Suing the master: Slave litigation as resistance in eighteenth-century Louisiana
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"Suing the Master: Slave Litigation as Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Louisiana" explores slaves' manipulation of colonial laws and courts to secure legal freedom for themselves and their extended families, often in the face of slaveholder resistance. "Suing the Master" situates colonial Louisiana as a slaveholding society integrated into both the French and Spanish Atlantic World empires. Drawing on French, Spanish, and English language sources like slave codes, court records, notarial acts, imperial correspondences, and travelers' accounts, "Suing the Master" argues that enslaved Africans cultivated a sophisticated legal consciousness in eighteenth-century freedom suits, successfully securing freedom in French and Spanish colonial regimes with contrasting manumission policies and procedures, as well as inspiring political change in the French and Spanish colonial and metropolitan zones. During French colonial rule (1699-1763), the local court conceptualized the release of slaves as a "gift" for a lifetime of loyal service and reviewed every manumission case to determine whether the slave merited freedom. But to materialize this reward, enslaved litigants had to navigate the French colonial legal system, fighting for what to them seemed more like a right than a gift. When Spanish colonial authorities reorganized the legal regime of Louisiana in 1768, they abolished judicial review and sanctioned freedom purchases. During Spanish rule (1763-1803), enslaved litigants bargained for self-purchases in the marketplace of freedom, developing a distinct rights rhetoric in the process. In both colonial regimes, enslaved Africans litigated tactically, winning freedom with and without the support of their owners, a testament to their skillful negotiation of colonial law and trial procedure. They also created legal and political controversies concerning the rights of slaveholders and freedmen, crises that triggered manumission reform in the French and Spanish colonial empires.