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"The literary scholar in the historic archive".

My interest in the Enlightenment's effects on people's lives--and in how people shaped the Enlightenment--has brought me again and again to the archives in Seville, Madrid, Simancas (Spain), and in Havana (Cuba). These sites contain a wealth of historical material documenting the implementation of the Bourbon Reforms. For several reasons, those documents archived under the Real Audiencia of Santo Domingo (High Court of Justice), which, held jurisdiction over Cuba, today's Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and after 1795, Louisiana and Florida, soon became the core focus of my investigation. First, this court was instrumental in regulating the treatment of slaves and the legal status of free blacks in the late 18th century. Second, it engaged with the transformative ideas and events brought about by the Haitian Revolution.

Third, it remained in operation in Cuba during the 19th century, a time of transition toward economic and political liberalism. Despite its historical importance, the Real Audiencia remains understudied.

Reading the legajos (dockets) that documented this tribunal's activities was fascinating. My imagination transported me from the archive's reading room to the escribania de camara (High Court chambers). I imagined myself seated next to the scribe, looking over his shoulder, engrossed in his writing. Long-gone court officials with names like Palomino and Ximenez signed these documents with quill pens. African slaves and their descendants made legal claims that leave traces of these voices in the ink at my fingertips. Reading these documents on my own was as exciting as sharing my findings over tapas with colleagues who were also digging through the archives. Through these conversations with fellow researchers, I learned that I was something of an anomaly, one of the few scholars in the archive not trained as a historian. Nor did I travel to the archive to investigate the vicissitudes of a specific literary text. So my fellow researchers in Seville and Havana repeatedly asked me: "What are you finding of interest? How do you read and analyze these materials? What do these texts reveal from a literary point of view?" They were not necessarily skeptical, but curious.

As my research progressed I began to send out articles for possible publication, it was then that I realized that my audience had changed. I was no longer writing for a community of literary scholars, but rather for historians interested in the history of empire, slavery, and race. In the feedback I received, some questioned the limited empirical base that supported my argument; others suggested the need to study the archive with attention to local dynamics of power, economic production, and demography; they reminded me that institutional arrangements do not render local social and economic conditions meaningless. While I did not intend to ignore the material conditions of existence, I was not interested in uncovering a forgotten element in the economic and social processes that would throw new light on causes, effects and facts. It became clear that there existed a gap between their reading and my writing.

As I responded to their feedback, one of my challenges was, and continues to be, the need to justify and explain my critical approach to the 18th-century colonial archive. The following paper offers some reflections related to my path in search for theoretical frames that help me explain my use of the archive. For this reason, I turned to the work of Hayden White and Dominick La Capra, whose approach to literary analysis has expanded the limits of cultural history and opened the discipline of history to alternative narrative forms. These critics understand the writing of history as a literary task. It is not the mere disinterested recording of facts and events; rather, it is the product of countless literary choices on the part of its creative chroniclers. These views allowed me to see how carrying out imperial policies, such as the royal decree on the treatment of slaves, was a performance that involved multiple actors: The regente (chief justice) at the Real Adiencia of Santo Domingo was a creative director displaying, exercising, and negotiating the power relations between the king, masters and their slaves. Court officials and local populations also embraced their corresponding positions of enunciation. Likewise, narrating the activities performed by the Real Audienca was a literary task. The chief justice was a persuasive narrator invested in convincing his readers in Madrid that colonial administrators properly represented the king's authority and diligently defended his interests. Local populations emerged as the happy beneficiaries of such diligence. I quickly realized that I was fascinated analyzing the narratives that narrated the multiple stories unfolding in the territories under the Real Audiencia of Santo Domingo.

Continuing with my search for theories that would help me shape my approach, I also turned to the writings of Foucault, Derrida and to the fields of Subaltern and Postcolonial Studies. For Foucault, the archive refers to discourses that construct subjective positions through rules of formation and modes of enunciation. Archive, from his perspective, is not just the whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive [legal] formation; it also includes the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events (128-130).

Derrida, for his part, points out that the word archive refers not only to a site for preservation of historical records but also to the library, the archive, and the museum. His most valuable contribution is to highlight that history and memory are shaped by methods of classification, which organized information in the archive (16-17). Furthermore, Derrida conceives the scholarly quest to discover the "true voice of the people" as a fever that illuminates the constraints of inscription "of the unique instant where they [the pressure and the trace] are not yet distinguished the one from the other" (99). Derrida's "fever" helps us understand that the choices the archivist made, constrained by the writer's contemporary societal demands, obscures at the same time that it reveals the voices of the governed.

Subaltern Studies propose that the archive is a site saturated by power, containing a dense but uneven body of knowledge scarred by cultural struggles and violence. For Gayatri Spivak, the archive cannot deliver subaltern (lower-status) voices from the past, as there is no discursive space from which the subaltern could formulate an utterance (24-8). Walter Mignolo, a key figure of Postcolonial Latin-American Studies, has explored how colonial power makes itself invisible in official state discourses while organizing colonial difference. He has also analyzed the voice of the subaltern or "the responses from the colonial difference to the programmed coercion that the coloniality of power exercises" (28). Spivak says subalterns are invisible, while Mignolo says, by contrast, that power is invisible. These contradictory but interesting ideas inform my approach by guiding my attention to the rhetorical oscillations of power.

Control mechanisms move away from manifest coercions and violent interventions, opening a space for the subaltern to speak. I responded to, "what are you finding of interest in Seville?" by saying that my interest centered on the struggles surrounding Afro-Latino speech acts in response to colonial power.

Then my interlocutor would invariably ask, "What is the literary nature of such struggle? How is that a literary rather that historical task?" In search for analytic models, I turned to scholars who have explored the archive as a site for story telling. Two models emerged. Twentieth-century Spanish American literary scholars such as Juan Carlos Gonzalez Espitia and Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria have explored the archive as a theme embedded in the Latin American narrative. For Gonzalez Echevarria, narratives of conquest included 16th-century legal discourses, while 19th-and 20th-century narratives included the scientific and anthropological discourses, respectively. In dialogue with Doris Sommer, Gonzalez Espitia proposes that narratives that took sexual sterility as their subject must supplement 19th-century foundational fictions that incarnated romantic political ideas. These scholars have demonstrated that when the 20thcentury Latin American novel returns to its origins it does so through the figure of the archive, the legal repository of knowledge and power from which it springs. While this pioneer work, helped me understand the role of history and myth and fiction writing, I decided to do the opposite. I became more interested in the model that examines the narratives in the archive.

In Fiction in the Archive, Natalie Zemon Davis, historian of early modern France, analyzed the role of narrative and storytelling in obtaining royal mercy in the face of a potential death sentence. In 16th-century France, hundreds of people told stories of domestic violence to seek royal pardon: they accounted for a motive to kill; they made sense of their experiences of rage and infidelity. Their stories varied according to the teller and the listener, but they connected to wider paradigms of storytelling, description, explanation, and judging. Rolena Adorno has analyzed how 16th-century narratives of conquest exemplify the triumph of narrative authority over historical authority. Adorno has observed that the 16th-century Quechua nobleman Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala rewrote the history of the Spanish conquest to sustain his own claim to a political position. These modes of inquiry have helped me focus on Afro-Latinos' narratives and their strategies in creating an authorial voice, for the purposes of re-defining their social position, history and identity.

This approach would not render the voice of the subaltern with transparency. In Proceed With Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas, Doris Sommer has warned scholars not to assume they can fully account for the Other. Yet caution does not preclude finding the veiled voice of the subaltern: specifically Afro Latinos' reaction to the Bourbon Reforms can indeed be found in the archives. For example, historians of slavery, such as Alejandro de la Fuente and Bianca Premo, have documented the role of slaves' claims in court in changing the law. Literary scholar Jose Ramon Jouve-Martin has shown that African slaves and their descendants used writing in order to negotiate social position, history and identity in 17th-century Peru. Storytelling in the historical archive underscores the inseparability of history and narrative, which opens a space for literary scholars to explore the archive as the site where narratives of power and knowledge are created and possibly contested through narratives of resistance.

Centered on narrative and story telling allow me as a literary scholar to reclaim the 18th-century Spanish archive as a legitimate object of literary study. That archive has yielded many texts of interest: the proceedings that led to the writing of the Codigo negro carolino (Black Code) in 1784; the expeditions to remote palenques for the resettlement of runaway slaves; the dramatic hunt for a serial killer who terrorized the population of Spanish Santo Domingo between 1790-1795. These highly literary, indeed gripping narratives reveal the struggles and the violence that surrounded Afro-Latino lives. In addition, legajos filed under the Real Audiencia of Santo Domingo contain judicial resolutions that illustrate how slaves sought legal protection from cruel and abusive masters. Finally, the archive narrates the struggles endured by those of African descent. For instance, a soldier argued for changing the racial military hierarchies of 1770s Cuba; an Afro-descended priest explained his ancestors' contribution to Santo Domingo's economic development in a 1785 book published in Madrid; former slave Georges Biassou, the insurgent who claimed to be the first to raise arms against plantation owners in French Saint-Domingue, promised in 1793 to give his last drop of blood to the Spanish monarch, while demanding military distinctions and power over his soldiers.

As a literary scholar, I occupy a privileged position that permits me to approach the archive in search of narratives that may offer a glimpse into Afro-Latinos' strategies in creating an authorial voice, for the purposes of re-defining their social position, history and identity at a time of intense institutional reforms. During the 18th century, these narratives are in dialogue with the new laws of enunciation: the policing practices and control mechanism of the late Bourbons' State.


Adorno, Rolena. Polemics of Possession in Spanish American Narrative. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Archivo General de Indias (AGI). Cuba and Santo Domingo.

Biersack, Aletta and Lynn Hunt eds. The New Cultural History: Essays. Berkeley: California UP, 1989.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eri Prenowitz. Chicago London: U of Chicago P, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Fuente, Alejandro de la. "Slave and the Creation of Legal Rights in Cuba: Coartacionand Papel." Hispanic American Historical Review 87.4 (2007): 659-692.

Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto. Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Gonzalez Espitia, Juan Carlos. On the Dark Side of the Archive: Nation and Literature in Spanish America at the Turn of the Century. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2010.

Jouve Martin, Jose Ramon. Esclavos de la ciudad letrada. Esclavitud, escritura y colonialismo en Lima (1650-1700). Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 2005.

Mignolo, Walter. "Coloniality at Large: The Western Hemisphere in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity" The New Centennial Review 1.2 (Fall 2001): 19-54.

Premo, Bianca. "An Equity Against the Law: Slave Rights and Creole Jurisprudence in Spanish America." Slavery and Abolition 32.4 (2011): 495-517.

Sanchez Valverde, Antonio. Idea del valor de la Isla Espanola. Santo Domingo: Imprenta Nacional, 1785.

Sommer, Doris. Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

--. Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.

Spivak, Gayatri. "Can the Subaltern Speak?" Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg's. London: Macmillan, 1988: 24-28.

Zemon Davis, Natalie. Fiction in the Archives. Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1987.


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Author:Hontanilla, Ana
Publication:Dieciocho: Hispanic Enlightenment
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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