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Michelle McKinley, Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima 1600-1700

Cambridge (MA), Cambridge Univesrity Press, 2016, 294 p.
Carolina González Undurraga
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Michelle McKinley, Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima 1600-1700, Cambridge (MA), Cambridge Univesrity Press, 2016, 294 p.

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1Throughout the pages of Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima 1600-1700, Michelle McKinley masterfully unfolds a dense archive material as a result of an extensive and committed research process which makes the reader see, as the author points out, ‘the law in action’ as well as the action of enslaved litigants over the law and the administration of justice, especially the ecclesiastical one. The author analyses from a micro historic viewpoint the ‘experience of enslaved people’ and ofeer readers an opportunity to rethink the conventional master-servant relationship as well as domestic slaveholding and a political space in XVII century Lima. This experience was reflected in a series of judicial, notarial and parroquial records, created by enslaved and free afrodescendents (men and women) and the judicial agents in charge of processing them (in ecclesiastical forums as in secular ones).

2Departing from a thorough description of particular cases and an insightful prolific dialogue along with an extensive and varied historiography –classic and new– on slavery and freedom processes, the book’s main proposition is revealed: the sense of freedom during slavery times in colonial Spanish America must be understood as a ‘contingent liberty’ that would have been expressed in the sense that enslaved people could embody, or carry upon them, fees of liberty: ‘This was also aspirational and real for many people’ (p.245).

3Briefly, these would be the ‘fractional freedoms’ that accurately entitle the book and that are the core of it. This way of understanding and exercising freedom would have been common among the enslaved population, more so when it could be formally sanctioned and modeled at the same time by a diverse range of agents. This is what we encounter in the chapters that structure the book: from the claims to allow self-purchase, to cases of baptismal freedom. The interesting aspect of these modes is that they present features that in some cases overlap, in others contradict and also work in parallel. However, enslaved people could live these freedoms without confusions, as is the case of María Albina, who despite the controversy of her state –free because of baptism but slave or dependent due to a testamentary donation– carried her life as a free person: ‘She lived her life unencumbered by the confusion as to whether she was free or enslaved’ (p.145).

4Ultimately, Fractional Freedoms, is –without a doubt– an analytical and suggestive proposal about the way in which enslaved afrodescendents understood, felt and practiced freedom in Colonial Lima. This case study that could easily be extended to other urban societies in Spanish America; this is another contribution of the book since Lima’s case acknowledges the dynamics related to the management of slavery and freedom in the Spanish monarchy. Indeed, while a series of studies have shown the unstable condition of the enslaved and the freed, more research is required that stress in these aspects of the colonial period. Hence, the book becomes a fundamental reference in what can be identified as new studies on freedom processes in colonial Spanish America… that also moves away from the idea of ​​manumission as a ‘gift’.

5Of the wide range of complex and interesting cases analyzed throughout the book, the activity of enslaved women stands out as they ‘occupied multiples identities’ in the social and legal context. To that effect, their institutional paths to obtain their own freedom or the ones of their children –in fractions or completely– became fundamental in order to enable a legal mobility that ultimately meant a social mobility in Colonial Lima. An interesting aspect of those paths is how family links, especially the ones women had with their children, question justice so to prevent that slavery be passed on to their sons and daughters.

6Regarding the above, I want to emphasize on another fundamental guiding theme in Fractional Freedoms, the role of feelings – sentimientos and afectos in Spanish - at the judicial space. The legal mobilization the book depicts is the movement in varied levels: papers, testimonies, proofs, legal agents, witnesses, but also of feelings that constitute the legal gear. This entails a methodological reflection relevant for researchers that study the uses of justice in colonial period, given that the language of affection is not and anecdote but the element that sets legal imaginaries in colonial and modern worlds that begin a process of change towards the mid XVIII century. Those imaginaries of the legal world at the same time allow litigants talk in justice (en justicia y en Derecho) in order to reveal their proper complaints and, in this case, the grant or recognition of freedom.

7Therefore, the realm of intimacy and bonds, the expression in itself of the ‘will to be free’ (deseo de libertarse) and the level of effects that this generates in the subjects (from enslaved to judges and owners), open a window that enables the understanding of how the Spanish legal world is constituted starting from an epistemology of feeling that comprises corporeal, spiritual and rational dimensions as has been indicated by testimonies of the time and as has been noted by law historians and by more recent ways of slavery. In my opinion, Michelle McKinley’s book can be reckoned in this line of thought.

8Last but not least, I must point out that the book is really well written. Chapters relate in such a way that do not obey an evolutionary or hierarchical sequence in regard to the ways of acquiring freedom (even though it seems to me that chapter 4 on ‘freedom at the Font’ constitutes a core). It’s more a network of senses and practices of justice, slavery, freedom. Perhaps it can’t be another way around, since the ways of liberation described were articulated. In this sense, the expression ‘fractional freedoms’ entail multiple readings. It concerns the liberty given in fees that were embodied by enslaved people. Their historiographical reconstruction is presented on occasions as a puzzle, whose pieces are defiant for us, historians. And it is because of the possible ways to describe the past given documents have keys that need to be decipher that can be evasive, as is the case of feelings closely related with freedom practices that constitute afrodescendents subjectivities. Michelle McKinley without a doubt achieves an approach to these experiences.

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Carolina González Undurraga, « Michelle McKinley, Fractional Freedoms: Slavery, Intimacy and Legal Mobilization in Colonial Lima 1600-1700 »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Comptes rendus et essais historiographiques, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 15 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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