Governing the Body: Africans and the Trans-Atlantic Legal and Natural Landscapes of Enslavement
Conference on Latin American History 49
"Africans and the Trans-Atlantic Legal and Natural Landscapes of Enslavement.”
Submitted by Renée Soulodre-La France
This panel interrogates structures and epistemologies of governance in the context of enslavement in the Spanish Empire. The papers explore the legal structures of dominance and subjugation and their impact on enslaved bodies, both bodies politic and physical, during the colonial period in Spanish America. Moving along the scale from the natural world to that of ‘mentalitées’, as well as along the temporal scale from the early colonial period into the late 18th century, the panelists seek to underscore the understandings that various groups and individuals held about the colonial environment, and the social frameworks adopted to control it. These historians examine the legal institutions that shaped enslavement and governance, burrowing down into individual perceptions of the relationship between the corporations of Africans and Spanish notions of the republic. Beyond this, they deepen their analysis by examining the individual sub-stratum of the enslaved body, its use and its control, and whose perceptions of how each unique body would be instrumentalized prevailed. During the early colonial experience existing Iberian models were adapted to the contexts of enslavement in the New World. Those same institutions were, in turn, affected by the development of enslavement within colonial societies. Karen Graubart’s work questions how much leeway Africans and their descendants were able to wrestle from the Hispanic structures transplanted across the Atlantic. Her analysis of African self-governance through institutions such as the alcaldes and alguaziles de negros queries the possibility of conceiving these as political entities within the colonial context. Sherwin Bryant delves into the constitution of colonial black masculinity on the margins of the Kingdom of New Granada. He argues that males of African origin in the liminal space of the rainforests of Barbacoas were policed through specific ideas of the enslaved male body, ideas shaped by the gendered and racialized lenses of sexual deviance and criminality. This author contends that governance of the enslaved African male was exercised through ontologies of colonial blackness by the eighteenth century. Soulodre-La France focuses upon the culturally prescribed boundaries between the natural environment and the enslaved person to determine if these differed among distinct ethnic groups, and how they were applied to the context of enslavement. What were the boundaries between the natural world and the human person? Were these the same for both enslaved and free? How did these ways of knowing affect the outcome of legal challenges within the Spanish colonial world? This author pursues these questions in the context of the viceroyalty of Nueva Granada.
These papers present various aspects of colonial governance in its practical application as well as through its ideation. They reflect upon the boundaries between perceptions, structures, actions, and habits of control. They straddle the limits of legal, intellectual, cultural and diaspora history. Historians of Latin America, Africa and those interested in the relationship between ideas, context, and practice will be the likely audience for this session.