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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · August 11, 2021

Seeing with Others

WMQ 8 min read

How an intellectual collaboration brought four lives into focus

By Karen B. Graubart

This article began with a generous hand-off from a friend and colleague. Luis Miguel Glave, an eminent Peruvian scholar and regular denizen of the reading room of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, enjoys taking a morning break from research with other scholars gathered from the room. On my last day of research in Seville, as he and I returned to our reading room seats from our cafecitos, he asked if my new project concerned slavery. I confirmed that it did and moments later he handed me a slip of paper with an archival signature on it. I requested the document, and after scanning the first page I put in a request for digital copies of the entire dossier. It was an unexpected and valuable gift, but Glave’s kind gesture was simply the beginning of a larger collective project. Like the petitioners I would study, my research was enmeshed within a community.

The case I read was unusual, dense, and rich: a set of petitions filed by or on behalf of four enslaved men-—Juan Pasqual, Blas Manuel, Domingo López and Juan Francisco de Estela—who identified themselves as sons of Spanish fathers or grandfathers. Their first petitions were sent from a jail in Lima in the late 17th century, where they were imprisoned for inciting a riot on an obraje, or hat manufactory. The men mustered a variety of arguments, old and new, to argue for sale to a new master or freedom on the basis of unjust enslavement and terrible mistreatment. The dossier eventually reached the royal Council of the Indies, which meant that it had been copied and collated, rendering some important information (like authorship) invisible. But this also meant that its arguments had been concerning enough to be passed up to the highest authorities for an answer. Their answer, unsurprisingly, was no. But the vicissitudes of the litigation and the complicated strands of argument within the petitions were worth pursuing.

Writing about this dossier required competences that I did not have. I am not a legal historian, and this was clearly a story that engaged with the history of legal thought as well as the practice of law across multiple venues. I first read the secondary literature extensively, and then reached out to colleagues and audiences who could help me uncover the legal references and practices that would make sense of the petitions’ process through the system. A brief exchange with graduate students at a seminar at Yale led me to the contemporary writings and activism of the Capuchins Jaca and Moirans, for example. The numerous and wide-ranging readers’ reports that the WMQ solicits asked many questions that I could not answer with the surviving documentation. But those questions, particularly when phrased generously, pushed me to reconsider my documents and framing from the outside. As editor, Josh encouraged me not to roll my eyes at Reviewer 2 so much as to step back and think about ways to make my own arguments clearer and stronger, especially to those outside my specialization. In a way, my own need to learn the contours of the field made me better able to listen to the critiques directed at me from outside, though I will continue to beg scholars to eschew condescencion if they wish to be heard.

Finally, I framed the article as an act of intellectual history, another bit of bravado. I am trained as an economic and social historian, and when a trusted colleague who heard me present this material at a workshop proposed that I might be writing intellectual history, I was initially defensive. I thought hard about the ways that social history, especially close readings like mine that take seriously the ways that subjects manipulate and respond to the discourses around them, might challenge my own conservative casting of the discipline and allow me to enter it. Recent work on Indigenous intellectuals, for example, suggests that microhistorical social histories (especially of women and non-European subjects) can expand the focus of the field in productive ways. Recentering actions — in speech, in activism, and in courts—as evidence of intellectual labor clarifies the way that world views are constructed and contested from above and below.

With the tools that I learned from other specialists, I tried to go deep into the world inhabited by these four audacious men. When not imprisoned, they spent their days and nights locked into an obraje alongside the city’s other unfortunate laborers—mostly Indigenous men and women on forced labor drafts or working for poor wages. Some of their coworkers might have been convicts assigned to the obraje as punishment. From my own decades of research, I knew that these men and women shared intimate conversations, including gossip, complaints, legal knowledge, and perhaps plans for an uprising. The subsequent actions—an unsuccessful riot, the imprisonment of four men accused of being ringleaders, conversations with legal agents, and the series of petitions themselves—revealed a worldview that is usually invisible to scholars. In my own case, I could only see it because a community of scholars offered their eyes too.

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