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  • Torture in Colonial Spain’s Northwestern Frontier:The Case of Joseph Romero “Canito,” 1686
  • Anton Daughters (bio)

In the final two decades of the seventeenth century, tensions ran unusually high between colonial officials in Spain’s North American frontier provinces and the indigenous subjects they oversaw. Pueblo Indians in New Mexico had violently dislodged colonists in Santa Fe in 1680, and rebellions appeared to be brewing to the south and west of New Mexico. It was in this climate of fear, anxiety, and suspicion that a thirty-year-old Pima leader known as Canito was arrested by Spanish officials in the fall of 1686, accused of fomenting revolt in northern Sonora, subjected to severe torture, and ultimately banished from his native province. The documentation of his trial, translated into English recently as part of the University of Arizona’s ongoing O’odham–Pee Posh Documentary History Project, offers telling clues about the application of secular justice in colonial New Spain. In the following pages I present an overview of the Canito case, briefly discussing Spanish secular law, its treatment of torture, and the degree to which legal protocol was followed or ignored in Canito’s interrogation. I also compare the Canito case to secular cases in other parts of New Spain, suggesting that torture in Sonora may have been unusually widespread in the years following the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.

Torture in Europe and Colonial America

The exact definition of torture has been debated ad nauseam by scholars. There are expansive definitions that consider any form of pain inflicted on others as torture; there are limited ones that consider it to [End Page 233] be only certain procedures formally defined by a state or central authority (Saunt 2010). In the case of Canito, torture was systematically applied in a judicial setting for the purposes of extracting a confession. I therefore use a basic and broad definition in this article that draws from John H. Langbein’s (1976:3) distinction between “judicial torture” and “torture as punishment” and Claudio Saunt’s (2010:679–708) expansive description of torture as the infliction of pain to gather information.1

The prevalence of torture as an official tool of the state, as well as popular views on the practice, has shifted dramatically in the modern era. As late as the eighteenth century, torture was considered a perfectly legal and reasonable practice in much of continental Europe. By the end of that century, however, torture had largely fallen out of favor, was rarely used in the courts, and its legality had been substantially curtailed (Saunt 2010:683).2 In the Americas, the practice remained unabated well into the nineteenth century despite being formally abolished in Spain’s colonial capitals. Torture was particularly common in wars between gente de razón and indios bárbaros (Saunt 2010:683), and captive Indians were routinely subjected to it as a means of eliciting military intelligence (Weber 2005).

In the late 1600s, the period of Canito’s trial, the standard legal reference that offered concrete guidelines to Spanish judicial officials on how and when to torture was Alonso de Villadiego’s (1720 [1641]) Instrucción política y práctica judicial. The legal text, used both in Europe and the Americas, stated that, with the exception of cases of heresy, “privileged persons” could not be tortured (Villadiego 1720:87, art. 322). These included hidalgos, soldiers, lawyers, judges, doctors, graduates of specified universities, pregnant women, children under fourteen, adults over sixty, and “many other people” listed in the Siete partidas, the most comprehensive compilation of Spanish laws of that century (Saunt 2010; Alfonso el Sabio 1807). Other people exempted from torture, as indicated by Saunt (2010:683), were “knights (caballeros), royal officers, and town officials and their children, since they were ‘of good reputation.’ Disreputable persons (testigos viles) or slaves, however, could be tortured even when they were merely uncooperative witnesses in civil cases” (see also Villadiego 1720:87, art. 319). In short, the belief that certain individuals were inherently “disreputable” or “inferior” made slaves and Indians particularly vulnerable to the application of torture (Saunt 2010:683). [End Page 234]

The Trial

It was in...


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