Harriet Tubman Seminar Department of History York University March 6, 2000 socially not so dead! Slave identities in Bourbon Nueva Granada Renée Soulodre-La France Nigerian Hinterland Project York University



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Harriet Tubman Seminar

Department of History

York University

March 6, 2000


SOCIALLY NOT SO DEAD!
Slave identities in Bourbon Nueva Granada

Renée Soulodre-La France

Nigerian Hinterland Project

York University

[Not to be cited or quoted without the author's permission]



My master Dr. Don Luis Ignacio Torres, the priest of the town of Coyaima, bought me, and I served him faithfully for eight years, making many trips as a chasqui (runner). Because of this occupation my health began to fail and I developed many problems which prevented me from living in the tranquility for which all human life yearns.1

The ‘tranquility for which all human life yearns’ is not typically an image with which we associate slavery in late colonial Spanish America. Yet the slave, Pioquinto Contreras, was convinced that such tranquility was his right, despite the reality of his enslavement. Based on that belief, he willingly turned himself in to the royal justices, certain that the Spanish Crown would support his claim. Though he was a slave in the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada during the late eighteenth century, he did not allow his enslavement to swallow up his entire being, nor to become the defining feature of his existence. He had a strong sense of his own identity and was able to transcend the confines of his enslavement when the situation called for drastic action even though he had usually served his master with complete loyalty. Thus he was able to take advantage of the interstices buried within colonial society which offered slaves like Pioquicto Conteras the opportunity to construct their identities in such unlikely spaces.

Slave identity could be shaped by myriad different factors. These ranged from the African cultures whence they originated and the worldviews associated with their ethnicity, to the type of productions they were forced into in the New World.2 The strategies slaves chose to express or protect themselves reflected their sense of identity. In the cases discussed here, slave action covered the spectrum from outright rebellion, to flight, to self-manumission, to knowledgeable manipulation of the legal system, and to accommodation within that system. The unenviable position that slaves held within the Spanish colonies and the identities which they created for themselves within that milieu, as well as the identities that were denied them, or thrust upon them by their owners and the colonial state, can be discerned in the spaces opened up within this colonial discourse. Those identities represent the slaves' refutation of the colonial project, a project designed to deny them social life, and thus a rejection of their potential social nihilsm.3

African slaves caught in the Spanish colonial system were subjected to the many paradoxes that shaped that world by the end of the eighteenth century. One of the most contradictory of the colonial impulses was the continuing adherence to a dehumanizing labour system based on African slavery, at the moment when Enlightenment rationalism and universalism were laying the foundation for republican notions of government by consent, nineteenth-century liberalism, and modern notions of personal freedom.4 The irony of this contradiction was that even as Spanish slave-owners were seeking to create pure productive units out of their slaves, the colonial system was providing the opportunity for the slaves to assert their humanity.5 Such cracks in the supposed monolith of the colonial world created spaces for on-going negotiations about the relationship between governed and governing, as well as the rights granted to slaves by the Crown, and their masters' demands. These negotiations involved discussions about how much power slave-owners should wield over their human property. Should they be allowed to force slaves to endanger their souls by making them perform illicit acts? Should they be allowed to expropriate their slaves' property, or punish them brutally and arbitrarily? Such questions were approached ambiguously by the Spanish Crown, and that incertitude provided the opportunities slaves could seize to alter their situations. The ways in which individual slaves inserted themselves into those cracks and sought to ameliorate their position within the colonial world, and the identities which they took on to do this, are the themes of this work.

Slave identity in northern South America was strongly shaped by the variety of experiences slaves endured in the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. Examples of slave activity that could foster a sense of identity have been drawn from various parts of the viceroyalty to reflect the distinctive situations in which these individuals found themselves, and their willingness to recreate their identities in a bid to maximize their control over their lives. In many cases, this meant trusting in the rhetoric of the Spanish Crown and seeking redress squarely within the colonial system.6 However, when it became obvious that the Crown would not provide acceptable solutions to their problems, slaves could, and did, break with accepted notions of appropriate behaviour. The variability of slave experience was directly linked to the regionalism that developed during the colonial period and which still profoundly affects Colombia today.7 Thus the complexity of slave experience in Nueva Granada inhibited the development of a sense of shared identity to a certain degree. That fact was compounded by the racial make-up of Nueva Granada by the end of the eighteenth century where the process of mestizaje had taken its course and where racial ambiguity was more often than not a reality.8 Slaves in northern South America were the majority of the population in some regions, and less than 4% in others such as in the province of Neiva which lay along the southern stretches of the Magdalena River.9 These demographic differences, along with the nature of the production they were forced to undertake helped shape the slaves' sense of identity, the cultures they maintained or created, and the possibilities opened to them.

Aside from their enslavement, slaves did not necessarily share a sense of collective identity since as a group they were not a homogenous entity with clearly definable characteristics.10 Their very fluidity of identity and their ability to recreate themselves when the need arose is what gave slaves and other subaltern groups their strength, but also means that their "identities and consciousness will always remain slightly our of reach."11 Identity within such groups was "varied and situational," and can perhaps best be traced in actions rather than as innate traits. What I mean by this is that slaves' self-perception, or the way they were perceived by others can be approached by an examination of their actions in particular situations.12 Identity can be situational as Florencia Mallon has suggested, but it can also be occupational, or linked to what people do, as Astuti recently theorized. Thus we can analyze the identity of slaves in terms of their situation—which was usually desperate by the time their stories were recorded in colonial documents—when they became active, seeking assistance from the state. This led them to identify themselves as legitimate members of colonial society—not equal, but with a degree of rights that they seized consciously.

Identities could be intertwined and they transected each other as slaves established a variety of relationships with each other and the rest of colonial society. The complexity of response and action which developed within slave systems has led researchers to go far beyond the first defining feature which slaves shared--that of their enslavement--in seeking to characterize them.13 As slaves imagined and hammered out different identities that enabled them to survive and ameliorate their situation they "carved out a meaningful existence in the face of a regime often geared-at least theoretically-towards denying them just that."14 The result of this process was the development of "different sets of identities..." with various characteristics that stood out depending on the circumstances.15 Along this line, and citing Mintz and Price, Palmié suggested that it was through the creation of African-American cultures and the identities that went with them that slaves "transformed themselves from mere collectivities of deracinated individuals—‘socially dead’ human commodities, from the trader's point of view—into viable communities."16 Though we cannot be certain how much of the many African ethnic traits and identities were retained in the American setting, we can agree that African slaves in Nueva Granada were not ‘cultureless’ or ‘socially dead.’

During the eighteenth century the very language of the dominant culture gave slaves a point of entry into the society that sought to deny them social existence.17 Like Pioquinto Contreras, they could appropriate the language of universality, a language used by the crown in announcing its claims to universal sovereignty. Thus even though subaltern groups such as slaves in colonial Spanish America might never hope to gain the rights that white colonists considered theirs naturally, still "universalistic notions of rights and participation [could] be deployed against the exclusions and inequities" which they faced.18 Hence the changing attitudes, based on Enlightenment ideals, held by some Spaniards enabled individual slaves in Nueva Granada to force the rhetoric into reality.

The Spaniards in Nueva Granada had resolved to import African slaves to work the mines as early as the end of the sixteenth century. However, it was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when mining and hacienda production boomed, that there was a tremendous increase in the importation of slaves to the viceroyalty which comprised an area coterminous to modern Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela.19 There, slaves were involved in gold placer mining, tropical agriculture and domestic service, and were most heavily concentrated in the gold-mining areas of the Pacific coast, though there were also considerable numbers in the Magdalena and Cauca valleys and the Caribbean coast.20 The most common theme to be heard from the Spaniards throughout the rest of the century was how critical the slaves were to the development of the economy and how difficult it was to obtain them.

In their attempts to deny black slaves a social identity on the basis of their innate disqualifications, the Spaniards inadvertently invented racial and social traits for them. Though the colonists did not particularly understand why, they believed, just as their English, French, and Dutch counterparts believed, that Africans were better able to withstand exposure to certain diseases and the harsh conditions of slave labour, and chose the Africans as the only solution to their labour needs.21 Certainly one of the justifications for the use of African slaves was the notion that they were well qualified for labour in the New World because they were born in climates "even more arduous, and [were] hardened by difficult labour, and they [were] robust enough to resist" the difficult circumstances. Perhaps even more importantly they were viewed as "naturally docile" and more used to the "condition of slavery."22 This perception though was open to contradiction. Some colonists viewed the blacks as a potential threat and one eighteenth-century bureaucrat recommended against the importation of more slaves because this would create too much of a racial imbalance in local populations, a dangerous situation that had to be avoided.23

By the end of the eighteenth century there were many issues at play between slaves, their owners and the colonial state. The treatment of slaves became one of the vehicles by which the colonial state could interpose itself within the relationship between owner and human chattel and this fact was recognized by some slaves. Though the crown was preoccupied with regulating how slaves were treated by their masters—this was especially articulated in the slave code promulgated in 1789 concerning the treatment, education and well-being of slaves—the issue became fraught with contradictions. In trying to establish some form of control over the slaves' treatment, the colonial state seemed more interested in reflecting its own humanity than affirming the humanity of the slaves themselves, besides being preoccupied with the practical business of running the empire. The original premises justifying the enslavement of Africans (a Christianizing mission and their lack of civilization) were taken for granted, but in allowing African slaves to own property in their own right, the colonial state had recognized their humanity, even while relegating them to an inferior position within the social hierarchy of the colonies. Although the crown suggested that the treatment of slaves had to be mediated in the best interests of humanity, it is difficult to determine whose humanity was at issue. When in 1784 José de Galvez issued an order prohibiting the practice of branding African slaves as they arrived in Cartagena he did so on the grounds that such cruelty was inhumane.24 But was it inhuman for the slaves to have to bear such acts, or did it detract from the Spaniards’ humanity when they committed such cruelties? Spanish self-image appears to have been the focus of this type of reform.

While laws may indicate in a limited manner the ideal way in which slaves should have been treated, we must question whether or not this legislation reflected an existing reality, or even influenced that reality.25 The problems inherent to analyzing legislation such as the slave code of 1789 include the extent to which the laws were implemented, and whether or not they had a practical effect.26 In fact, the fate of the slave code in New Granada was not promising. In 1792 the audiencia of Santa Fé discussed whether or not the Real Cédula regarding slaves should be suspended, because of the request by the governor of Popayán that it not be published in his jurisdiction.27 The slave code was eventually revoked because of the opposition of the colonists. At the same time however, the government instructed its representatives in America to conform to the spirit of these laws when dealing with individual cases, so as to ameliorate the slaves' condition if they were given the opportunity.28

One of the fuzzy areas that provided room for maneuver by the slaves was the fine line between the slaveholders' right to dispose of their property as they saw fit, and the possibility that they might command slaves to perform immoral acts. On this point the state could act decisively. In 1782 a case was brought before the audiencia in Santa Fé by the Procurador de Pobres, Luís de Ovallo. The plaintiffs were two slaves, María Victoria de Jesús and her husband Gregorio. They charged that their owner, Don Pedro Bravo, a prominent member of Tolimense society, had illegally dispossessed them of an estancia de cacao.29 The testimony brought forward by the slaves was that Bravo had deflowered the young slave Victoria at a very tender age, whether by seduction or rape is unknown, but he had promised her freedom as well as other incentives at that time. His wife found out about this situation and sought to punish the girl so Victoria fled. Her master found her and hid her for several days, then he offered to marry her to another of his slaves, promising to help maintain her. So she ended up marrying Gregorio, although she was already pregnant and gave birth to a pardo baby 6 months later. It was when the two slaves sought to buy their freedom that Bravo denied their ownership of the property with which they were going to pay, and they fled to Santa Fé where they sought refuge in the Convento Hospital de San Juan de Dios.30 When arguing in favour of granting the slaves' their liberty, Ovallo proposed that Bravo had gravely endangered the woman's soul by making her perform illicit acts, and essentially having forced her to commit mortal sins. Aside from concern with the slave's soul though, Ovallo suggested that setting the two slaves free would strengthen "el bien commun de la Ley Real."31 Notwithstanding the justice of the slaves' complaint, their representative argued the case in terms of serving colonial society rather than the interests of the slaves or the justice of their complaint. We can wonder then, if Ovallo intuitively knew that he would have to argue far beyond the justice due the slaves in order to create a consensus among the audiencia judges against the powerful Bravo.

When illicit relations developed between masters and their slaves it was not always the slave who denounced the situation. In 1790 notions of socially acceptable behaviour and morality led the authorities to remove a slave from her master, Juan Thomas de Villas because they were openly cohabitating. Since he was committing adultery "to the scandle and ruin of the entire place of San Antonio," the case was brought to the attention of the Visitor General of the Province of Santa Marta. He felt that the transgression was serious enough to threaten the moral backbone of the colony. Villas had overstepped the bounds of acceptable behaviour for a slave-owner regarding his female slave, warranting the interference of state officials in that relationship. The visitor ordered that she be removed to Guaymano hoping that that would be far enough away that the lovers would not be able to "relapse into such a scandalous crime." The sentence was duly carried out in October 1790 against Villas' objections.32 These two cases demonstrate that the colonial state could and did act decisively against slave-owners when the relations between master and slave threatened the moral fabric of colonial society.

The Spanish Crown's record in terms of its Christianizing mission and its concern for the moral rectitude of un-free blacks in the colonies was not always so encouraging. Its attempts to guarantee minimal obligations towards the slaves were undermined by its continued contribution to their exploitation. On a practical level this meant that what support the crown might lend to alleviate the slaves' lot was often ineffective. An obvious example of this was the way in which slaves who laboured in state-run enterprises such as mines were treated. Logically such businesses should have adopted the minimum standards of treatment the crown sought to impose upon slave-owners. Yet the proposals of the priest in charge of the indoctrination of slaves working in the most important silver mines in the viceroyalty, at Santa Ana, near Mariquita, were not well-met by the mine manager. In 1799 the priest suggested that the slaves be brought out of the mines twice a day so that they could be catechized. But the mine manager responded that this was an impractical idea as it would severely inhibit the mine’s production and impede the processing of the silver ore using mercury. He proposed instead that the priest could go down into the mine and teach the slaves for as long as he wanted, while they continued working, knowing of course that the priest would not agree to that course of action.33 Thus a policy that could have eased the slaves' daily condition remained unimplemented in favour of the crown's fiscal interests.

Notwithstanding the colonists' tendencies to dismiss slave initiative, the blacks sometimes demanded the practical application of rights that had been proferred them theoretically, actively seeking the crown's protection or its support in obtaining justice. When they undertook such action, either individually or collectively, they reclaimed a space in colonial society. It is in the midst of these cases that we can gather a sense of the identity the slaves created for themselves as they vociferously struggled to be heard by Spanish colonial society. These actions became the proving ground where colonial notions about slave helplessness and docility were challenged. Even in the process of flight, slaves undertook a creative act as they sought to resist their enslavement through the formation of maroon communities. Such early communities helped to contradict the myth of the Negro past....that blacks had been docile and easily led into slavery because they did not have the intellectual capacity to resist.34 It was partially in such settings that African cultural mores were retained and others were adapted in response to the changing circumstances of daily life

Even while slave flight continued to be a possible option, by the eighteenth century there were many instances when "rather than flight from the justice of slave-owners or the state, this was flight to justice embodied in legislation which regulated slave-master relations..."35 Such actions reflected an attitude that sought to preserve particular hard-won rights within the slave system, or to alter the structure of that system for the slaves' benefit.36 Within this analytical framework then, slaves exercised some freedom of action as they sought the crown's paternalistic protection of their rights. This of course was a double-edged sword because it served to legitimize the state's right to legislate for the slaves. Nonetheless there is no reason for us to assume that as slaves sought to ameliorate their lives within the slave system, they were accepting slavery. These acts might better be viewed as "against 'enslavement' rather than against slavery as a social system."37 Strategies like self-manumission indicate that as onerous as the slave system was, the slaves were maximizing every bit of power they could garner from the colonial state's ambiguous position. In undertaking such actions slaves were identifying themselves as potential full participants in that colonial society.

It appears to have been assumed by the Spaniards that somehow, through contact with the ‘civilizing’ force of Christianity and European society, African slaves (bozales) were gradually improved. Creole slaves, for example, were perceived as more tractable than bozales by the colonists. When a slave rebellion against whites in Coro, Venezuela, was discovered, at the end of the eighteenth century, the governor Anastasio Zejudo wrote to the viceroy that the uprising had been organized by "French (Creole) black slaves and other bozales (unseasoned Africans)." The plot had been betrayed by a pardo (mixed-blood of African origin) who had learned about it from a Creole slave. Furthermore, the governor was quick to reassure the viceroy that the capture and imprisonment of the French slaves had not perturbed the other blacks (slave and free presumably) who continued to conduct themselves "with the submission and obedience they owed the judges.”38 The major concern expressed by the authorities after the initial plot had been uncovered and the instigators captured and punished, was that somehow this antisocial contagion would spread to other slaves in the area. Indeed one of the reports written in support of the decisive action taken by the Teniente de Coro, don Mariano Ramírez, likened the uprising to an illness within society. Pedro Carbonnell wrote that the insurgents, who had some slaves among them, but also "various freedmen of all types of ‘low’ colour," had plotted to take over the fortress of San Felipe and to kill all the whites. They were claiming liberty for the slaves and the abolition of the alcabala and other taxes for the freedmen. He lauded Ramírez's radical actions claiming that they "had cured a sickness of extraordinary and quickly spreading symptons with equally extraordinary, but just and opportune, remedies."39 Those extraordinary measures which merited discussion were taken when Ramírez gave chase to the rebellious forces and captured twenty-four of the insurgents "whom he immediately decapitated." He justified these summary executions with the potential volatility of the situation—there were no jails to hold all of the captives, they were so close to their enemies, and most frightening of all, the "extension of the contagion." Obviously the strength or weakness of Spanish colonial humanitarian impulses was occasionally directly linked to their terror. Even though the Spaniards were horrified by the rebellion, it is evident that the slaves were not necessarily endeavouring to undo the entire colonial system since one of the black rebel leaders, José de la Caridad González had told the slaves that the crown was granting them their liberty. Thus the slaves recognized the authority of the crown even in the act of rebelling against their particular situations.40




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