translated from Spanish: Virtue and Limits of Liberal Morality: Slavery in Chile

In his third year of humanities, the first half of today, my father studied History of Chile in the text of Luis Galdames (1923). In the section that refers to the origin and formation of society, Galdames states that “Chilean society had its origin in the union of the indigenous race with the Spanish race”. Suggestively he adds: “In the background of the encomiendas and within the domestic service itself a social intermediary class emerged between the Spanish and the indigenous, composed of mestizos”. The latter, “despised by the Europeans”, were destined, together with the indigenous, to work in the field, but their main occupation was to serve “as soldiers in the Spanish ranks”.
When Galdames refers to slavery he speaks of “blacks brought from Africa and sold here as slaves.” The settlers bought them in Lima and preferred them to serve domestic service. Its price ranged between two hundred and five hundred pesos depending on their age and gender. The treatment of them was harsh and cruel. Galdames cites a colonial ordinance detailing the punishment for escaped slaves:
“Any slave or slave who was fleeing the service of his master more than three days and less than twenty, whoever lit it, prays whether he is a sheriff or not, has ten pesos, which the master of such a slave and slave pays, which the master pays for such a slave and slave , to which slave or slave is given two hundred lashes through the public streets for the first time, and for the second, two hundred lashes and rips (sic) of one foot.”
I don’t remember my history text, that of Francisco Frías Valenzuela, referring to black slavery in those terms. I do not know how this chapter of our history is taught in secondary education today. According to Juan José Martínez Barraza, historian of the University of Santiago de Chile, “the theme of slavery has been neglected because in general in Chile the time of the colony as an object of study has been neglected”. He adds: “What we know is that in total, throughout the colonial period, about 12 million slaves were trafficked from one continent to another. Of these, 70,000 slaves who reached the Southern Cone, mainly the Río de la Plata, and account for about 1% of the total traffic. While this seems like an insignificant figure, it was not so economically representing these spaces.”
I’m not interested in the economics of slavery, but the treatment of slaves in Chile. I go back to the year 1709, when he disembarked in Valparaiso Jean-Baptiste Christy-Palliére young privateer of 19 years, a deal from St. Malo. Jean-Baptiste married the following year with Mrs. Gabriela Velasquez, with whom she has eight children. After being widowed, she married Isabel Morales, with whom she has nine children. His activity is poured into a lucrative trade of genres, possibly connected to smuggling, which on his death, in 1743, allows him to bequeath to his descendants nine slaves, whose joint value fixed in one thousand eight hundred pesos.
These nine slaves are recorded as “items” in their will, along with their other possessions. Appoint slain: (1) Manuel, “black of Guinea”, twenty-five years old; (2) Joseph, a mulatto “like” in his twenties; (3) Patricia, a forty-year-old “like” mulatto; (4) your son Gaspar, a twelve-year-old “like” mulatillo; (5) Joan, a mulatto “like” of twenty-four; (6) his son Juan Antonio, a one-year-old mulatillo; (7) Francisca, an “apparently” 20-year-old mulatto; (8) and (9) their “calves” John Joseph and John Estevan (age is not indicated). Two adult males, one 12-year-old boy, three infants and three adult women, two of whom are mothers of the three infants.
The precarious situation of these slaves is visible when they do not know exactly how old they are. This fact alone already demonstrates the weak identity that they must have as people, an identity even more precarious because they belong to a family, but they are not part of the family. The price of a price means that they can be alienated separately, regardless of their parental ties.
This existential and emotional precariousness is visible from the moment the widow, Ms. Isabel, has had to bear the cost of the burial of her late husband. That cost is set at five hundred pesos. A family friend, Pedro Lecaros y Berroeta, offers five hundred pesos on loan to run with that expense and does not set interest. Doña Isabel agrees to repay those money stakes in six months and as a mortgage guarantee to two of her adult slaves, Manuel and Joseph, whose price is equivalent to the loan.
After six months, Dona Isabel cannot cancel it and the creditor makes the mortgage effective. Joseph, one of the mortgages, is no longer in the possession of the widow. In view of this, and demanded by his creditor, he hands over Gaspar, who is transferred in guard to the public prison together with Manuel. Gaspar is only twelve years old and lower in price, so Don Pedro insists on appropriating Joseph. He then attends to his influential cousin the Master of Campo and mayor of Santiago, Alonso Lecaros y Ovalle.
On Thursday 23 January 1744, Don Agustín Fernández de Rebolledo, Jean-Baptiste’s ele-in-law, appears before the Royal Audience to denounce what has happened to him over the past weekend. On Sunday, January 19, at ten o’clock at night, Alonso Lecaros arrived at his home demanding the delivery of the mulato Joseph. Don Agustín had extracted it from the house of Dona Isabel, because his wife Sebastiana, daughter of Jean-Baptiste’s first marriage, claimed it as corresponding to his inheritance.
The account of Don Agustin continues in the following terms: “at ten o’clock at night and from the door of my house Don Alonso ordered me, with two helpers, to pass with the mulatto [Joseph] to the Portal of the Writers and give to the said mulatto the helpers, who of the order of said Don Alonso put him in jail, and not satisfied with this, sent yesterday twenty and one of the current were given, as de facto was given Fifty-all-floggings.” It is not possible to know whether the cause of the indignation of Don Agustin is due to the arbitrary ness of these scourges suffered by a human being or to the possible harm suffered by an object of his property.
This history of violence doesn’t end here. Violence is the motherof of violence, and in two cases it is present in people in some way related to that original scene.
The first occurs on the night of the twenty-two of September 1767, when he dies murdered, in his own bedroom, the same Don Alonso Lecaros y Ovalle. The killer is his slave Antonio, a black man from Guinea in his twenties and acquired when he was twelve. Don Alonso shares a bedroom with Antonio and the chronicles report that he sodomized him. The summary trial to which he is subjected lasts a couple of days and sentences him to death. The sentence includes being transferred from the prison in a car and walking around the public square. In each of the corners it must receive fifty lashes. It must then be “effectively attacked with iron tongs made embers”. He’s finally hanged.
His hands and head are closed to be exhibited, one hand at the College of San Miguel, the other on Calle de las Matadas, and his head in the Alameda. The other slaves in that house are also convicted and punished, receiving lashes in all likelihood, for the sole reason that they have not accounted for the murder of someone superior.
Years later, violence visits the family of Don Agustín Fernández de Rebolledo on Tuesday, October 10, 1786 at noon. Manuela, her granddaughter, and described in the chronicles as a woman of “rare beauty”, serves her husband poisoned asparagus with raw solmagnet. Manuela is twenty-one years old to date, and her husband is twenty years older. It is the architect Joaquín Toesca. Don Joaquin discovers the attempt and manages to escape death with the help of the corner apothecary. In the sensational trial that follows, Doña Manuela is condemned to seclusion in the cloister of the Augustinian nuns of the Limpia Concepción. Her slave, a mulatto named Javiera Torres, though innocent, is also convicted, and held in the House of Collections.
So far this narrative illustrates the inhumanly violent treatment of slaves, and also women, supposedly free, in our colonial period. Violence manifests itself in the very institution of slavery. Their condition stems from a violent capture of men, women and children on a continent, the separation of their families, their forced transfer to another continent, their subsequent marketing, and a hellish regime of life that is unimaginably painful.
Slaves are assigned their names, surnames and approximate ages. The sons and daughters of slaves are seen as “young” who belong to the master and who in many cases are mulattos and mulattos born of rape. Slaves do not constitute families as they can be alienated, sold, inherited, borrowed, mortgaged, donated, and also punished, whipped, outraged, and sexually abused at any time. They’re instruments of work. They have no rights but only duties, and as subjects of duties concentrate and bear the full weight of legality and morality.
They are not legal persons and may thus be charged and punished for crimes of other slaves of their masters, or for crimes of their own masters. They pay righteously for sinners. They can be publicly martyred to restore the cosmic order that has been altered by their own crimes or those of their masters. The lives of Joseph, Manuel, Gaspar, Antonio and Javiera dramatize this situation. Something similar could be said of Manuela who marries, against her will at the age of seventeen, with a man much older than her, and is not allowedto attend to the designs of his heart. The scene that is set up to execute Antonio, and also Manuela’s conventual seclusion, aims to restore the community moral order that underpins the subordination of slaves and women.
Our Independence puts an end to this heavy community night and certifies the victory of liberalism. It triumphs with freedom of trade, constitutionalism and a fledgling democracy. But more importantly, it seems to me to be the triumphant recognition of the autonomy and freedom of individuals. The abolition of slavery on June 23, 1823, at the initiative of José Miguel Infante, marks this liberal apotheosis. So black Antonio and Dona Manuela would enter the pantheon of their martyrs. From literature, for example, it seems to me that Jorge Edwards, in his novel “The Dream of History”, gives the nail on the head with regard to the latter. Edwards suspects “that perhaps, who knows, the Fernandez, Ms Manuela, was a forerunner of new times, of free, sincere societies, which would flourish in various parts of the world as the nineteenth century progressed.” When you think about the Karadima case, I think you might say something similar about Antonio.
Along with the extraordinary clarity that illuminates liberal morality, and which marks its triumph over the blind communitarianism of the Colony, its limits also appear. In countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States, the need to take responsibility for, repair and compensate for the heinous damage caused by slavery and colonization has been discussed. The question at issue is this: does it make moral sense to force the present generation to repair the historical injustices committed by past generations against slaves and aboriginals?
Something similar could be sued about women. Many think that a policy of reparations can cause resentment in the present generation, and ignite revanchist attitudes. But the most serious objection is that liberal morality, dominant today, affirms the unconditional priority of the rights of the individual. This means that any obligation spending on us must be conceived as dependent on our consent. The natural obligations that human beings have as such are recognized, but beyond these all obligations are voluntary. The virtue of liberal morality is the affirmation of the freedom of individuals seen as authors of the moral obligations that constrain them. But its limits are in sight when John Howard, Australia’s prime minister, declares, “I don’t believe that the present generation of Australians should formally apologize and accept responsibility for what a previous generation has done.”
Hegel-inspired Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel believe that this limitation of liberalism lies in the aatomist mistake that does not consider that individual freedom is only possible within certain institutions and practices. Only in this way is it possible to account for our obligations of solidarity and loyalty and our membership in a particular story. From there, they are inescapable obligations. Our solidarity and loyalty to certain institutions, such as family and our homeland, do not allow us to distance ourselves from our belonging and deny our identity. These obligations are not based on our consent or contract. In a sense, we are prisoners of the historical narrative that gives us identity. However, if liberalism is formal and abstract, communitarianism is unthinkingly concrete and therefore does not judge about the content and purposes of legacy practices and institutions.
Despite this serious limitation, community empiricism can serve to correct the abstract epistemology of liberalism. In his Encyclopedia, Hegel celebrates the battle cry of empiricism: “stop chasing empty abstractions, contemplate what is in front of you, collect the here and now, both human and natural, as presented, and find satisfaction there”.
No more than this is what I’ve intended to do with the narrative above. If the history of Chile taught in our secondary education speaks of slavery in a general and abstract way, as Galdames does, this is not conducive to the formation of a reflexive moral judgment about slavery and the condition of aboriginal , who can invoke us personally. It seems to me that if you make this moral drama experiential, a task has already undertaken by writers like Edwards, individualizing their characters with first and last name, this could awaken our own moral responsibility to make the appropriate repair possible. This was the purpose of the narration of what happened inside three families of James in 1744, 1767 and 1786. History must be allowed to speak in all its concreteness for moral teaching to be effective. After all, morality is an apprenticeship.
Renato Cristi PhD, Professor Emeritus. Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University.

The content poured into this opinion column is the sole responsibility of its author, and does not necessarily reflect the editorial line or position of El Mostrador.

Original source in Spanish

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