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History Of Slavery In Colonial Latin America

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The Burning of the Witches

An Analyzation of the Execution and Exploitation of Afro-Latinos and Slaves in Colonial Latin America

Throughout the world’s history, one can easily find times when Blacks were exploited and taken advantage of, no matter the setting or time period. Whether it was through the Atlantic Slave Trade, convict leasing after slavery, the execution of the Black Panther Party, or even more current, acts of police brutality. There’s one specific period that doesn’t get much recognition, which I’d like to focus on. The Witchcraft Trials of the early 1600’s in modern-day Cartagena, Colombia and the ways that Afro-Latinos and slaves were accused of witchcraft, assisted a much higher and horrific agenda.

To begin my analyzations, I chose a document titled “Accusations of the Prosecutor of the Holy Office: July 11, 1624” which was produced on July 11, 1624. The document contains accusations of a prosecutor from a court hearing as well as the responses to the accusations. The person being prosecuted by the Holy Inquisition of Cartagena is Paula de Eguiluz who was a Black Woman enslaved in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, where she was accused of witchcraft. One seeking this document can locate it in Afro-Latino Voices, a book compiled together with documents containing unheard or untold stories of Afro-Latinos and their perspectives on living in Latin America as Blacks. During this time, in the 1620’s, many Black women, free and enslaved, were accused of witchcraft and “evil magic.” However, many did not consider origins from Africa and how traditions may have passed on, which they might perceive as witchcraftery.

The source is a formal document containing the twelve accusations made by witnesses resulting in her being charge her with performing witchcraft. She was taken to “the secret jails” to await her sentencing. Afro-Latino Voices states that she was a woman who received more freedom than other slaves where she was dressed well and frequently visited her friends who allegedly taught her spells to seduce and entice potential lovers. Slavery was controversial at this time and was very prevalent, where Blacks were perceived as anything but human, in this case a witch.

Before focusing on Eguiluz and her case, it is important to understand what colonial Latin America looked like during the early 1600’s. According to the website of the Embassy of Colombia in Washington D.C., during this time, Spaniards began settling, establishing a vast amount of towns and Christianity as the primary religion. Linda A. Newson states in her book, From Capture to Sale: The Portuguese Slave Trade to Spanish South America in the Early Seventeenth Century, that, with being Spanish America’s largest slave port, an estimation of about 10,000 – 20,000 slaves resided in Cartagena (Newson, 139). Other forms of trade was also prominent, with odd trades like turtles and manatees, then more everyday things like plantains and chickens (170). Newson points out that lots of time and funds went into protecting this lucrative port from English, French and Dutch pirates. Because of these often occurring raids, there was a huge military presence in Cartagena.

Howard Kramer offers much insight on Cartagena and their connections with religion on his website, The Complete Pilgrim, where he lists and documents his travels to different countries with lots of historical, religious sites. While Kramer neglects the significance of Cartagena to the era of slavery, he does mention Fort San Felipe De Barajas and Fort San Sebastián De Pastelillo, large colonial fortresses created “to protest the vast wealth being plundered from the inner Incan lands of Peru and Ecuador.” He notes that Cartagena’s “fortifications are among the greatest architectural legacies left behind by the Spanish Empire in South America.”

There is a limited amount of information on Paula de Eguiluz, but a website titled Biografias offers what seems to be a biased, but decent amount of information on Eguiluz. The website stated that she was the leader of the largest group of wizardry in Cartagena de Indias at the time and that “she was accused by the Inquisition to perform spells, unearthing dead of the cemetery and the bodies of the dead with other witches have eaten.”

Atlas Obscura is a collaborative website that focuses on pinpointing obscure and interesting places throughout the globe. While being a resource for travelers, it is alluring to glimpse into a traveler’s eyes to see their view on the Palace of Inquisition. Notably, the website does mention the history of Palacio de la Inquisición where over 800 trials occurred and “not a single person was ever found innocent.” What is also interesting is that there was “ a notice on the wall of the museum lists the questions the accused faced, amongst them, “What evils have you caused and to whom?”; “What words do you pronounce when you fly?”; and “Why does the devil cause you blows at night?” Usually, anything to do with the history of slaves is brushed past or thrown under the rug, so it is interesting to see a traveler’s website acknowledge it.

According to an excerpt from Secret History of the Witches by Max Dashu, featured on the Suppressed Histories websites it is stated that “the Inquisition used charges of sorcery and devil-worship to imprison Afro-Caribbeans, among them enslaved Blacks from the mines of Saragossa in Antioquía, Colombia. Even before the first auto da fe at Cartagena, a black named Juan Lorenzo was tried as a “sorcerer “; he put an end to his torture by hanging himself in his cell, or so it was claimed.” ‘Auto da fe’ can be defined as the burning of a heretic by the Spanish Inquisition. It is crucial to acknowledge that this was a way of persecuting Afro-Latinos and Africans, to place the act of witchcraft, which revolts against the established religion of Christianity.

The dehumanization of this group of people was done through these accusations as well as whole executions. Many were sentenced to being burned at the stake. Dashu states that Paula de Eguiluz was able to avoid this horrific form of punishment by her “great [skills] in medicine and healing.” She instead received 200 lashes. Others were not so fortunate, where “In 1632, more women were tortured, and twenty-one of them were flogged and exhibited to the public in a 1634 auto-da-fé.” Dashu speaks of a woman named Ana de Avila was able to avoid her whipping, but she was tortured to an extreme and fined. Another woman who was named Ana Beltran was tortured as well, but instead to death where a sentence of absolution for her was still read at the public ceremony for her original punishment. Much brutality was faced by these people accused of this evil magic and one can see how severe the brutality got.

Sara Vicuna Guengerich, who contributes to Afro-Latino Voices with her piece “The Witchcraft Trials of Paula de Eguiluz, a Black Woman, in Cartagena de Indias, 1620-1636” goes into detail about how Eguiluz’ case was handled by officials. Guengerich explains that “Eleven witnesses had accused Paula of numerous offenses, among them causing the death of an infant by sucking her navel, transforming herself into a goat, appearing and vanishing in different places without leaving a trace, and selling love spells” (175). It is obvious that if someone were to accuse one of the “crimes” just stated, many would believe that they were being ridiculous. However, the early 1600’s was a time where crime and imagination were easily met at the middle. Making these types of accusations probably allowed one to acquire certain statuses of being an everyday, devoted Christian.

There was so much despise and hate directed towards those who were Black and Black slaves that something as irrational as witchcraft was one of the only ways to stop the freeing of slaves. This is comparable to the crossover from slavery to privatization of prisons, accessible through school-to-prison pipelines, extreme sentences for people of color and much more. This has become a cycle, a repeating piece of history, to where people of color, especially blacks are wrongfully utilized to advance the majority but then hated for being succumbing to this madness. The question here shouldn’t be “when will it end?” but rather “how will it end?”

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