“The question remains, however, as to how the petitioners learned about the Somerset decision and coartación. Last month, I wrote about how many black Bostonians were literate and engaged with the print culture of the eighteenth century. As one of the most important legal decisions regarding slavery in Anglo-American law, Somerset received significant coverage in the American press. Indeed, it would have been hard to avoid reading about the case after it began circulating around the Atlantic world in the summer of 1772. Slaves and free blacks reading about Somerset could not help but be energized by the decision and understand it as an important legal precedent for freedom and a catalyst for their own local struggles.
“Tracing coartación’s intellectual network poses additional problems. While many black Bostonians could read and write English, Spanish was another matter. Likewise, the practice would not have been widely publicized in the Anglophone press. Knowledge of it, then, most likely came from two sources. First, because of the numerous eighteenth-century wars between Great Britain and Spain (usually allied with Britain’s arch nemesis, France), colonial privateers raided Spanish ships, captured cargoes, and enslaved crewmen of color, whether they were legally bound or not. These “Spanish Negroes” arrived in nearly every port city around the British Atlantic, bringing an understandable hostility with them. They lodged numerous protests with colonial authorities and were often at the center—both actual and suspected—of slave rebellions, most famously the New York Conspiracy of 1741. It is easy to envision the black Spaniards who arrived in Boston (and likewise engaged in rebellious acts) told Afro-Bostonians about coartación to point out the hypocrisy between opportunity for manumission in “tyrannical” Spain and the lack of it in “free” British lands, thus spiting the white society that illegally enslaved them.”
Read the full text: Tracing Early Black Intellectual Networks