estimate of both legal and illegal importations for the period 1750-1810 would be 45,000 slaves.


An excellent short discussion of immigration to Argentina is found in David Rock, Politics in Argentina, 1890-1930 (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 10-18. He notes that between 1869 and 1929, sixty percent of the nation’s population growth can be attributed to immigration. In fact, half the population of Buenos Aires in 1914 was foreign-born.


For a discussion of the rivalry between white and nonwhite artisans see Johnson, “The Silversmiths of Buenos Aires: A Case Study in the Failure of Corporate Social Organization,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 8 (Nov. 1976), 181-213.


There was great variety in manumission agreements made between individual slaves and their masters. In thirty-three cases, slaves were able to pay for their freedom in installments. In twenty-seven additional cases, slaves agreed to continue providing their owners with some desired service even though substantial cash payments were made. In the following analysis, these cases have been combined with the more typical self-purchase arrangement where the slave or a member of his or her family made a direct cash payment to the owner.


Schwartz notes a similar pattern in colonial Bahia in “Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil,” p. 633.


The most recent and comprehensive analysis of the census of 1810 is César A. García Belsunce et al., Buenos Aires: Su gente, 1800-1830 (Buenos Aires, 1976). A major problem confronting anyone who uses colonial census materials to discuss the size of the racially mixed population is that census takers apparently identified a substantial number of light-skinned nonwhites as white. The best discussion of this problem is found in Marta B. Goldberg, “La población negra y mulata de la ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1810-1840,” Desarrollo Económico, 16 (Apr.-June 1976), 81.


Schwartz, “Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil,” p. 609, and Kiernan, “Baptism and Manumission,” p. 6.


According to the data for 1810 found in García Belsunce et al., Buenos Aires: Su gente, p. 260, males were fifty-four percent of the slave population of Buenos Aires. Kiernan, “Baptism and Manumission,” p. 4, estimates that fifty-nine percent of the slave population of Paraty, Brazil were males; and although Schwartz in “Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil,” p. 611, does not assign a specific percentage to the male portion of the slave population of Bahia, he suggests that a majority of the slave population was male.


The data for Mexico City and Lima presented by Bowser in “The Free Persons of Color,” have limited comparative utility since Bowser does not indicate how his sample was derived. The small number of cases for Mexico City, in particular, suggests that his results be used with caution. Bowser’s conclusion that the emancipation of children by free fathers represented a substantial percentage of total manumissions agrees with a study of the Brazilian free colored population by Herbert S. Klein, “Nineteenth Century Brazil” in David W. Cohen and Jack P. Greene, eds., Neither Slave Nor Free (Baltimore, 1972), pp. 318-319.


Schwartz has suggested the term “surrogate paternity” to describe the paternal interest of a slaveowner for a biologically unrelated slave child born in his or her household. In addition, Schwartz’ data for Bahia indicate a similar perference for mulatto children in the manumission process. In Bahia seventy-six percent of the children under five years of age and seventy-nine percent of the children aged six to thirteen who were manumitted were mulattos. Schwartz “Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil,” pp. 617, 621-622.


H. Hoetink in Slavery and Race Relations in the Americas (New York, 1973), p. 192, has clearly identified this preference system inherent in all multiracial societies: “… in its mechanisms of social selection and mobility a general preference is shown for individuals who more than others correspond to the social definition of race that the dominant group applies to itself.”


Notaries in colonial Buenos Aires noted regularly cases where widows or other heirs freed slaves in response to the wishes of a decedent. In these cases I have coded the slave as being freed by the decedent, not the heir. Although many of the slaves freed by women had been inherited previously, none of the manumissions noted here were related to testamentary requirements.


In 1789, the cabildo of Buenos Aires refused to accept a draft constitution for a guild of shoemakers because it excluded slaves from the rank of master. In its decision, the council noted that many widows and single women were sustained by the wages of their slaves and that the proposed exclusion would penalize these poor slaveowners; Johnson, “The Artisans of Buenos Aires during the Viceroyalty, 1776—1810” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Connecticut, 1974), pp. 55-56.


Suggestions that aged, ill, or injured slaves were manumitted in substantial number can be found in the works of authors who have not consulted notarial records. See Marvin Harris, Patterns of Race in the Americas (New York, 1973), p. 86; Genovese, “The Treatment of Slaves in Different Countries: Problems in the Application of the Comparative Method” in Laura Foner and Genovese, eds., Slavery in the New World (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969), p. 204; and Carl N. Degler, Neither Black Nor White (New York, 1971), pp. 43—44.


Although no research directly along these lines has yet been published, a study of free blacks in Philadelphia noted that blacks born in slavery achieved greater material success and were more active in community life than were freeborn blacks. That is, the skills necessary to escape bondage were related to the skills necessary to achieve some success in freedom. Theodore Hershberg, “Free Blacks in Antebellum Philadelphia” in Allen F. Davis and Mark H. Haller, eds., The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower-Class Life, 1790—1940 (Philadelphia, 1973), p. 125.


We currently know little about the demographic and social characteristics of the slave population in Buenos Aires. In an ongoing study of the census of the city in 1778, I found that Negro adults had a slightly higher incidence of marriage (thirty-eight percent of all adults) than did mulattos (twenty-seven percent of all adults).


There is some evidence that the market talents demonstrated by slave women in colonial Latin America were survivals of African traditions. It is clear that slave women played an important role in the local commerce of many Latin American cities and that this often provided these women with the opportunity to acquire personal savings. See Mary C. Karash, “Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1850” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Wisconsin, 1972), p. 511.


The total slave population found in the 1778 census is 5,125. For this calculation, it is estimated that ten percent of this total were not permanent, or long-term residents of the city. Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Documentos para la historia argentina, vol. XI: Territorio y población, padrón de la ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1778 (Buenos Aires, 1919), passim. The total slave population in 1810 was 9,369. Ten percent of the total was removed to produce the estimated permanent slave population. García Belsunce et al., Buenos Aires: Su gente.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1976 meeting of the Social Science History Association. The author wishes to thank Herbert S. Klein and Stuart B. Schwartz for their comments and suggestions.