Conquered Women

September 25, 2007

Our memory is like a broken mirror. It does not reflect the world as it was, but our fragmented, partial, even personal reconstruction of it.[1] By realigning the fragments, we may become aware of aspects of our past that previously were invisible. Until very recently, our memories of the conquest and colonization of America have been angled away from the experiences of Indian and African-American women. Historians have generally presented the Conquest as a man's affair, an aggression and dispossession by one sector of men (Spaniards) over other men (Indians).[2] They failed to reflect the sustained assault on these women's cultural and personal integrity, or how that assault gave form to the emerging colonial society.[3]

Some historians have sought to justify the Conquest by emphasizing its civilizing mission. Others have denounced the enormous human cost of imposing European spiritual and social values and political principles on the native population. Up to now little attention has been paid to the dialectical interplay between these foreign, imposed values and the realities of colonial society. Status concepts brought over from the metropolis – Spain -- were reformulated in the colonies to legitimate the new hierarchical order, One of the most important of these was "purity of blood" (limpieza de sangre), which was transformed from a religious principle in Spain, to a racial one in America.

The very fact of the Conquest, of the domination and exploitation of the local population, produced a profoundly unequal society. But that inequality need not have been codified on the basis of racial differences. In Spain, status was determined by a variety of factors: hereditary nobility, religious affiliation, sex, and even -- in limited spheres -- proofs of merit (skill, prowess, etc.). But in the colonies, the physical and cultural differences of the indigenous, and later African-American, peoples took on a profound political and social meaning, one that marks Latin American societies to this day.[4]

Modern racism, the attribution of socio-economic inequalities to racial and therefore hereditary deficiencies, has often been interpreted as a perverse consequence of the imperial expansion of European power to other lands. It has also been common to argue that the doctrine dates only from the nineteenth century. Both these views are mistaken. The mistakes are due, in part, to the insufficient attention given to the racist ideological constructs of Europe, and particularly Spain, that served to justify the conquest and colonization of America.

The origin and history of the term "race" are a subject of debate. There is isolated evidence of the use of the word raza in Spanish, raça in Portuguese and race in French since the thirteenth century, although these appeared more frequently 300 years later. According to some authors the French race initially meant, primarily, belonging to and descending from a family or house of "noble stock," or stirpis nobilitas, which was translated as noblesse de sang ("nobility of blood") in 1533. "Race" represented both the succession of generations, "from race to race," as well as all those members of the same generation, and implied "nobility" and "quality."

In Spain, however, according to the etymologist Corominas, this sense of raza merged in the mid-fifteenth century with the old Castillian (Spanish) term raça, meaning "thinness [raleza in modern Spanish] or defect in the fabric" or, simply, "defect, guilt." From the sixteenth century on, the term appears in Castillian commonly in a negative sense. Corominas concludes that "When the foreign term 'raza' entered Castillian in the biological sense or the sense of a natural category, it was not surprising that it should be contaminated by the pejorative shading, especially since its application to Moors and Jews lent itself to this use," although this negative sense is not constant.[5]

The Conquest of America followed closely on the Christian Reconquest of Spain from Moorish domination. In the early years of the Reconquest, Jews and Muslims could correct their defective status by conversion; baptism placed them on the same social and legal level as Christians. But this religious-cultural discrimination turned into racism toward the middle of the fifteenth century, as persecution of converts and the exclusion of Moriscos (converted Muslims) increased. What was emerging was "a racist doctrine of original sin of the most repulsive kind.” [6]

Converted Jews and Moriscos, together with their ancestors and descendants, soon became objects of discrimination based on the doctrine of "purity of blood," which meant having no racial mixture of Moors, Jews, heretics or penitents (those condemned by the Inquisition). Non-Christian religious faith came to be considered an inherited stain of "blood" and thus ineffaceable.[7]

In the mid-fifteenth century, the Council of Toledo adopted the first statute of purity of blood. Several religious and military orders, universities and some city councils and cathedrals also adopted them -- although these were never made part of the laws of Spain. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in 1480, when the Reconquest was nearly complete. Four years later the Inquisition decreed that those who had been sentenced for crimes against Christianity would not be permitted to hold public office. Then, in 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus set out across the Atlantic, the last Moorish stronghold, Granada, fell to the Catholic Monarchs, and Jews and Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from Spain.[8]

The Inquisition was the sole court with immediate jurisdiction over purity of blood. Thus the Holy Office, as the ecclesiastical court of the Inquisition was known, acted as mediator between theorists of exclusion and the people, popularizing the idea that all converts were suspect.[9] Endogamy and legitimate birth became important as guarantors of purity of blood; the Inquisition reviewed genealogies for false declarations of purity. The Holy Office and blood proofs for marriage would not be eliminated until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

However, the statutes excluding those considered "impure" from positions of confidence and social preeminence were by no means accepted without protest in Spain. To the consternation of the nobility, who in previous centuries had happily intermingled with Moors and Jews, the only authentic pure Christians according to the new doctrine turned out to be the commoners. In the face of this paradox, doubts over the doctrine intensified in the seventeenth century. Opposition by jurists and theologians to the purely racial application of the doctrine grew, and the concept of purity was gradually extended to other "stains," this time of class, such as servile trades. Thus the racial doctrine was adjusted better to defend the socioeconomic hierarchy.

The notion that even before God some were more equal than others, and that the distinction was racial, was initially a Spanish product for domestic consumption. But the doctrine of "purity of blood" became most important in the colonies by the early eighteenth century, just as it was losing force in the metropolis. With its implications for marriage and legitimacy, it acquired new meanings with especially painful consequences for women.

From the beginning, access to the New World had been forbidden to "Moors, Jews, or their sons, or the sons of Gypsies or of a reconciled heretic or son or grandson of anyone who has been burned or condemned for heretical baseness and apostasy through the masculine or the feminine line…”[10] The purity-of-blood requirement was pro-gressively extended. In the sixteenth century no distinc-tion was made between mestizos and pure Spaniards with regard to legal and property rights. Gradually, though, mestizos were rendered ineligible for the priesthood and public office.[11] Thus in 1679 the Constitution of a seminary school in Mexico prohibited the admission of children who were not "pure and of pure blood without race of Moors, Jews or penitents by the Holy Office, nor recently converted to the faith, nor mestizos, nor mulattoes...”[12]

The remark by an English physician in the mid-nineteenth century aptly describes the view current in the sixteenth century Spanish colonies: "The uterus is for the race what the heart is for the individual: It is the organ for the circulation of the species. " [13]

The first consequence of the Conquest was the dramatic decline of the indigenous population. There followed a prolonged debate within the Church and the colonial bureaucracy over the status of the survivors. Some theologians attempted to establish a link between them and the tribes of Israel. The Crown ended up granting the Indians the status of purity of blood except in cases where they refused to be evangelized.[14] As late as 1734, the Crown was insisting that "chiefs and their descendants retain all the preeminences and honors (both ecclesiastic and secular) that the noble hidalgos of Castille enjoy, and the less illustrious Indians or their descendants, pure in blood without mixture or any other disapproved sect, retain all the prerogatives, dignities and honors that are enjoyed in these Realms by the pure of blood, of so-called common status, with whose Royal determinations they are capacitated by Your majesty for whatsoever honorific posts….”[15] Formally, then, the indigenous population still enjoyed privileges (which in many cases they would lose with independence). But in practice they already suffered discrimination like the other non-white groups.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, voluntary European immigration and the forced importation of African slaves increased, along with miscegenation. Social ranking became more and more obviously based on racial rather than religious criteria, even as the distinctions grew more and more minute. There were slave and free blacks, mulattos, zambos and zambaigos (descendants of blacks and Indians), "liquid" (pure) Indians and mestizos, and several other categories for gradations of various mixes.[16] Whites, meanwhile, were divided into Peninsulars (Spanish-born) and Creoles (born in the colonies), rich and poor. Mulattoes, mestizos, and other mixed categories in particular were objects of disgrace. They inspired deep distrust because they made racial barriers uncertain, placing in doubt or actively threatening the emerging racial hierarchy.

Toward the end of the seventeenth century there was an increase in royal warrants seeking to resolve questions of purity of blood, granting, dispensations for entry into the priesthood or occupation of posts, and confirming racial distinctions. At this time, for reasons still unclear, the indigenous population began to recover. The mestizo and mulatto population multiplied as a result of the ubiquitous concubinage between white men and Indian or black women. Also Creole and Peninsular whites grew in number.[17]

Often the sexual excesses of the Spanish conquerors with Indian and laterAfrican women have been attributed to the scarcity of Spanish women in the colonies. However, by the mid-sixteenth century there was no such scarcity.[18] Rapes and forced cohabitation were really demonstrations of the arrogance of the conquerors, who saw indigenous and African women as easy prey for their sexual gratification.

Cortés' behavior in this area was a model of duplicity. He took as his interpreter and lover the young Indian woman he called Doña Marina, popularly referred to as "la Malinche, "or "la Chingada."[19] Cortés, already married to a Spanish woman, recognized the son he had with Malinche, but forced her to marry a soldier from his ranks. While he himself was traveling with his Indian mistress, Cortés declared, "so as to make clear the intention that the settlers of these parts have of residing and staying in them, I order all persons who have had Indians or who were married in Castille or other parts, to bring their women within a year and a half...under penalty of losing the Indians and everything acquired and gained with them."[20]

From the beginning of colonization the Crown issued a spate of decrees and laws requiring that all colonists who had wives in Spain bring them to America as soon as possible. Those laws remained in force until the eighteenth century. Their purpose was not only to settle the colonies but to safeguard their stability by whitening them.[21] Although there were difficulties in implementing this policy, proof that there was no lack of Spanish women is that by the mid-sixteenth century the first convents were founded, where legitimate or illegitimate daughters of Spaniards who did not find Spanish men to marry were supposed to end up.[22]

Around the beginning of the eighteenth century, colonial society had become a complex, multicolored human mosaic of inequalities, the result of an interaction of race and class criteria. And it was perceived that way by its members, for the good of some (Creole and Peninsular whites) and the ill of others (everybody else). "Purity of blood" acquired new force as it lost any religious connotation, becoming a clearly racial notion.

Colonial society, however, was not an impermeable, closed order. On the contrary, its inherent contradictions threatened its cohesiveness in several ways. The mestizos, resulting from extramarital sexual exploitation by white men of women considered racially inferior, subverted the hierarchy.[23] Contacts between the different racial categories grew, and the fluidity of the hierarchical colonial order aggravated even further the obsession with purity of blood among the elites that were white by definition. For the elites and for those who sought to get close to them, legitimate birth from a legitimate married couple thus acquired new importance as the only proof of purity of blood. Illegitimate birth, on the other hand, was a sign of "infamy, stain, and defect" stemming from the mixture of races.[24]

The only guarantee of racial purity, hence social prestige, was marriage between racial equals. But the Church, which until the eighteenth century had the exclusive prerogative to perform marriages, rejected any paternal interference for possible reasons of social and/or racial inequality. Freedom to marry was based on the consent of the parties. For the Church, women's sexual virtue, that is virginity before marriage and chastity afterward, was the highest good. This had to prevail over and above any paternal social whim. Blood or ritual relationship between bride and groom constituted the only important canonic impediment.

Nevertheless, as early as the sixteenth century there were cases when parents attempted to block a marriage for reasons of supposed social inequality.[25] In these disputes the sexual virtue defended by the Church came up against the interest of parents in protecting family purity from a marriage considered unequal.

The canonic doctrine that privileged sexual honor above social prestige was egalitarian only in appearance. The Church never managed to eradicate the sexual exploitation outside the marriage bond of women of low racial status. Interracial unions were mainly, as they were euphemistically called in the period, consensual.

By stressing sexual virtue, the Church, moreover, promoted discrimination between different categories of women in sexual terms: between those who were sexually abused by white men (generally women of inferior social status) and also penalized because they supposedly were living in mortal sin; and virtuous women (white women, or daughters of family), subject to a severe family control of their sexuality. The other side of the Church's doctrine was sexual control, especially over women. Salvation of the soul depended on submission of the body.

The ecclesiastic authorities in the colonies did not carry out these supposedly egalitarian precepts to the latter. The clergy themselves were notorious for sexual abuses. There were many cases of "solicitation," clerics forcing Indian women into bed on the pretext of saving their souls. This became one of the crimes codified by the Inquisition. One Jesuit was said to have "solicited" more than 100 women. Nevertheless, the fact that the Church's policy threatened the temporal interests of the elites is indicated by the many pre-nuptial disputes that reached ecclesiastic courts.

Toward the beginning of the eighteenth century the Church had increasing difficulties defending its doctrine against prenuptial interference by families, a phenomenon attributed to a growing parental obsession with racial purity.[26] Ironically, it was precisely in that period that the stress on purity of blood was declining in the metropolis. One reason for the decline may have been that the new doctrine of individual liberty and equality, which was gaining advocates elsewhere in Europe, also made some impact in Spain. In that sociopolitical climate, which was clearly in transformation, marriages considered unequal must have become more frequent.

In 1775 the Crown requested an opinion from a Council of Ministers about measures to avoid unequal marriages, given "the sad-effects and most serious wrongs caused by marriages that are contracted between persons of very unequal circles and conditions," alleging that "the excessive favor given by ecclesiastic ministers to the misunderstood freedom of absolute and unlimited matrimony with no distinction made of persons and sometimes against the just resistance of parents and relatives...has been the principal source from which have flowed for the most part the harmful effects suffered in Spain on account of unequal marriages.”[27]

In 1776, King Carlos III promulgated the Pragmatic Sanction to prevent the contracting of unequal marriages. The State thus took over jurisdiction over marriages. The free will of contracting parties to marry was suppressed, and marriage could only be performed with parental consent under penalty of disinheritance for the parties. Some authors have interpreted this sanction as a reaction of Carlos III to the marriage of his younger brother to a woman of inferior social condition.[28]

The Pragmatic Sanction was promulgated during the Bourbon reforms at a time of social and political transformations. At first view it seems paradoxical that it would be precisely in a period of liberal political opening and modernization that the Crown introduced severe controls over marriage. But laws are not necessarily the legal expression of changes in social values; there is often a dialectical relation between the two. The Pragmatic Sanction can be seen as an attempt to increase social control over matrimonial practices that seemed to threaten the established hierarchical order.

The secularization of marriage regulations resulted in the suppression of individual freedom to marry. Any matrimonial dispute had to be resolved from then on by a civil court. Several later royal decrees reinforced parental authority in matters of marriage -- unlike what occurred in the colonies, where the principle of purity of blood underwent a late revival.

In 1778 the Crown extended the Pragmatic Sanction to the Indies, "Bearing in mind that the same or greater harmful effects are caused by this abuse [of unequal marriages] in my Realms and Dominions of the Indies on account of their size, the diversity of classes and castes of their inhabitants...and the very severe wrongs that have been experienced in the absolute and confused freedom with which passionate and incompetent youths of both sexes become betrothed."[29] Excluded from the Sanction were "mulattoes, Negroes, natives, and individuals of similar castes and races publicly held and reputed as such" who presumably had no honors to protect. In all other cases parental consent was required. In case of parental opposition, civil authorities had the power to grant exemption.

Application of the Sanction in the colonies met with considerable opposition. People with few possessions had little to lose by marrying against the will of the family. There were those who wished to marry for love or to legitimize a premarital sexual relation regardless of social differences. But the crucial problem was posed by interracial marriages. Racial prejudices and reasons of state did not always prevail against human passions, nor did ecclesiastic moral imperatives.[30]

Several other royal decrees on the subject of unequal marriages followed that of 1778. They reveal a double controversy. The Crown favored marriages in the colonies even over parental opposition, to encourage the growth of the colonial population. Yet there was a great deal of ambivalence regarding interracial marriages on the part of colonial authorities, concerned with maintaining purity of blood. It was not initially clear who needed official permission to marry "members of the castes," i.e., nonwhites. In 1810, this doubt was finally resolved by a decree requiring nobles and other adults of recognized purity of blood who wished to contract matrimony with blacks, mulattos, and other castes to procure a license from the colonial civil authorities. This implied a potential prohibition of interracial marriages and established that matrimony was a concern of the state. What was at stake were not only family interests but the stability of the social order. In the colonies, this meant the racial hierarchy.[31]

What consequences did this new racist turn in marriage laws have for women? When social position is attributed to inherent, natural, racial, and therefore hereditary qualities, the elite's control of the procreative capacity of their women is essential for them to preserve their social preeminence. As a nineteenth-century Spanish jurist argued, only women can bring bastards into the family. By institutionalizing the metaphysical notion of blood as the carrier of family prestige and as the ideological instrument to guarantee the social hierarchy, the state, in alliance with families that were pure of blood, subjected their women to renewed control of their sexuality while their sons took their pleasure with those women who lacked social status without having to assume any responsibility for it.

The Church had defended the freedom to marry in order to protect sex virtue as a moral value in itself. The state converted marriage into an instrument to protect the social body. In a racist hierarchical society, in effect, "the uterus is for the race what the heart is for the individual."

But a reservation is in order here. It is important to remember that the legal matrimonial paraphernalia were necessary precisely because there were always men and women who defied the politico-racial order and its social and moral values.

Racism as we know it today is not wholly a result of colonial expansion. In the nineteenth century, "scientific" racism came to replace the metaphysics of purity of blood, helping to mask the contradiction between an individualist meritocratic doctrine and the unequal social reality of the emerging class society. Thus, racial conflicts today cannot be reduced to an "anachronistic" colonial residue. But its particular form in Latin America, and its intimate connections to the control of women's sexuality, go back to the very beginnings of colonial society, when the conquest of the women was an essential part of the colonial project. The evidence is all before us. All we need do to see it is shift slightly the angle of our mirror.


Verena Stolcke is a social anthropologist and teaches at the Universitat Autónoma in Barcelona. She is the author of, among other works, Marriage, Class and Color in Nineteenth Century Cuba (Cambridge University Press, 1974).

1. Christoph Hein, Horns Ende (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1985), pp. 279-80.
2. Irene Silverblatt, Moon, Sun, and Witches: Gender Ideologies and Class in Inca and Colonial Peru (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).
3. See Ann Laura Stoler "Rethinking Colonial Categories: European Communities and the Boundaries of Rule," Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 31, no. 1 (1989).
4. There was, granted, an ideological conflict over not only the treatment but also the conceptualization of the indigenous peoples: whether they were human, equal in essence to the conquistadores, capable of being converted to Christianity, or whether on the contrary they differed from Europeans in nature and were thus inferior. But if this were true, what criteria could justify that inferiority?
5. Joan Corominas, Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1982), pp. 800-801.
6. Henry Kamen, La Inquisición española (Barcelona: Editorial Critica, 1985), p. 158. There were those in Spain who continued to believe that a baptized Jew should be considered no different from a baptized Christian.
7. As Kamen notes, "In the fifteenth century many people felt that the honor of religion and nation could be preserved only by assuring purity of lineage and avoiding the mixture of Jewish or Moorish blood." Kamen, p. 158.
8. Between 1609 and 1614, the Moriscos (converted Muslims) were also expelled from Spain.
9. Henry Kamen, La Inquisición española.
10. Martínez, José Luís. Pasajeros de Indias (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1983), p. 32.
11. Henry Mechoulan, El Honor de Dios (Barcelona: Editorial Argos Vegara, 1981).
12. Konetzke, Richard. Colección de documentos para la historia de la.formación social de. Hispanoamérica, 1493-1810 (Madrid: Instituto Jaime Balmes, C.S.I.C., 1958-62. 3 vols.), Vol. II, pp, 691-692.
13. Mary Poovey, "Scenes of an Indelicate Character: The Medical Treatment of Victorian Women," in Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (eds.), The Making of the Modern Body: Sexuality and Sociery in the Nineteenth Century, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 145.
14. Mechoulan, p. 57.
15. Konetzke, Vol. III, 1, p. 217.
16. Konetzke, Richard, Vol. II, 1, p. 148 and 2, pp. 694-95.
17. Nicolás Sánchez Albornoz, "The Population of Colonial Spanish America," in Leslie Bethell (ed.), The Cambridge History of Latin America, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984), Vol. 2.
18. Konetzke, p. 148. See also Konetzke, Richard. "La emigración de mujeres españolas a América durante la época colonial," Revista Internacional de Sociología.
19. The term chingadu (meaning in various situations screwed, failed, sloshed, and so forth), ubiquitous in Mexican slang, reflects the enormous ambivalence that surrounds the image built up of Malinche. She is represented as the victim of a rape at the same time that she is characterized as Cortés' consenting, useful instrument at the service of the Conquest. Octavio Paz described her in The Labyrinth of Solitude as the quintessence of Indian collaborationism. Even today in Mexico the term "malinchismo” is used to refer to a turncoat. This interpretation of Doña Marina lets the conquistador off. The victim is blamed for her own misfortune.
20. Cited by Konetzke, p. 126.
21. Konetzke, p. 128.
22. Konetzke, p. 148.
23. Asuncion Lavrin (ed.), Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
24. Konetzke, Vol III, 2, pp. 473-74. But economic gains could up to a certain point compensate for inferior racial status. And the Crown wielded the Power to excuse even that "stain." See Verena Martínez-Alier, Marriage, Class and Colour in Nineteenth Century Cuba: A Study of Racial Attitudes and Sexual Values in a Slave Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974, 2nd ed., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989).
25. For the case of Mexico, see Patricia Seed, To Love, Honor and Obey in Colonial Mexico (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).
26. Ibid.
27. Konetzke. III, 1, pp.401-05.
28. Seed.
29. Konetzke, III, 1, pp. 438-42.
30. I shall not analyze in detail the later evolution of marriage law nor its application. I have done so previously for the case of Cuba. See Martinez-Alier.
31. Cuba, one of the last Spanish colonies, in an economic boom through sugar production that depended on a rapidly growing slave population, became the privileged terrain for applying this matrimonial legislation.

Tags: quincentennary, Women, conquest, discrimination

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