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For the Freedom of Enslaved Infants in Puerto Rico, 1850s

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On a quiet Sunday afternoon in 1856, two gentlemen stood inconspicuously by the Plaza Mayor de Mayagüez, where it is said the bones of ancient Tainos and their Spanish conquerors are buried beneath the marble tiles from when it was originally a cemetery. The well dressed, educated men belonged to the landowners' class. One man was a lawyer, the other a physician. They stood close enough to the side door of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria to be able to intercept enslaved women before they entered the church.

When young mothers approached the side door with newborn infants in their arms intending to have the children baptized into the Catholic Faith, the men stepped forward with a tantalizing offer. They offered to buy the baby's freedom before the sacrament was administered, for it was then that the child's freedom could be purchased for bargain prices. An unbaptized child carrying the stigma of Original Sin was worth only twenty-five pesos, half the price of a baptized child.

The physician, Ramón Emeterio Betances, the lawyer, Segundo Ruiz Belvis and Dr. José Francisco Basora were among a cohort of young Puerto Rican Criollos who had been educated in Europe during a period of progressive intellectual thought, political and economic change. Dr. Betances, himself, had taken part in the 1848 liberal revolution in France, one of many European liberal revolts during that period. Soon after he came home he organized the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Committee.

For the young professionals, returning to Puerto Rico after completing their studies abroad was a culture shock. Stunned to find their own country mired in an antiquated political-economic system that enforced a full-blown slave society and economy, when all the other islands in the Caribbean (except Cuba) and Latin America had abolished slavery decades before, the Criollos set about to organize a secret society for abolition and independence. The abolitionists pressed for the end of slavery through legislative channels in the Spanish Parliament, but they also agreed to act clandestinely in secret societies and Masonic lodges to bring about the demise of the abusive practice.

Akin to the Underground Railroad in the United States, Puerto Rican abolitionists facilitated boats for transporting fugitive slaves to the neighboring islands, such as St. Thomas, and to the United States. They supported education for free and enslaved blacks. And they bought the freedom of enslaved babies by giving the mothers much needed money to purchase their child's freedom. Technically, the abolitionists were acting within the letter of the law since manumission was permitted under the slave codes of Puerto Rico. But it was still up to the slave owner to accept the deal.

For his role in the movement, Dr. Betances was exiled to Paris in 1859. Dr. Basora escaped to New York where he joined Cuban separatists in the liberation movement. And as part of a commission to the Spanish Parliament, Don Ruiz Belvis continued to fight against slavery.

The gradual abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico began in 1873 when the Moret Law permitted children born since 1873, their freedom. It also freed enslaved men and women over sixty years of age. By law, all others were forced to work an additional three years as indemnity to their owners. The actions of the abolitionists and the continued resistance to slavery among enslaved and enlightened persons for decades before the Moret Law should not be underestimated.