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Margarita de Sossa’s freedom journey was defiant and entrepreneurial. In her early twenties, still enslaved in Portugal, she took possession of her body; after refusing to endure her owner’s sexual demands, he sold her, and she was transported to Mexico. There, she purchased her freedom with money earned as a healer and then conducted an enviable business as an innkeeper. Sossa’s biography provides striking insights into how she conceptualized freedom in terms that included – but was not limited to – legal manumission. Her transatlantic biography offers a rare insight into the life of a free black woman (and former slave) in late sixteenth-century Puebla, who sought to establish various degrees of freedom for herself. Whether she was refusing to acquiesce to an abusive owner, embracing entrepreneurship, marrying, purchasing her own slave property, or later using the courts to petition for divorce. Sossa continued to advocate on her own behalf. Her biography shows that obtaining legal manumission was not always equivalent to independence and autonomy, particularly if married to an abusive husband, or if financial successes inspired the envy of neighbors.
Paula de Eguiluz, the daughter of African slaves in Puerto Rico in the 1590s, achieved her freedom from slavery by age thirty. However, from the 1620s to the end of the 1630s, she fought a contentious, ongoing battle with the inquisitors working out of the Cartagena de Indias tribunal of the Spanish Holy Office. Eguiluz gave numerous testimonies to the inquisitors, which hostile and friendly witnesses filled in from their own experiences with her. This extensive documentation offers a biographical narrative overflowing with details that have intrigued historians since the nineteenth century including: her infamous powers of seduction, her bold and elegant appearance, her healing skills, her ability to fly, and her frightening arsenal of incantations and potions. Eguiluz’s fortunes rose and fell in the first half of the seventeenth century, but what is most noteworthy is her dedication to the struggle for freedom. Through analysis of her detailed autobiography presented to the inquisitors and the supporting biographic details provided by her acquaintances and rivals, Eguiluz emerges as a complicated heroine with documented emotional subjectivity and moral ambiguity.
In eighteenth-century New Spain, free and enslaved African descent women challenged the social order by negotiating their social identities in various colonial spaces. Juana Ramirez was a freed African descent woman who was labeled as both a mulata and an Indian woman in the historical record. In 1761, Juana was interrogated by inquisitors in Antequera for transforming herself into a tall, white figure. In the context of this Inquisition case, Juana’s legal and social statuses were questioned, and local authorities reported that Juana was a mulata criolla and that she was not a “pure” Indian woman. The authorities also indicated that they initially could not pinpoint her social status and thus, they initially referred her case to the Juzgado General de Indios. The uncertainty of Juana’s ethnic background suggests that she possibly proclaimed her indigenous identity to attain her legal freedom at an earlier point in the eighteenth century. By analyzing Juana’s behavior in enslavement and freedom, this chapter highlights how African descent women navigated the Spanish colonial courts and relied on self-fashioning to secure their state of freedom in the Spanish colonial world.
This chapter focuses on eight historical developments identified as contexts for legitimised violence in Spanish America. These include the wars of conquest, which Spaniards legitimised through ‘factual’ arguments, such as combating barbarity and bringing civility to indigenous peoples; the Spiritual Conquest of indigenous peoples and the associated activities of the Spanish Inquisition, both of which sometimes featured violence as a means to suppress what Spaniard categorised as heresy and idolatry; hemispheric slavery and its dehumanising nature, which left African and African-descended peoples vulnerable to violence; violence towards all women, but particularly towards indigenous and African women; and finally, state-sanctioned violence used as a tool to suppress ‘revolts’, which were often the product of European anxieties regarding colonial subjects. It is argued that the twin threads of violence that strung these developments together were the promise of wealth and status combined with an ideology of justification for committing violence. Acts of violence that historians might view as being homicidal, personal, arbitrary or contrary to Spanish law could, in fact, be justified, legitimised and committed with impunity in the name of ‘civilising’, with particularly horrific consequences for indigenous peoples throughout Spanish America.
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