Manumission letter: what it is, types, in Brazil, summary

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A manumission it was a document signed by the owner of a slave that guaranteed that enslaved person their freedom. The charter transformed the slave into a manumitted person, that is, free under the legal order of the period. Many letters of manumission imposed conditions on the individual who would become freed, such as, for example, only gaining freedom after the death of the master.

Manumission was an important instrument for maintaining the slave order, serving as an escape valve and motivating the increased productivity of slaves. In Brazil, letters of manumission were written throughout the almost 400 years that slavery was in force in the country.

Read too: What were the abolitionist laws approved in Brazil?

Topics in this article

  • 1 - Summary of the manumission letter
  • 2 - What is a letter of manumission?
  • 3 - What are the types of manumission letters and how did slaves obtain them?
    • → Free manumission letters
    • → Paid manumission letters
  • 4 - What did slaves get with the manumission letter?
  • 5 - Letter of manumission in Brazil
  • 6 - Letter of manumission in Portugal
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Summary about manumission letter

  • The manumission letter was a document signed by the owner of a slave that gave that slave his freedom.
  • Many manumission letters established various obligations for the freed man, such as providing services to the former master's family.
  • Despite occurring infrequently, manumission could be reversed at any time by the slave's former owner.
  • There were different types of manumission letters, such as free manumission, which depended on the master's will, or paid manumission, when the slave or a third party purchased their freedom.
  • Part of the manumission letters provided for the slave's freedom only after the master's death.
  • During the Paraguayan War, the Brazilian State bought the freedom of slaves so that they could fight in the conflict.
  • The Lei Áurea is considered the ultimate letter of manumission, as it freed all slaves in the country.

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What is a manumission letter?

Manumission it was a document in which the owner of a slave, for various reasons, declared to free that slave. The word “manumission” originates from the Arabic term “al horria”, which means “freedom”.

Historical sources indicate that since ancient times slaves could be freed. In Ancient Greece a group of Athenian slaves received manumission after being instrumental in victory in the Battle of Arginusas, in the Peloponnesian War. Already in Ancient Rome There was a ritual where the slave was freed from slavery. After having his head shaved, the slave knelt before his owner and a praetor, the latter touching the slave's shoulder with a wand called a vindicta, making him free. Finally, a pileus hat was placed on his head. The pileus hat was made of a type of felt, symbolizing freedom, which is why its use was prohibited to slaves.

Relief fragment showing a ceremony where two slaves are freed in Ancient Rome. [2]
Relief fragment showing a ceremony where two slaves are freed in Ancient Rome. [2]

What are the types of manumission letters and how did slaves obtain them?

Letters of manumission can be classified into two main types, free and paid.

→ Free manumission letters

Free manumissions occurred by the will of the Lord, generally due to the good services provided by the slave, due to previous agreements between the parties or due to the master's affection for his captive. Free manumissions conditions may or may not be imposed on the freed person.

Among the free manumission letters the most common were testaments, where the deceased left in his will his desire for the slave to be freed after his death. Most of those who freed their slaves in their wills did not have heirs. In addition to these, there were also baptismal font freedoms, were those in which a slave child was freed during his baptism in the Catholic Church, considered the starting point of his Christian life.

→ Paid manumission letters

The manumissions paid occurred through some payment, generally made by slaves to their owners. The so-called slaves spent the day on the streets of Brazilian cities selling products or providing the most varied services. These captives had to pay a daily or weekly amount to the master, being able to keep the surplus of what they collected or create a type of savings with the master. Some of them managed to raise money to buy their freedom, paying a previously agreed amount. Generally the manumission letter is paid was signed by the owner in the presence of the slave and an authority.

In addition to this, another type of paid manumission, practiced on a large scale, occurred during the Paraguayan War. Dom Pedro II, with the aim of increasing Brazilian troops in the conflict, signed decree number 3275 in 1866. This decree determined that the Brazilian State would purchase the manumission of slaves with suitable characteristics to participate in the conflict. The freedmen received their letters of manumission from the State, but they linked their freedom to their participation in the war.

What did slaves get with the manumission letter?

With letters of manumission that had no conditions imposed on the slave, he gained his freedom and, in the case of being a woman, all his children who were born after manumission.. As the manumission letter could be revoked, the master often had virtual control over the manumitted person, being able to make him a slave again at any time.

The letters of manumission that imposed conditions on slaves made the freed people a kind of servants of their former masters, owing favors, fees and services to them.. The most common condition was that the freed person continued to work for the master until his death, which, in practice, only freed the slave after the death of his master. Even in testamentary letters of manumission, the freed person could have obligations towards the deceased, such as paying his debts and having masses said for him.

Letter of manumission in Brazil

In Brazil, The oldest letters of manumission that have survived are from the 18th century, but secondary sources indicate that they exist since the beginning of slavery in the country. Here, letters of manumission generally contained the name of the person who was freed, their approximate age, their origin, sex and color, in addition to the name of the owner and his signature or the signature of a person indicated by him, if it were illiterate. Most of the time, the reasons for manumission were also mentioned and, if it was motivated by payment, its value. Freed people were popularly called “forras” in our country.

Various studies carried out on manumission letters in Brazil indicate that between 2% and 6% of slaves were freed during their lifetime. They also point out that the majority of those freed were women, just as the majority of owners who freed their slaves were women.

Many historians point out that the manumission letters were an important institution of slavery, a kind of escape valve, which gave hope to the captive and motivated him, in a certain way, to work.

On large agricultural and mining properties, where hundreds of slaves worked together, the promise of a letter of manumission for those who most worked for a period, usually a year, stimulated competition among slaves, as well as their obedience to the rules, leading to an increase in productivity.

The so-called Golden Law, dated May 13, 1888, is considered Brazil's last letter of manumission, freeing all the slaves that still existed in our country.

See too: After all, what was the life of former slaves like after the Golden Law?

Letter of manumission in Portugal

The first African slaves arrived in Portugal in the 15th century, even before the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil (or discovery of Brazil). The issuance of letters of manumission on Portuguese soil was similar to that in Brazil until 1761.

This is because, in 1761, Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782) he issued a decree that prohibited the arrival of new slaves in Portugal and determined that any slave arriving after that date would be automatically freed. In 1773 the marquis enacted a new law, this time ending the heredity of slavery, that is, from that moment on children born to slave mothers would be considered free.

Despite the attempts of the Marquis of Pombal, slavery persisted in Portugal, especially in rural areas. There are records of slaves being freed in Portugal in 1855, which proves that slavery still occurred in the country.

Image credits

[1]Jonas de Carvalho / National Historical Museum / Wikimedia Commons (reproduction)

[2]Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons (reproduction)

Sources

CAMPELLO, André Emmanuel Batista Barreto. Slavery legal manual. Jundiaí: Paco, 2016.

MATTOSO, Kátia M. from Queiroz. Being a slave in Brazil: 16th to 19th centuries. São Paulo: Voices, 2016.

SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz and GOMES, Flávio (orgs.). Dictionary of Slavery and Freedom. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2018.

Would you like to reference this text in a school or academic work? Look:

JUNIOR, Jair Messias Ferreira. "Manumission"; Brazil School. Available in: https://brasilescola.uol.com.br/historiab/carta-de-alforria.htm. Accessed September 18, 2023.

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