Racial Silences in the Criminal Archive: Jail Censuses in Quito, 1750–1850

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM
Denver Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Chad T. Black, University of Tennessee
During the period 1750-1850, city magistrates in Quito, Ecuador made weekly censuses of male and female detainees in the city’s jails. These visitas included a relatively stable set of information: name, date of detention, ordering magistrate, and reason for detention. Other forms of data often crept into the records, including marital status, occupation, parish residence, and only very occasionally racial/ethnic status. Invariably, the occurrences of racial ascription were associated with specific legal statuses with implications beyond the criminal archive. Thus, indigenous people appear in the rolls as tributaries and head taxpayers (some form of tribute existed in Ecuador into the 1850s). Various ascriptions of afro-descendence (mulato, negro, pardo) were largely used as synonyms for esclavo up to the point that slavery was abolished. The dominant plebeian casta population simply shows up by name, and not by race/ethnicity.

Following the entries of some 5000 detainees from jail censuses in Quito during the century surrounding independence, this paper will argue that during the Spanish period, the jail archive was largely silent on racial/ethnic status because institutionally that status was a function of customary legal rights and obligations. Following independence, racial identities continued to be suppressed in the jail archive for a different reason, as the state sought to deny special status in favor of “equality before the law.” This argument will be contrasted with the prevalence of racial insults and stereotypes in the petitions and testimonies of actual criminal trials.

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