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Spanish Court Records from Late Colonial Guatemala Catherine Komisaruk* - page 4 / 14





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or occasionally on the hacienda, essentially, it seemed, when they couldn’t get work elsewhere, or when their wives impelled them to go earn some wages. (The wives—also legally enslaved—similarly appear to have been employed only at times on the hacienda.)

In the various slaves’ lawsuits that I have studied, certain words and phrases that were used frequently reveal much about the structure of slavery and the society’s understanding of it on the eve of the general emancipation. An example is the papel de venta (literally, paper of sale)—a notice given to a slave by the slaveholder announcing that the slave was for sale. Slaves themselves then solicited their buyers in a process carried out with some regularity especially in the capital city. (In fact, the concentration of Spanish homes and wealth made the city a magnet for rural slaves seeking a new master.) A slaveholder willing to sell a slave gave him or her a papel de venta, normally consisting of a note about the slave’s name and price, and the name of the slaveholder or another person to be contacted to arrange the sale. Sometimes slaves actually carried their papeles de venta door-to-door, looking for a buyer. While the legal authorities did not consistently require slaveholders to sell slaves who wished to be sold, some slaves requested and obtained papeles. This occurrence was frequent enough that the phrase pedir papel (literally meaning “to ask for a paper”) was understood in the colony’s court documents to refer to the slave’s request for a papel de venta from the slaveholder. I have also seen that the term tener papel (literally, “to have a paper”) referred to the slave’s having received the papel de venta and being in a position to seek a new buyer.6 I have found a few papeles de venta attached to court documents, although I have not found any in the notarial record books, and without using litigation I would perhaps never have become aware of this interesting phenomenon.

Court records show that some slaves used the papel de venta not only to change residence and employer, but also as a strategy to position themselves for self-purchase and manumission. Such positioning might be achieved through price manipulations (and lowering) that could accompany successive sales, or through sale to a slaveholder who was willing to accept the slave’s self-purchase on credit.

Another telling phrase that appears frequently in slaves’ court depositions is trabajo personal (literally, personal work)—a term that usually described work that slaves did on their own time to earn income for themselves. This wasn’t necessarily a ticket to self-purchase; many slaves were required to use their own money to pay for food, clothing, or medical treatment. From the viewpoint of research methods, though, the Hispanic population’s widespread understanding of slaves’ “trabajo personal” as a source of cash wages for the support of themselves and their families helps demonstrate the disintegration of some the traditional structures of slavery. Not only were slaves working for wages, but also they were providing for themselves and their families with their own money. These eco– nomic activities help delineate the contours of a transformation—at both the

6For example, AGCA Sig. A1/leg. 2863/exp. 26000; Sig. A1/leg. 4358/exp. 35390; Sig. A1/leg. 2799/exp. 24580; and Sig. A1/leg. 2862/exp. 25957.

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