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Captivity and Redemption:
Aspects of Slave Life in Early Colonial Quito and Popayán*
In mid-July 1594 a notary recorded the last wishes of an elite woman on her deathbed in Quito. Ysabel de Baeza was a native of the old Kingdom of Granada, a four-time widow, owner of some houses in Seville and a modest estancia in Ambato, a few days' ride south of Quito. She also claimed five slaves: Magdalena and her four children, Luisa, Felipe, Juan, and Antón. Doña Ysabel's real estate was to go mostly to her children and grandchildren in Quito, but the fate of the slaves was more carefully circumscribed. Magdalena would serve her dying master's daughter for four years, after which she would be freed. Luisa was to serve Baeza's granddaughter, Leonor de Ayala, and Felipe a great-grandson, Alonso Bonifaz, both "until the time when they ransom themselves (se rescaten) and give each one on their own behalf four hundred pesos of current silver." The younger Juan and Antón were to stay in the household of Baeza's executors until they also freed themselves, each for 300 pesos. The slaves were not to be sold by these temporary masters, and the 1,400 pesos thus collected was to be placed in a chaplaincy fund (capellanía) administered by Quito's Augustinians. The masses thus financed by the self-redemption of Ysabel Baeza's slaves would in turn help release her soul from the temporary captivity and untold pain of Purgatory. 1 [End Page 225]
Captivity and redemption defined bodies and souls in many contexts in the sixteenth-century Spanish Empire: there were the luckless Christians held by "Turkish" corsairs in the baños of the Maghreb, war captives like the rebellious Moriscos taken in the Alpujarras uprisings, and a variety of prisoners jailed for both petty and capital crimes in Spain and the colonies. Then there was the matter of "doing time" for sins in the afterlife, settling accounts with God for venial or worse misdeeds on Earth. Finally there was African slavery, which, though it shared aspects of all these other forms of early modern European captivity and redemption, found mostly unapologetic mercantilist objectives pushed to the fore.
We do not know if elite Quiteños made conscious links between these various forms of captivity and redemption, but it seems safe to say that few were so moved by such associations to free African slaves. Slave-holding was of course not completely dissociated from sin, as evidenced by occasional deathbed manumissions for the "discharge" of the owner's conscience, but with luck, as shown by the example of Ysabel de Baeza above, an owner could have the best of both worlds, mortgaging her or his own soul against the value of a slave or two, or four, in the bargain. We do not know what African slaves thought of this apparent material-capital/spiritual-capital continuum either, but their constant and often wily attempts to secure bodily freedom suggest a far more visceral understanding of captivity and redemption than their masters could ever know. This essay, though by necessity largely descriptive, also seeks to probe some of these darker recesses of early American slavery using the example of Quito, modern capital of Ecuador, and the vast region then under its dominion.
African slavery in the city and provinces of Quito has received little attention for two reasons. Firstly, the highland core of the old Kingdom of Quito was home to dense indigenous populations; the conquistadors and their descendants worried mostly about hanging onto encomienda grants in order to work their agricultural holdings, even around the turn of the seventeenth century. [End Page 226] Secondly, Quito proper was not like much of New Granada to the north, or coastal Peru to the south; placer gold mines and sugar plantings were scattered, distant, and mostly marginally productive. Vineyards never took root. Still, the city of Quito emerged soon after conquest and civil...