Punishment of Slaves

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Corporal punishment was designed with various goals in mind. Broadly speaking, one could argue that its purpose was fivefold: (1) deter rebellious behavior; (2) instill fear to prevent defiance from becoming exemplary; (3) inculcate the Roman Catholic religion and prevent the expression of African spiritual practices and other forms of resistance to the colonizers' culture; (4) regulate sexual conduct in order to prevent miscegenation and preserve clear-cut socioracial hierarchies; and (5) sustain the interests of various corporations or elite groups.

Punishment for slaves in colonial Latin America was of two types: de jure (regulated by law) or de facto (according to the custom and will of the slave owners). De jure punishment was established in cÚdulas (legislation issued by the Spanish king), local edicts and orders (issued by the viceroy), and codes. These laws regulated a variety of corporal punishments for slaves according to the types of crimes and their severity. The punishments escalated from whipping to branding to mutilations to death. The normative structure allowed for masters or government authorities to physically discipline slaves for many actions considered defiant or unruly, such as engaging in religious rites that were not Roman Catholic; gathering in groups; stealing; carrying arms; and talking back to or hitting whites. The most extreme punishment, death, was designated for runaway slaves or for leaders of slave revolts if caught.

Orders and cÚdulas also set forth punishments for a broad variety of actions and were issued as a direct response to a local offense. For example, as scholar Leslie Rout's research shows, cutting down trees or picking fruit or corn merited 100 floggings for the first offense and the mutilation of the slave's genitals if the action was repeated (Peru, 1537). Male slaves who had sexual relations with Indian women were to be whipped 100 times (Chile, 1550). Changing the course of an irrigation channel could also merit 100 lashes (Peru, 1537). Slaves who were found to have Indians as their servants would receive 100 whippings for the first offense and have their ears cut off if they were found culpable a second time (Peru, 1551). Playing cards merited 50 to 200 lashes (Chile, 1577). Slaves who worked in the printing business without being under direct control of their master would receive 100 to 200 lashes (Mexico, 1605).

As if these laws did not allow for severe enough punishment, it has been generally recognized that they were ignored as the local authorities and masters interpreted them to best fit their specific circumstances and cruel creativity. In colonial Latin America, there was a generalized belief that "carelessness, laziness and an aversion to work are natural for the inhabitants of Africa"; therefore slaveholders thought it was necessary to subject them to a harsh regime and to perform exemplifying punishments. Slaves were also believed to be little more than a material good. By holding ownership rights, masters felt they could dispose of the slave according to their own judgment. Compassion was based on limiting the damage to their economic investment rather than on humanitarian motives. However, rage against runaways and rebels was particularly vicious because of the challenge they presented to the whole system. Historians have found accounts of escaped or rebellious slaves being roasted to death or hung on the island of Hispaniola, fitted with iron collars and thrown to hungry dogs in Panama, tortured and beheaded in Mexico, boiled to death in Costa Rica, dragged through streets and quartered in Uruguay, and branded with hot irons in Brazil.

Epifanio de Moirans, a Spanish priest, described such punishments in his 1682 testimony: "Other [slave owners] will burn [the slaves'] ribs with red hot irons, or apply a knife to their intimate parts; some will cut off pieces of meat or the testicles with a knife; but all of the slaves are jailed with chains, and are made to work this way or with a type of horn made of iron around their neck. Mules and horses are not so ill treated as are Christian slaves by the Catholics of the Indies ... The [master's] mistake is to believe that they have ownership over [the slaves] as over pigs; and as such some of the masters and mistresses proceed with furious passion and murder their slaves, drowning them and cutting them up into pieces ... Runaways that were captured were beaten until their bones were broken or they were hung by law or they were murdered by their captors ... In other regions fugitives that were caught received two hundred whippings and had their ears cut off. These are excesses that I have seen and been informed of with all certainty, because I have been able to travel through regions of the Portuguese, Spanish and French, to see the good and bad works of men."

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