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Seeking Refuge from Slavery in North America in the 19th Century


Admission requirements

BSA norm and a pass for both first year Themacolleges


This seminar will familiarize students with the practice of historical research into the changing legal and political landscape of slavery and freedom in North America during the nineteenth century. The Age of Revolution, rooted in enlightened ideals of equality, liberty and natural rights, profoundly reshaped the Atlantic world. The period witnessed the first serious blows against slavery in the western hemisphere and the emergence of spaces of “formal”, “semi-formal” and “informal” freedom for fugitive slaves, according to the typology laid out by Damian Pargas. In parts of the Americas, there arose formal variants that legally abolished slavery according to free-soil principles, thus providing fugitive slaves with new refuges. By the mid-1830s, both Canada and Mexico had abolished slavery and had formally become free-soil territories where foreign enslaved people could secure formal freedom. In the northern US, slavery was gradually abolished. However, the legal status of fugitive slaves who sought refuge in the North remained contested, resulting in a state of semi-formal freedom for refugees from slavery. Meanwhile, a spike in individual manumission and self-purchase arrangements in the wake of the American Revolution (1776) led to a significant growth of urban free black populations within the slaveholding US South. Cities increasingly became spaces of “informal” freedom for thousands of runaway slaves, who attempted to get lost in the crowd and clandestinely pass for free. In this seminar, the students will learn how to devise historical research in relation with this general theme.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

  • 1) carry out a common assignment

  • 2) devise and conduct research of limited scope, including
    a. searching, selecting and ordering relevant literature:
    b. organising and using relatively large amounts of information:
    c. an analysis of a scholarly debate:
    d. placing the research within the context of a scholarly debate.

  • 3) reflect on the primary sources on which the scholarly literature is based;

  • 4) write a problem solving essay and give an oral presentation after the format defined in the first year Themacolleges, including
    a. using a realistic schedule of work;
    b. formulating a research question and subquestions;
    c. formulating a well-argued conclusion;
    d. giving and receiving feedback;
    e. responding to instructions of the lecturer.

  • 5) participate in discussions during class.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialization

  • 6) The student has knowledge of a specialisation, more specifically: in the specialisation General History: the place of European history from 1500 in a worldwide perspective; with a focus on the development and role of political institutions; in the track American History: American exceptionalism; the US as a multicultural society and the consequences of that for historiography; the intellectual interaction between the US and Europe.

  • 7) Knowledge and insight in the main concepts, the research methods and techniques of the specialisation, more specifically in the specialisation General History: of the study of primary sources and the context specificity of nationally defined histories; in the track American History: of exceptionalism; analysis of historiografical and intellectual debates.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this specific seminar

The students:

  • 8) will gain knowledge in the history of slavery and fugitive slaves in North America in the nineteenth century.

  • 9) will be able to reflect on secondary sources and to formulate their own arguments on relevant historiographical debates on the history of slavery and fugitive slaves in North America in the nineteenth century.

  • 10) will gain experience in independently writing an essay related to the general theme of this seminar (seeking refuge from slavery in North America in the 19th century) and in delivering an oral presentation.

  • 11) will gain experience in approaching primary sources.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (attendance required)

This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


Students are required to write a final paper, based on secondary sources. Students are also asked to present their research plan orally, and take active part in the class debates.

  • Written paper (5000-6000 words, based on historiography, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 2-4, 8-11

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-4, 8-11

  • Participation
    measured learning objectives: 5, 8-11

  • Assignment 1: literature review (500 words, based on a short summary of the reviewed work, and a critical analysis of the main arguments of the author(s))
    measured learning objectives: 1-4, 6-11


  • Written paper: 60%

  • Literature review: 20%

  • Oral presentation: 10%

  • Participation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Written papers should be handed in within the given deadline, as published in the corresponding Brightspace course.


The written paper can be revised, when marked insufficient. Revision should be carried out within the given deadline, as published in the corresponding Brightspace course.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organised.

Reading list

The literature that will be studied during this seminar includes, among others:

  • Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: a History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016)

  • Damian Pargas (ed.), Fugitive Slaves and Spaces of Freedom in North America (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2018)

For each class, the instructor will refer to/distribute further bibliographical references, including primary sources.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Dr. Thomas Mareite