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Through the Gate of the Media Luna: Slavery and the Geographies of Legal Status in Colonial Cartagena de Indias

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This article examines the fate of people who had escaped slavery in colonial Cartagena de Indias as well as that of their descendants. In the 1690s, colonial military troops captured many individuals of African descent who had long lived as free in the hinterlands and forcibly transported them to Cartagena city. In the aftermath of these military campaigns, some putative owners filed lawsuits claiming that their ancestors had never relinquished ownership claims to the ancestors of freeborn residents of the forests. Since many of the captives had lived in the hinterlands all their lives, strategies such as performing acts of possession over people of African descent were not available to the claimants. This essay shows how some claimants were nonetheless able to obtain rulings that granted them rights of ownership over free Afro-descended people who had been seized and exiled from their home communities in Cartagena province's hinterlands.

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In mid-August, 1633, in the Spanish colonial province of Cartagena de Indias, Francisco Criollo led several of his soldiers in an armed raid on Alférez Diego Márquez’s pig farm.1 Francisco Criollo was the captain of the Palenque de Limón, a clandestine community of people of African descent, who had escaped slavery to live with relative autonomy in the forest about fifty miles from the provincial capital.2 On the slave owner’s pig farm, the palenque soldiers kidnapped a white overseer named Domingo Pérez, his young son Juanillo, an Indian woman named Clara and a young Indian also named Juan and took them back to the palenque. Limón resident Juan de la Mar recounts what happened next: In the afternoon of the said day, the said Queen Leonor ordered that they [Domingo Pérez and Juanillo] be taken out of the said hut. And they took them to the said palenque’s banana grove and there the said Queen Leonor laid them on the ground on their side. And she herself beheaded them with a hatchet and drank their blood, together with other black women named Susaña, Inés, Maquesu, and with other black men. And Felipe, who belongs to Captain Banquesel and the men belonging to Juan Ramos named Male[mbas] also drank. . . . And after the said black woman Leonor had wounded the said Spaniard and Indian with the referred hatchet, a black man belonging to the potter who lives next to [the Hospital of] Espíritu Santo 3 and the said black man named Francisco Malemba finished cutting off their heads and opening their chests. And the black men belonging to the said Juan Ramos helped them. And this declarant and other black men wanted to bury them. And all the black Angolas refused to allow it. And they left them in the field and the vultures ate them.4 The palenque leaders would repeat this ritual sacrifice four months later, in early December; this time the victims were two Indian men from the town of Chambacú. Shortly thereafter, on December 8, the day of the Immaculate Conception, Spanish troops stormed the palenque, killed a few of the almost two hundred residents and burned the dwellings and fields.5 Eventually, the colonial soldiers would capture eighty people. Most were turned over to their owners for subsequent exile. However, Spanish officials singled out thirteen of the black leaders for execution. The scribe Miguel Fernández de Ortega records the final two executions as follows: In the city of Cartagena de las Indias, on June 19, 1634, I, the scribe in attendance, certify that Miguel de Arellano and Vicente Rodríguez de Acosta, lieutenants of the principal bailiff of the city, by virtue of the above order, removed Lázaro Angola, slave of Captain Alonso Martín Hidalgo, and Sebastián Angola, also known as Cachorro, slave of Duarte de León Márquez from the city’s jail. And, as required by justice, they were carried through the public streets of this city, with a crier who declared their crimes, until they reached the Plaza de la Yerba, where there was a gallows made. And on it they were hanged by the neck until they died naturally, in execution of the sentence against them pronounced in this cause. Witnesses [were] the said bailiffs, Juan García Juárez and other persons. And the next day they were quartered and placed beside the roads. Miguel Fernández de Ortega, scribe. Their heads were to be displayed in a cage at the Puerta de la Media Luna on the Camino Real at the entrance to the city, and their quartered bodies placed at the entrances to Cartagena and in the district of María, near the Palenque de Limón (T, 270, 282, 289, 922, 927). There is a gruesome symmetry of violence between the palenque and Cartagena rituals. In both executions, those who wield power arrange themselves around the bodies of their enemy victims, and enact a spectacle that reaches beyond those...
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In 1519 Enrique, one of the few remaining caciques, or indigenous chiefs, of the island of Hispaniola, removed himself and some of his people from the reach of Spanish authority. For nearly a decade and a half he and his followers lived in the remote and barely accessible south-central mountains of his native island, occasionally raiding Spanish settlements for arms and tools and clashing with militia units but for the most part avoiding contact with Spanish society. Enrique eluded the numerous patrols that were sent to eradicate what became a stubbornly persistent locus of defiance of Spanish authority that attracted other discontented residents of the island, including both African and indigenous slaves and servants as well as small numbers of nominally ‘free’ Indians.
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