Law and the Creation of Dependency in the Ibero-Atlantic
Asymmetrical structures of dependencies in the Ibero-Atlantic
For many decades, law was often depicted as a European cultural achievement that was 'transferred' to other parts of the world. However, more recently, areas of research such as Global Legal History, Global Labor History, and Atlantic Studies have shown that Europe and its cultural and legal practices were not constructed in isolation, but rather were part of a broader Atlantic environment.
European expansion affected American and African territories, but it was also affected by them. During the early modern and the modern period, both sides of the Ibero-Atlantic were entangled in a unified space characterised by a shared legal environment.
In this shared Ibero-Atlantic legal environment, the history of law was not always a history of freedom and equality, but rather was more often than not deeply marked by various experiences that created asymmetrical structures of collective dependencies. Taking into account the fundamental role that Atlantic slavery played in constructing the Ibero-Atlantic social orders, the asymmetrical structures of collective dependencies in this region are often presented through the binary opposition between slavery and freedom. Recent historical research, however, draws a more complex framework of these structures by shifting the paradigm and pointing out a broad continuum of forms of dependency ranging from slavery to freedom. During the early modern and the modern periods, a high degree of independence was not an option widely available. Beyond slaves and free persons, there was a wide range of situations of dependency that materialised in legal categories such as 'freed persons', 'freed Africans', 'conditionally manumitted persons', 'half-free slaves', 'ingênuos', 'assimilated', 'indigenous', 'encomendados', 'índios vagos', 'mitayos', etc.
Each of these groups of people were subject to specific forms of dependency and to legal statutes that restricted or amplified their capacity to exercise rights or that imposed obligations on them. These legal statutes were fluid. Social orders of the Ibero-Atlantic were characterised by numerous illegal enslavement practices and by a structural precariousness of freedom. Moreover, an individual could be subjected to different forms of dependency during his/her lifetime. In this context, race and gender were decisive in broadening or restricting people’s capacities to avoid submission to situations of dependency—either slavery or other forms of coerced labor and rights restriction. These factors conditioned the dynamic transit of people between diverse asymmetrically dependent groups.
Creating categories of dependency in a shared legal environment
These dynamic assignations of asymmetrical legal statutes to people in the Ibero-Atlantic took place in a complex legal environment where a shared legal knowledge was not restricted to bureaucratic personal or to lettered discourses. Historical agents that did not have a formal legal education were also circulating across the Atlantic, and they took with them their own vernacular understandings of norms, law and justice.
These conceptions were built into their daily experiences and interactions with judicial institutions both in the kingdom and in the colonies. These people often resorted to courts in order to achieve better living conditions or to fight tentative enslavement, the subjection to other forms of dependency or compulsory labour. In this sense, courts constituted a power arena where vernacular understandings of law and justice were translated into a specific juridical language. In this way, legal categories and norms were constantly reshaped and resignified by dependents’ agency.
Legal categories and institutions formerly structured in a European ius commune framework acquired new meanings in the Ibero-Atlantic through the agency of the local populations and their dynamic interactions with Portuguese and Spanish bureaucratic agents. These new meanings eventually made their way back across the Atlantic and reached European territories, reshaping norms in metropolitan territories. Local customs and normativities also had an important role in the construction of these new meanings acquired by legal categories that created structures of dependency. American and African social orders had their own structures of asymmetrical collective dependencies that interacted with European social structures, creating and constantly re-shaping colonial social orders.
Foci of the Junior Research Group
One of the foci of the Junior Research Group will be the colonial experiences in the early modern Ibero-Atlantic. In colonial social orders, law and the categorisation of people played a major role in the framing of these structures of asymmetrical collective dependencies. The indigenous American populations were classified by legal categories such as 'índios vagos', 'encomendados', 'mitayos', 'ladinos', 'bravios', 'aldeados', etc.
Being assigned to one of these legal statuses meant being subject to a specific set of norms that conferred rights and obligations. These legal categories were also linked to diverse forms of compulsory labour. Later, Europeans introduced African slave labour to the American territories, which further complicated the legal spectrum of dependence. Moreover, the transatlantic slave trade re-shaped social orders and structures of asymmetrical dependencies in African territories.
The Junior Research Group will also pay close attention to the process of reforms that normative orders underwent during the long nineteenth century. During this period, the rise of revolutions, the emergence of new economic relations, the circulation of abolitionist and constitutional discourses reshaped Ibero-Atlantic social orders. Consequently, the structures of asymmetrical dependencies were also reshaped in order to adapt to an ambiguous legal environment that was constantly challenging slavery but also creating other forms of coerced labour under capitalist economies. In this sense, the broad reforms that law underwent toward the end of the eighteenth century and during most of the nineteenth century had a significant impact on the construction of asymmetrical structures of group dependencies and, more specifically, on the reformulation of legal regulation of slave property, the categorisation of people and on the reconfiguration of labour relations in this region.
The coordinator and the PhD students will conduct research on localised territories. The coordinator, for example, will focus on the cases of Brazil and Angola. These empirical, localised studies will then enable the research group members to make broader statements about the role of law in creating asymmetrical structures of collective dependencies in the Ibero-Atlantic. Methodologically, the project adopts the perspectives of Social Legal History, Global Legal History, and Global Labor History. It also embraces a methodological perspective combining global and micro-history.
Photo: © Mariana Dias Paes