Free people of African descent and jurisdictional politics in eighteenth-century
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Recent studies have demonstrated the important role jurisdictional politics – that is, the strategic use of ideas about legal pluralism – played in the making of empires. These studies have shown that jurisdictional politics helped hold together large empires but also fostered change in the relationship between rulers and their subjects. Following this scholarship, this paper analyzes a series of jurisdictional conflicts that involved free people of African descent in eighteenth-century Colombia. It focuses on black men who worked in the navigation of Colombia’s main fluvial artery, the Magdalena River. Known as bogas, their free status and their high spatial mobility posed several challenges to local and viceregal authorities, who did not agree over what status bogas had, nor which court had jurisdiction over them. Bogas, well aware of the intricacies of jurisdictional politics, took advantage of these interstices evading either municipal or royal authorities in order to defend their lifestyles. In doing so, they claimed identifications as corporative subjects with privileges. The article shows, then, that notions of and practices around legal pluralism were not just abstractions. On the contrary, they shaped, in fundamental ways, the relationship between the Spanish monarchy and its subjects of African descent.
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