Gender, Race, and Work in Early Modern Portugal

Portugal was at the forefront of the early modern slave trade that began in the mid-fifteenth century, and eventually involved the capture and forced transportation of millions of African people across the Atlantic to newly-established European colonies.  A segment of that slave population remained in European soil, though, including in Portugal itself, where women, men, and children were bought and sold to work at some of the most arduous manual labour.  My current research programme, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), looks at the experiences of Black-African women in Portugal’s emerging economy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Although still in its early stages, my preliminary study shows that any discussion of gender and work among the enslaved, former slaves, and descendants of slaves, must begin with an examination of the specificity of Black-African women’s economic contributions as the reproducers and nurturers of the next generation of slaves.  Some of this evidence can be found in a document called an alforria (letter of manumission), and the present discussion deals with one such example.

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