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Law and the Creation of Dependency in the Ibero-Atlantic

Research Group Leader: Dr. Mariana Armond Dias Paes

For many decades, law was usually depicted as a European cultural achievement that was “transferred” to other parts of the world. However, more recently, 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 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 characterized 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 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 draw a more complex framework of these structures by shifting the paradigm and pointing out a 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 materialized in legal categories such as “freedpersons”, “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 over them. These legal statutes were fluid. Social orders of the Ibero-Atlantic were characterized by numerous illegal enslavement practices and by a structural precariousness of freedom. Also, a single 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.

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 restrict 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 in 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 life conditions or to fight tentative enslavement, the subjection to other forms of dependency or compulsory labor. In this sense, courts constituted a power arena where vernacular understandings of law and justice were translated into a specific juridical language. 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 local population 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 costumes 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.

One of the focus of the Junior Research Group will be the colonial experiences in early modern Ibero-Atlantic. In colonial social orders, law and the categorization 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 classified in 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 labor. Later, Europeans introduced African slave labor in the American territories, what complexified even further the legal spectrum of dependence. In addition, the transatlantic slave trade re-shaped social orders and structures of asymmetrical dependencies in African territories.

The Junior Research Group will also take special 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 labor under capitalist economies. In this sense, the broad reforms that law underwent in the course of the final decades of the eighteenth century and 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 categorization of people and on the reconfiguration of labor relations in this region.

The coordinator and the PhD students will conduct research on localized territories. The coordinator, for example, will focus on the cases of Brazil and Angola. These empirical localized researches will then allow the group members to make broader considerations on 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.

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