Independence was costly for slaveholders in the southwestern provinces of New Granada. War had humbled the proud city of Popayán and drained wealth from its mines and haciendas. Worse, victory came to depend on the mobilization of the heavily slave population. At Bolívar’s urging, the Congress of Cúcuta enacted legislation (1821) that gradually abolished slavery. Thus, Popayán’s slaveowning families faced not only an economic crisis, but an ideological challenge threatening their way of life.
The story of how these families sought to preserve their world is the subject of Jorge Castellanos’s brief monograph. Framed by the Manumission Law of 1821 and the Abolition Law of 1851, the work is focused on the flow of local adjustments that in their magnitude tempered these larger events. Using the proceedings of local Juntas de Manumisión, Castellanos finds that slaveowner control of these entities permitted few manumissions: 23 out of a slave population of 5,973 between 1835 and 1840. If laws had little effect on slavery, however, civil war did. The War of the Supremos (1839–42) weakened the cohesiveness of the Payanes elite and heightened slave unrest. Despite legislation extending slaveowner control over libertos until they reached age twenty-five, the end was near, as the Radical Liberals abolished slavery on May 21, 1851.
Castellanos is concerned with the juridical evolution of abolition, as measured by local maneuvers employed to delay its ultimate consummation. This is the framework through which he wants us to see not “simple economic transformations,” but the disintegration of a total system of principles, sentiments, ideals and prejudices” (p. 112). For some, like Joaquín Mosquera, adaptation was possible. Castellanos sees in the defiance of Julio Arboleda, however, a truer measure of elite attitudes. Was it? The absence of an economic dimension to Castellanos’s juridical framework makes such a conclusion curiously rigid. Although he acknowledges the importance of mining to the elite (p. 15), nothing is said about its evolution that might explain the “economic decadence” of the region after 1810 (pp. 55, 104ff, 130). If the region was in decline after 1810, Castellanos has provided us with few tools to measure it. In short, this is a familiar story, eloquently told, of legal obstructionism and the pathos of social change that helps illuminate a larger reality that remains unexplored.