Probably inspired by an emerging body of literature on crime in colonial Latin America—including some essays by historian Germán Colmenares and sociologist Julián Vargas Lesmes, published close to their untimely deaths—other Colombian historians and anthropologists recently have turned their attention to the same subject. The result is a stimulating new series of publications focusing on the social history of crime in New Granada in the last seven decades before independence. These recent investigations also shed light on diverse facets of the late colonial mentalité, daily life, and social relations in the viceroyalty and, by extension, in Spains other American colonies.
The lengthiest and most mature of the three works reviewed here is the one by Beatríz Patiño Millán, professor of history at the Universidad de Antioquia and current director of the Asociación de Historiadores de Colombia. Patiño’s long experience working at the Archivo Histórico de Antioquia has produced several important archival indexes, including three on the documents concerning Antioquia’s colonial-era criminal affairs. This, her most recent monograph, awarded the prestigious IDEA annual prize for the best historical research published in Antioquia in 1993, is based on several such documents: notarial records, contemporary legislation and legal literature, and censuses. It also includes a fairly good discussion of the secondary literature. It reconstructs the complex set of legal rules and procedures, institutions, and authorities involved in regulating criminal behavior. In addition, supported by a wide array of quantitative data, it discusses the social characteristics, views, and motivations of the people involved—officials, witnesses, lawyers, and criminals—and traces the social profile of the criminal acts themselves.
Patiño argues that the significance of sources related to criminal acts is the richness of information they bring to the interpretation of the social history and conflicts of localities and regions. Some of the most detailed information comes from records of crimes against “personal integrity,” including 136 libel trials, 203 injury trials, and 43 murder trials from the period 1750-1819. Most of the trials took place in the jurisdiction of the city of Santafé de Antioquia, then capital of New Granada’s province of Antioquia, a thriving agrarian and mining center undergoing considerable demographic expansion. The cases reflect the periods social hierarchies, ethnic and gender relations, cultural traits, even material culture, as indicated by the weapons utilized (poisons, machetes, hatchets, knives, or other sharp objects, but rarely firearms).
The only drawback to this otherwise insightful and well-researched monograph is the lack of an overall argument and a more explicit dialogue with the historiography. We learn a great deal about legal rules, social groups, gender, culture, and other historical topics, but we are left to come up with our own general conclusions. Nevertheless, Patiño’s work makes a significant contribution to the social history of late colonial law and crime in general and of an important region of New Granada in particular.
The publications of Guillermo Sosa Abella and Leonardo Alberto Vega Umbasia are the results of research conducted during an ethnohistorical seminar (taller) under the direction of Universidad Nacional professor Hermes Tovar Pinzón, a prolific historian of the colonial and postcolonial period. His disciples’ works are relatively short pieces based on contemporary criminal records; printed primary sources, especially legislation and moral and religious tracts; and Spanish-language secondary sources.
Vega Umbasia’s work is dedicated to examining the “crime-sin” of bestiality. Though certainly not a “dominant” behavior, he argues, it is, as much as many other “cosas aparentemente pequeñas, intrascendentes o ‘desviadas,’” a key to comprehending a social culture and its “heart” (p. 16). In addition to summarizing the theological and juridical precepts concerning bestialismo, the author attempts an ethnographic reconstruction of 19 cases from the area of Boyacá, Cundinamarca, and Santander, apparently between 1745 and 1808, though a summary table mistakenly lists 5 such cases as if they had taken place in the late nineteenth century (p. 120). Along with anecdotal descriptions of the cases that convey something of the social composition, activities, and morality of colonial rural society, the author emphasizes how the regulation of sexual behavior indicates the strong connections between theology and law in the colonial period, a relatively well-known relationship.
Anthropologist Sosa Abella explores some of the social relations in the late colonial Indian resguardos by looking at crimes of theft (approximately 13 cases) and murder (approximately 26 cases) committed by Indians against whites and mestizos in the province of Tunja. Most of the thefts were of livestock; a few involved grain, clothing, and tools from people of the neighboring towns or the resguardo itself—raising the question of the extent to which other Indians, rather than whites or mestizos, were the victims. Moreover, the homicides—contrary to the author’s stated focus—rarely affected whites or mestizos. But although they may not necessarily represent ethnic tensions, these crimes do say a good deal about gender tensions, for in one-fourth of them, wives or female lovers were the victims. They also illustrate general aspects of Indian culture; for instance, many of the offenders apparently were drunk on chicha while the crimes were committed. Finally, witchcraft seems to have been used rarely (only an exceptional case is reported), and it led the victims’ relatives to lynch the suspected witch.
This work, though rich in empirical evidence, anecdotal information, and some middle-level generalizations, fails, like that of Patiño, to propose a central argument. Nevertheless, like those of both Patiño and Vega, it helps open up an important historical topic on which more is still to come.