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  • Literate Culture, Subalternity and Resistance: The Case of Slave Women in the Colonial Courts
  • María Eugenia Chaves

Slaves’ participation as plaintiffs in the colonial judicial system transformed them from passive objects in economic transactions to active subjects in legal battles (Bryant 2004; Aguirre 1999, 1995; Lavallé 1990; Díaz 2000; Townsend 1998; O’Toole 2001, Chaves 1998, 2001). The records of these confrontations offer valuable insights into the strategies adopted by slaves, not just to claim freedom, but to negotiate better conditions for themselves and their families. In this article I shall explore the case of a litigant slave woman who pursued a lengthy suit against her master in order to obtain her and her daughter’s freedom.1

Towards the end of the eighteenth-century the outbreak of a series of uprisings and revolts instigated by members of the plebe (the common people) confronted the colonial regime in Spanish America.2 The prevailing social tension was not only attributed to the capacity of these individuals towards violence and insurrection, but also their ability to compromise the Colonial order through individual and everyday forms of action. In this way they were assimilated into the imaginary of insolence.3 In towns with large slave populations the plebe was fundamentally composed of freedmen of colour and slaves whose resistance or rebellious actions assumed diverse means of expression.4 With respect to the slaves this defiance manifested itself through their capacity to develop strategies of liberty. In some cases these strategies were carried out within the framework of colonial tribunals.5

It is remarkable that slaves, most of them alienated from the codes of literate dominant culture, were able to develop the resources and knowledge needed to use the judicial system to advantage. This article is an attempt to explore the kind of resources and knowledge an enslaved woman in Guayaquil, named María Chiquinquirá, and was able to mobilize in her claim for freedom before the colonial courts. Although the evidence of María’s resources and knowledge lay in the interstices of dominant legal discourse, in this article I will suggest that an important component of the legal argumentation in favor of María’s freedom came from outside the frame of the literate dominant legal culture. I will identify this other dimension as the source of this subaltern slave women’s experience of resistance. Analyzing this case under the theoretical lens of the Subaltern Studies will help to differentiate between the dominant discourse, as we can read it from the documents of the case, and the polyphonic resonances the discourse contains.6 These polyphonic resonances will guide us towards the source of power relations and knowledge utilized by an enslaved woman to claim for her freedom in the context of the colonial courts.

Gayatri Spivak has stressed the inaccessibility of the subaltern voice and the need to acknowledge the “aporetic” condition of subaltern “silence” as fundamental to any academic practice attempting to retrieve it (Spivak 1988, 1999).7 Following Spivak suggestion, I will argue that the polyphony, or the “rumor of multiple voices”, contained in the judicial discourse cannot be rendered intelligible as such. In consequence, I am not claiming to be able to retrieve the voice, philosophical thoughts or political positioning of a subaltern enslaved woman fighting for her freedom.8 I will, however, explain the conditions in which María Chinquinquirá was able to use certain resources and knowledge available to her at the end of the eighteenth century, to construct a narrative about her freedom, and to sustain this narrative as her principal argument for the legal recognition of her liberty.

In the present study, I assume that the texts from María Chiquinquirá’s trial for freedom represent a dynamic field of power relations and forms of knowledge, not a “voice” or a “mentality” which could be associated with the “subaltern.” The subaltern, as an identity, or subalternity, as a particular social position, will be considered as the product of power and knowledge relations within the framework of a dominant culture, both as an object of academic inquiry and as an individual in a given society (Beverley 1999).

Because its character of singles occurrences, not...

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