SPANISH COURT RECORDS FROM GUATEMALA
Spanish judicial system provided free legal representation to slaves and Indians as well as poor Spaniards and mestizos. Anybody who arrived at the offices of the court or the home of the local alcalde, it seems, could press criminal charges or file a civil lawsuit.
Not only are court records rich in depth in the details of neighborhood and household life, but also they reveal various phenomena that I have not found, or would not have been able to detect, in other types of records. To illustrate, this essay discusses two phenomena that became clearer to me through my reading of several hundred court cases—the collapse of African slavery, and the labor of Indian women in the Spanish economy.
The collapse of slavery
One phenomenon that emerged in my reading of court records surrounds the en- slavement and emancipation of people of African descent. I could see in the notarial records from the period that slaves were being bought and sold, but something further appeared in the court records: slavery had nearly collapsed by the late colonial era, even before the edict of 1824 that declared a general eman- cipation. The society was increasingly ethnically mixed, and slaves were increas- ingly able to pass unarrested into free society. The court records also suggest the extent to which Hispanic society in Guatemala, by the early nineteenth century, recognized and accepted slaves’ physical mobility and their ability to (re)nego- tiate the conditions of their bondage. The Spanish courts gave slaves a degree of judicial franchise similar to that of poor free people by providing free legal counsel and representation. An impressive number of slaves came into the courts as litigants petitioning for liberty or other concessions. These individuals often had already gained a remarkable degree of physical mobility, as illustrated by their very appearance in court to file suit. Such litigants frequently indicated that they were not even working for—or in custody of—the legal slaveholder. In addition to their physical mobility (or perhaps because of it), slaves in general seem by the late colonial years to have achieved an ability to negotiate the terms of their labor.
The slaves from the Hacienda San Gerónimo provide an example. Located in the rural Verapaz region, the hacienda was owned by the Dominican order. It was the largest slaveholding enterprise in Guatemala, with about six hundred slaves in addition to other workers. Across the first two decades of the 1800s, several groups of male slaves from San Gerónimo arrived in the capital city to file lawsuits on behalf of themselves and their fellow slaves at the hacienda.5 In the early stages of this litigation process, the petitioners had negotiated for the slaves on the estate to be paid cash wages. A few years later, they successfully sued for their workload to be reduced and regulated to equal the daily workload of the Indians on the estate. Finally they demanded, and were granted, overtime pay in a legal decision that effectively gave them a higher wage than Indian workers on the same estate. The San Gerónimo plaintiffs fit the pattern of slaves’ physical mobility, and this mobility probably strengthened their negotiating power. Some of the slaves reported in their testimonies that they were working only seasonally
Several of the lawsuits are contained in AGCA Sig. A1/leg. 2556/exp. 20577.