New Scholarship: Teanu Reid on Money, Slavery, Manumission in the Early Modern British Atlantic

September 17, 2018

By Nancy Kuhl

Money, Slavery, Manumission in the Early Modern British Atlantic by Teanu Reid, Yale Graduate Stduent Fellow Summer 2018

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century Atlantic world, the “money” of the day was very different from what we have now. Money was sugar, metal coins, company tokens, bills of exchange, cowrie shells, and various other commodities, that were not consistently accepted from empire to empire, nor from colony to colony even within the same empire. Focusing on the British Atlantic, sugar and credit emerged as the dominant forms of money in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Much of the historiography on early modern money describes how inaccessible and elusive money could be for the everyday farmer or tailor, the common folk. However, much consideration isn’t given to people of color and their struggles with early modern money. 

As part of my doctoral research, I am investigating what money enslaved and free people of color had access to in the British Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I question the possibilities for enslaved people to purchase their freedom. And, I seek to better understand sources of income for enslaved and free people of color, the economies they participated in, and how this affected the lives they were able to live.

My time at the Beinecke was spent combing through a variety of documents that were related to money and slavery and manumission in the British Atlantic, broadly speaking. I combed through wills; inventories; manumission documents; a few pamphlets on credit and coins; bills of exchange; and letters and correspondences. The two documents below hint at the complexity of people of color’s relationship to money and manumission across the early modern British Atlantic world.

While the connection between money, manumission, and the labor of free and enslaved people of color isn’t always thought of, these documents show that in fact Afro-descended people were active participants of local Atlantic economies beyond the forced extraction of their labor.

Page 81 of a pamphlet on the trade, commerce, and policy for Jamaica describes the presence of some 2000 free people of color on the island by 1759. It also describes the estimated amount of food, clothing, and tool purchases that went to free and enslaved people of color. Title: Inquiry concerning the trade, commerce, and policy of Jamaica, relative to the scarcity of money … Call Number: NZ 759i. 

This is a declaration of manumission by Stephen Payne Galway regarding “a certain Negro woman slave, commonly called or known by the Name of Kitty” of the island of St. Christopher, dated November 17th, 1781. Kitty, who was described as a nurse, received her freedom only from Galway though Galway and another owner were named. Title: Ralph Payne, Baron Lavington family papers, 1679-1855 (bulk 1730-1790). Box 10, Folder 285 - Series V. Other Business Papers Legal Documents Manumission Documents. Call Number: OSB MSS 138.  

Teanu Reid is a PhD student in History and African American Studies at Yale University. She works on topics of migration, slavery, manumission, and money in the early modern British Atlantic world, with a focus on the island of Barbados, and its relationship to Britain and other British colonies of the time.


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