- Violent Delights, Violent Ends: Sex, Race, & Honor in Colonial Cartagena de Indias by Nicole von Germeten
Von Germeten’s well-written book examines notorious colonial Carthaginian women who “took control of their own sex lives “(p. 3). Eleven chapters analyze “the interaction between private lives and the colonial courts, with a focus on the rhetoric of honor and the unclear boundaries between licit and illicit sex” (p. 232). Major themes include the political rivalries behind affronts to honor; sexually proactive women, the relationship of honor and masculinity to empire and international tensions, male spontaneous violence, female relationship strategies, witches and sex, a prostitute’s interactions with women, and a brief evaluation of conjugal relationships in the eighteenth century.
The introduction and most of the 11 chapters rely on some 13 cases tried between 1598 and 1655. The exceptions are chapters 7 and 8, which are devoted to seventeenth-century sorcery, and chapters 10 and 11, which explore five cases from the second half of the eighteenth century. Von Germeten’s goal of writing “a new perspective on colonial sex” (p. 11) is courageous, but the book contains only sparse documentation. The author’s strong preference for a solely narrative approach, rather than admitting a complementary statistical one, does not resolve this problem, despite invectives against scholars who de-emphasize the sexual, portray women as victims, and “forget that sex is and was a pleasurable experience” (p. 11).
Insufficient documentation leads von Germeten to contend that “[Diego] López’s musings on his own sexuality prove that colonial men felt a strong sense of remorse and guilt when they strayed outside of the marital bed” (p. 143; reviewer’s emphasis). When commenting on prostitution, moreover, she remarks, “Since race, gender, and sex for sale remain controversial and confusing subjects to this day, perhaps it is not surprising that historians of colonial Spanish America usually downplay the existence of prostitution” (167). More likely, previous researchers were less willing to allege that two cases that “demonstrate that elite women were not all that concerned about associating [End Page 357] with a reputedly ‘fallen woman,’ even a confirmed prostitute” (p. 180) constituted proof.
When assessing the historiographical debate surrounding female agency, von Germeten states, “All historians should at least entertain the idea that women made choices when it came to their sexuality and that they actually experienced sexual desires, even if they were heavily influenced by economic necessity and social and gender hierarchies” (p. 233). For decades many historians have acknowledged women’s options, but they have more forcefully emphasized the authoritarian, patriarchal, repressive, racist, and religiously orthodox structures that limited independent actions. In a similar vein, the author advocates shattering the “stereotype [maintained by Carthaginians] that only nonwhite women had nonmarital sex” (pp. 191-192). She might have acknowledged scholarship that has long eschewed that stereotype, especially on adultery, casas de depósito, orphanages, marriage dispensations, palabra de casamiento, and recogimientos. Von Germeten’s inclusion of the cortejo in the final two chapters conflicts with Carmen Martín Gaite’s own interpretation of that eighteenth-century innovation, which the latter concluded had plunged “the institution [of marriage] into an acute crisis” (1991; p. 86). Von Germeten contends, however, “The cortejo simply provided another social structure or cultural interpretation for the timeless practice of a sexually charged love triangle involving a married woman” (p. 206).
While chapters 10 and 11 focus on the eighteenth century, the book does not keep up adequately with changes that occurred over time. Referring to an earlier chapter, she writes: “As observed in the last chapter, women of African descent and their social lives infuriated the colonial authorities for centuries in Cartagena” (p. 144). However, that chapter analyzes cases from the 1630s.
In regard to the scarcity of source material, von Germeten notes, “Colonial archives are quite limited in Cartagena. Local criminal [and complete Inquisition] records have not survived” (pp. 8-9). One wonders if her conclusions about female agency and court proceedings...