Family, Household, Community, and the Court: Extending and Defying Domestic Male Authority in Colonial Latin America

AHA Session 63
Conference on Latin American History 11
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Roosevelt Room 1 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Kathryn Burns, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Sherwin K. Bryant, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

Iberian American law and culture supported a strong patriarchal order in which husbands and fathers, male slave owners and chiefs, could hold complete authority over their families, households, and communities. In their absence judges, court officials, councils, and other legal and governing bodies comprised exclusively of men often oversaw the care of family, household property, and subordinates. To be sure, Iberian law recognized the rights of women, minors (persons younger than twenty-five years, the legal age of emancipation), and other household or community members to some protection against destitution or abuse of power. Yet, the culture of patriarchy, which guided expectations of what constituted acceptable or admissible behavior, almost inevitably subordinated family, household, and community members to the domestic authority of white males or their surrogates. Certain moments within the trajectory of these domestic units offered, nonetheless, an opportunity for authority to be challenged, usurped, or negotiated. The death of a male head of household, the movement of family members across land or sea, a domestic crisis caused by neglect or abuse could undermine the patriarchal structure that normally regulated these social relationships. During these moments individuals may have resorted to the courts, either to strengthen the power of male domestic authority, to challenge it, or to reframe it.

The papers in this panel investigate the role the courts played in helping to redefine male domestic authority within colonial families, households, and communities in Peru and Brazil, particularly regarding their geographical reach and relationship of power with subordinate figures. Jane Mangan explores the question of how courts and legal procedures helped to preserve the patriarchal order of families and household units that were on the move. By affording husbands and fathers the legal means of transferring their patriarchal authority to another man during their family’s migration to Peru, courts protected the domestic authority of absent men against potential male interlopers or autonomous actions by women and minors. Bianca Premo investigates the relationship between courts and litigants in cases where subordinate members of a family or household attempted to renegotiate the treatment received by a patriarchal figure. By acting as mediators, and not necessarily enforcers of the law, courts and prosecutors occasionally helped women, natives, and slaves in Peru to challenge male domestic authority and recalibrate the power relationship in households slightly in their favor. Finally, Mariana Dantas examines the fragile domestic reality of black women in informal and interracial unions in Minas Gerais as they faced the legal issues that followed the death of a partner. By engaging with these women, as they sought the legal means to protect the integrity of their families and their households, courts, prosecutors, and councils helped them develop a narrative of and assert their own domestic authority.

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