- Violent Delights, Violent Ends: Sex, Race & Honor in Colonial Cartagena de Indias by Nicole von Germeten
This monograph explores provocative case studies that analyze how Cartagena’s residents negotiated issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and politics in the Spanish Indies from 1600 to 1800. Eleven chapters provide compelling vignettes: protagonists debate a dubious virginity; women practice love magic; witches fly to night beach orgies; elite males duel and kill defending their honor; married women engage in prostitution; almost everyone flees from the Inquisition. Such narratives provide enticing introductions for undergraduates as well as historical grist for specialists. [End Page 831]
Yet, the ensuing analysis does raise the ever-persistent question concerning the methodology of selection. As the author notes, since “local archives do not survive in Cartagena” (p. 188), the cases derive from Inquisition documents from the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid, from appeals to the Council of the Indies located in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, and from the Criminal section of the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Bogotá. So why these particular choices and not others? Lacking guidance as to authorial options—was the choice topical, the most dramatic, the most colorful—what was available, what was left out—the absence of any stated rationale as to choice problematizes generalizations. For example, if, as suggested, the concept of matrimonial love seems rare in these stories, how much might authorial selection have influenced any conclusion?
Where the author’s thick analysis of these case stories yields historical gold is less in broad generalizations than in explication of processes. Embedded throughout these very different stories are consistencies: underlying patterns providing oblique but telling insight into how things worked. For example, whether dealing with duels, witches, or inquisitors, the author explores how the testimony of those involved revealed mutually-held conceptualizations about the difference between the public and private spheres, gendered definitions concerning the salience of honor, dynamics surrounding constructions of public reputation, and tactics to secure reputable witnesses for favorable outcomes. Other themes—the particular use of the word enemy to denote known detractors or the ubiquity of the dismissive phrase “Go with God” as an attempt to bring a contretemps to a close—might also have received closer analysis.
Most revisionist is the author’s deft explications revealing how female and male sexuality impacted politics from the local to the viceregal level, particularly how “factions used female sex and the language of honor as weapons or a means of settling scores” (p. 5). For example, the court ordered one “thoroughly disgraced” lover, appropriately named Don Juan, to provide a dowry for a women with dubious virginity; the scandal, promoted by his “enemies,” led to the “ruin” of his “political standing in Cartagena” (p. 29). He was not alone, as other cases show how members of Cartagena’s elite “combated their political rivals by exposing female sexuality in judicial cases” (p. 35). Stories from succeeding chapters reveal that “women’s sex lives were eminently political,” because “female sex and sexual reputation were popular tools to publicly manipulate status” (p. 91). Men also proved vulnerable, as their opponents might use a “sex scandal” as a way “to bring down a political rival” (p. 98). The result was that both men and women found that “private sexual acts” might become part of “public disputes” as “seemingly petty local fights” could become entwined with “imperial political issues” (p. 45). In sum, Violent Delights provides nuanced and rich interpretations exposing the complexities of the intimate worlds of the inhabitants of colonial Cartagena de Indias, and, by extension, of patterns characteristic throughout Spanish America. [End Page 832]