It was a humid Christmas day in 1820 when twenty-five-year-old Santiago Martínez presented himself before the army commander stationed in the frontier Colombian town of Quibdó for service in the republican army. Just the year prior, in 1819, the new republic of Gran Colombia, a nation encompassing the present-day countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, was created in the final throes of the Wars of Independence against Spain. Four feet and five inches tall, with a notable, long scar on his right cheek up to his eyebrow, Martínez sought to serve in the local army, perhaps heeding Independence leader Simón Bolívar’s call for voluntary conscription in the young Andean nation.
According to army records, Martínez declared that he was a “liberto,” a free black or formerly enslaved person, and that he was a “worker” [labrador] by profession. Yet, four years after his voluntary conscription, another man launched a formal complaint to the colonel, governor, and commander in Quibdó, claiming that Martínez was actually his slave who had “fled, and presented himself in the service of the Armies of the Republic.”1 Like many enslaved peoples across the African diaspora, Martínez made his (ultimately successful) escape from his master on Christmas, a day in which slaveholders typically granted enslaved laborers time off from their work. Although organized under the stern gaze of slaveholders, Christmas time has long held a distinct place in the history of freedom and resistance throughout slave societies in the African diaspora as a period of relative personal autonomy.
In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass described how the “days between Christmas and New Year’s day are allowed as holidays; and accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance, were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society.”
Likewise, in his memoir Twelve Years a Slave (1853), Solomon Northup, a free-born African American man who was kidnapped into slavery in the southern United States, recounted that the “only respite from constant labor the slave has through the whole year, is during the Christmas holidays. Epps [his master] allowed us three—others allow four, five and six days, according to the measure of their generosity…It—is the time of feasting, and frolicking, and fiddling—the carnival season with the children of bondage. They are the only days when they are allowed a little restricted liberty, and heartily indeed do they enjoy it.”
Yet, Douglass rightfully criticized the double-edged purpose of this seeming autonomy, arguing that the holidays were “among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection…These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity…The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery.”
Across the Americas, stories nevertheless abound of enslaved peoples utilizing this small window of, in the words of Northup, “a little restricted liberty” afforded by the Christmas season to escape bondage. The famed fugitive enslaved couple and abolitionists Ellen and William Craft fled from Macon, Georgia to the north during the Christmas holiday in 1848. “Some of the best slaveholders will sometimes give their favourite slaves a few days’ holiday at Christmas time,” the couple published in their account Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (1860), “so, after no little amount of perseverance on my wife’s part, she obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days.”
Eventually, the enslaved couple made their way to Philadelphia on Christmas day, but only with the disguise of Ellen Craft, the light-skinned daughter of a slave and her white master, who dressed up as “an invalid gentleman” and passed as her husband’s master. Harriet Tubman likewise organized the escape of her three brothers during Christmas in 1854. Instead of spending the day with their elderly mother, the brothers fled north guided by Tubman.
The Christmas season also gave way to the largest slave rebellion in the history of the British Caribbean known as the Christmas Rebellion (or the Baptist War). During ten days in late December 1831 into January 1832, nearly 60,000 slaves (about 20% of the enslaved population of 300,000) led by the black Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe went on strike and rebelled against plantation owners, demanding freedom and higher wages. According to Michael Craton’s Testing the Chains: Resisting Slavery in the British West Indies (1982), about 500 slaves were brutally killed by the end of the Christmas Rebellion, which Craton argues accelerated the process of emancipation in the British Caribbean.
When the self-described liberto Santiago Martínez ran away from his master and joined the newly established republican army of Gran Colombia on Christmas day in 1820, he was one of hundreds of bonded peoples of African descent who took matters into their hands during this special period of “a little restricted liberty.”
In fact, one could even place Martínez’s marronage or the Crafts’ masterful escape on a longer historical timeline of Christmas and resistance to slavery beginning with the 1521 Hispaniola Revolt, which historian Martin Klein has called “probably the first revolt by African slaves in the Americas.” On Christmas Day in 1521, a group of 20 Wolof captives, who were claimed by Christopher Columbus’s sons, revolted against their overlords. According to Klein, “they waited until Christmas Day, when the Spaniards were celebrating and not paying careful attention.” In the course of the revolt, several Spanish colonists were killed and many buildings were burned down. In some ways, then, perhaps it was a premonition of the times to come.
Yesenia Barragan is a historian of race, slavery, and emancipation in Colombia, Afro-Latin America, and the Atlantic/Pacific worlds. She received a Ph.D. in Latin American and Caribbean History from Columbia University. She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. Follow her on Twitter @Y__Barragan.