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  • Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain by Nancy E. Van Deusen
  • Camilla Townsend
Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain. By Nancy E. Van Deusen (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. xvi plus 336 pp. $26.95).

Though Nancy Van Deusen gave her book a title to parallel that of Lewis Hanke's classic work and though she opens with a vignette featuring fray Bartolomé de las Casas, she is quite clear from the outset that she has not attempted simply to update Hanke's Spanish Struggle for Justice (1965) to reflect the moral and intellectual sensibilities of the twenty-first century. Instead, she has shifted the focus entirely away from Las Casas and centers it instead upon a small but important subgroup of the 650,000 Native Americans who were seized and transported as slaves during the process of conquest (2). She has written a work about the meaning and significance of 184 cases presented by litigants in sixteenth-century Spain who styled themselves indios and, using the New Laws of 1542, fought to free themselves from slavery.

From the first moments of the book, wherein an enslaved twenty-year-old woman named Catalina meets with fray Bartolomé de las Casas in the monastery of San Pablo and pleads for his help in her case, Van Deusen as author walks a fine line: she does not want to lose sight of the real human beings whose lives were blighted by slavery, but at the same time, she wishes to maintain a high level of theoretical sophistication transcending the experiences of individuals. For the most part, she succeeds in accomplishing both tasks simultaneously. "By exploring the microcosmic and international dimensions of the fragmented lives of slaves, most of them from Spanish America and Brazil but several from Africa or South and East Asia—their interactions with others, and how others saw them—I strive in this volume to expand our understandings of the multiple and contextual definitions of indioness in the heart of the Spanish empire" (13). And at times she goes further, emphasizing "how some of the most peripheral individuals of empire—people in bondage—actively forged large-scale changes on a local level" by bringing to court their protests against and manipulations of the shifting term "indio" decade after decade (30).

There are moments when the primacy of the 184 cases from the Spanish archives comes close to smothering the work and leaves the reader wishing for a wider world of evidence in which to move and breathe, but for the most part, Van Deusen avoids that result by occasionally bringing to bear supplementary investigations of such things as "notarial records of slave sales, inventories, dowries and wills, ship registries, travel certificates, official correspondence, royal decrees, legislation, contemporary political treatises, and Portuguese and Spanish chronicles" (17). Such evidence could have been used more freely, but [End Page 572] then again, it is the avowed intent of the work to study the cases of these 184 individuals. They were indeed a remarkable lot, for 95% of them did manage to free themselves (23), hardly the most typical fate of sixteenth-century slaves, in Spain or anywhere else. Rather than rendering them extraneous, I think that fact makes them well worth studying.

In her first chapter, Van Deusen presents a detailed case study of the village of Carmona, where multiple generations of women sued for freedom. In chapter two, she begins a more monograph-like work, presenting evidence about the seizure of indigenous slaves, their oceanic crossings, and their life experiences in Castile. In the third chapter, she traces the legal reforms of the 1540s and enslaved people's decisions to use them, and then in the fourth chapter, she studies the culture of the courtroom itself. The sixth chapter presents the legal vocabulary and categories within which both sides were forced to operate (they had or hadn't been taken in a "just war," or as "rescate," etc.), and the seventh discusses the changing notions of physiognomy that existed in Spain, physiognomy being frequently brought to bear as legal evidence. Chapter seven explores the testimonies of people who were...


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