The free coloreds – not so free after all

In addition to Europeans and enslaved laborers, a third population group lived in the Danish colony in the West Indies: the so-called free coloreds. These were people of African or African-European descent who were not enslaved but free. Formally, the free coloreds had the same rights as Europeans, but in practice they encountered many restrictions.
Certificate of manumission for the enslaved laborer Nancy from 1816.
Certificate of manumission for the enslaved laborer Nancy from 1816. The document declares that henceforth Nancy is free of all slavery and thralldom. In addition, it states that she was born on St. Croix and plans to support herself as a seamstress after her manumission. (The Danish National Archives).

The free coloreds achieved their freedom in several ways. They could be given their freedom by their owners, purchase their freedom, or be born free. Manumission (being granted freedom by an owner) was by far the most common of these different ways to freedom before 1800. As proof of their freedom, they were issued a so-called certificate of manumission, which the free coloreds were required to carry on them at all times.

In the first half of the 1700s, the number of free coloreds was relatively limited. Toward the end of the 1700s, the number of free coloreds increased markedly – from 418 in 1775 to 1148 in 1797 and 5035 in 1815.

Free coloreds in Christiansted on St. Croix

The majority of the free coloreds lived in the cities, mostly in Christiansted on St. Croix. They were typically craftsmen, fishermen, tradesmen, seamstresses, washerwomen, or servants. They could even purchase property, which free coloreds in other European colonies in the Caribbean could not do. Several free coloreds earned money by renting out their properties, and some even owned enslaved laborers – which could also be rented out.

The free coloreds’ limited freedom

In principle, according to King Frederik V’s slave regulations from 1755, the free coloreds had the same rights as the colony’s other free population. In practice, their freedom was restricted in a number of areas. Beginning in 1733 and for the next hundred years, the local administration issued over forty regulations and public notices which all had this objective. For example, it was decided in 1747 that the free coloreds in Christiansted could only live in the part of the city that was called the free gut or the black gut. In 1786 a regulation was issued which dictated to the smallest detail which clothes and decorative objects the free coloreds could – and could not – wear. In addition, it provided that all free coloreds were required to wear as visual evidence of their freedom a red and white emblem, a so-called cockade, visible on the cap or the hat. Not until 1834 did the free coloreds achieve full equality.