This article explores the problem of torture and secrecy in the archives of conspiracies, seditions, and black resistance movements in the colonial Americas of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Using the example of the Tailors' Conspiracy, a seditious movement that occurred in 1798 in the state of Bahia, Brazil, the author argues for the importance of shifting from historical methods that attempt to recover or reveal evidence of secrets within archival records to a focus on why both judges and suspects were motivated to keep secrets during interrogations. For their part, African-descended subjects who were arrested kept secrets both to avoid capital punishment and to ensure that other participants of the movement could not be captured and interrogated. Judges were likely motivated to keep evidence of torture secret because career advancement in the Portuguese imperial judiciary was based on how magistrates performed during interrogations. These two motivations for keeping secrets depended on one another, as subalterns kept secrets in an effort to thwart the power of judges and judges themselves guarded secrets that might otherwise show that they could not discover the full extent of the seditious movement or capture all of its supporters. Thus, shifting from the recovery of secrets to dwelling on secrets forged by both prosecutors and defendants in colonial interrogation records helps better elucidate the importance of secrecy both to black political organization and to maintenance of colonial rule.
1 December 2015