Prior to the general emancipation of all people who were unfree on July 3, 1848, enslaved people in the Danish West Indies gained their individual freedom legally through a legal process of manumission, whereby they were freed in writing by their owner and then issued a Free Letter by the governor. Owners freed their slaves for various reasons. Two of the most common were due to faithful service, and because the owner had a relationship (including kin) with the person they were freeing. Enslaved people also purchased their freedom. As shown by this document, manumissions were often specified in wills, and then they were officially registered in the police records.
In this activity, students will use questions to interpret a manumission and discuss paths to freedom during slavery in the Danish West Indies. They will use the themes of time, continuity and change to discuss the terms used in the past to identify amount of racial mixture, and to consider the significance that some enslaved people were able to change their status in a slave society.
Primary Sources in this Activity
Suggested Teaching Instructions
This primary source activity includes the topic of slavery. Viewed as a sensitive topic for classroom lessons, teachers should consider their students ability to engage with the topics, give background information, create a safe environment for discussion, and be prepared to support their students’ questions and responses to the subject matter. There are terms used in this primary source that describe race that are not acceptable to use today. These terms should be discussed prior to looking at the primary source with students. Additionally, the term “wench” is used, the teacher may want to provide an explanation of the changing definitions of the term “wench”. The term wench in old times referred to a young woman or girl, later it was used for a female servant and a girl or woman of socially low class. It would in more recent times take on other meanings, some of which were/are insulting. The term is no longer commonly used as its seen as offensive.
The teacher may want to share the background information providing under the About section with students to help explain the document. They can consider discussing the definitions of manumission, and the differences between general emancipation and individual emancipation.
The document can be loaded on a smart board, or onto individual computers. The document is part of a book containing many pages. The class will focus on pages 45 and 46 which contain manumissions of five people submitted by the heirs of their former owner John Gerhardus Fridericus Knevels. The entries are written in Danish and in English. Identify the English entries and zoom into them. On page 45, on the left side there is an entry freeing Anna Elizabeth, and the right side there is an entry freeing Susanna. On page 46, Anna Elizabeth’s child Helena and Susanna’s child Charles are freed, and a man named Hendricus. The teacher should help the class to read each entry, including dates and names.
Use the questions from the Analyze a Written Document to lead students through the process of observing the primary source. After working through answering the questions, have a class discussion using the prompts below.
Analyze the Primary Source
You may load the Analyze a Photograph worksheet on the smart board or on computers so that you can lead students through answering the questions, print the worksheet and distribute to your students, or adapt the questions from the worksheet to create your own. Primary Source Analysis Worksheets
The class can work through the questions from the Analyze a Written Document worksheet individually or as a class.
What do students think about what they read in the document? What is happening at that time in history in the Danish West Indies? What are other paths to legal freedom in the Danish West Indies? (Freedom granted by owner, a person purchasing their own freedom, a reward for the enslaved uncovering and reporting a conspiracy, and emancipation by law.) What do students think the life of a free person of color might look like in 1796 in the Danish West Indies? Explain. What occupation does Hendricus have? (See the entry in the document if needed.)
Ask student whether they knew that enslaved people could gain their individual freedom? What do students think about this practice, that some enslaved Africans in the Danish West Indies were able to alter the course of their lives and that of their children, because they gained freedom, while others remained enslaved? How do students think the formerly enslaved person felt when they gained their individual freedom? How do they think they felt within their freedom, knowing that they had friends and family members that were unfree? And how might they have felt that other people of color, in general, remained unfree?
Time, Change and Race: Do students know what the different terms used to describe the people in the manumission entries mean: mulatto, mustee, and sambo? (Mulatto referred to bi-racial people, a mixture of black and white. Mustee was a mixture of mulatto and white, and Sambo of mulatto and black.) What do students know about people of color in slave societies, both enslaved people of color and free people of color, more specifically about the rights, and the restrictions, applied to both. Why were terms used to identify the level of racial mixture, or the number of full-blooded African ancestors a person had? How might this practice have affected people’s beliefs related to race, even after slavery was over, and into the present? Explain.