Slavery and the Problem of Governance in Early Spanish America, 1492–1600
Spanish American republics – communities of perceived shared interest – were theoretically entitled to limited self-governance, under early modern Castilian political theory. This governance was negotiated by communities with the Crown or the church, in theory or practice, as was the case for Spanish settlers at frontiers, subjugated indigenous communities, artisan guilds, and confraternities. In medieval Spain, the notion of republic was also occasionally extended to enslaved and free sub-Saharan Africans, on the rough model of the Muslim or Jewish aljama. The belief that enslaved subjects required the governance of an alcalde who emerged from their community was translated into the early Caribbean, where there are fragmentary references to alcaldes and mayordomos, who managed the distribution of agricultural and residential lands to slaves or attempted to resolve local conflicts. Similarly, black confraternities emerged as sites for managing African cultural rituals and activities within the language of Catholicism. This paper draws upon initial research into these Caribbean black republics and questions the degree to which we can conceive of them as political entities while acknowledging the violence and limitations imposed by Atlantic slavery.
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