Law and the Creation of Dependency in the Ibero-Atlantic

For many decades, law has frequently been 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 interconnected 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. It has been 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.

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© Lawsuits of the Benguela District Court

Current State of Research and Approach

Recent historical research however draws 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 on 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 their lifetime. In this context, race and gender were decisive in broadening or restricting people’s capacities to avoid submission to situations of dependency.

These dynamic adscriptions 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. 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 the agency of dependent persons.

Research Projects

One of the focus of the Research Group will be the colonial experiences in the 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. Being classified in one of the 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.

The Research Group will also direct special attention to the process of reform undergone by normative orders during the long 19th 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 the process of adapting to an ambiguous legal environment. In this sense, the broad reforms that law underwent in the course of the final decades of the 18th and the 19th centuries had a significant impact on the construction of asymmetrical structures of group dependencies.


Avatar Sirotti

Dr. Raquel R. Sirotti

Researcher and Coordinator of Research Group "Mutual Dependencies and Normative Production in Africa"


Hansaallee 41

60323 Frankfurt am Main


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