fifth time’s a charm

Since I’m in a sharing mood these days, I figure I’ll post my most recent (and last) attempt at getting funding for my Bourbon Quito Sex and Crime project. This the fifth iteration of this project narrative, when counting the NEH and ACLS Fellowships I’ve applied for. It’s also the last time I’m going to submit something for this project. While I will still work on this book, my funding requests from now on are going to be decidedly digital, and in support of the project I described here. I’m also cooking up a tool to build code-named Denbora.

I don’t mind repeatedly writing for grants, but I do mind soliciting letters all the time.

I am applying for this fellowship to complete research and begin to write a book on the relationship between sexual behavior and Spanish imperial authority during the age of Charles III (1759–1788). Sex, Crime, and Empire: The Political Economy of Intimacy in Bourbon Quito will use prosecutions of illicit sexual activity (adultery, cohabitation, sodomy, bestiality) as a means to explore the shifting theory of state power and empire in the 18th century. Between 1760 and 1790, the Spanish imperial state began to take intense interest in the sexual lives of its subjects. (See plots of criminal sex prosecutions in the additional materials.) Other historians have analyzed the relationship between the colonial state (and church) and sexuality as one in which institutions arbitrated a Mediterranean honor code that hinged on the control of women’s sexuality and the purity of religious heritage. I argue instead that through judicial mechanisms, the late imperial Spanish state intervened in popular sexual norms in an attempt to make social roles and sexual activity conform to the Bourbon monarchy’s dream of patriarchal state authority. I will show that the Bourbon state used these methods in the pursuit of an economically rational absolutism. Further, criminal prosecutions of illicit sex during this period reveal not only the extent to which royal expectations deviated from customary norms. They also mark the emergence of new models of punishment emphasizing moral correction through convict labor in royal-owned tobacco and textile factories. I argue that during the imperial reign of Charles III this active criminalization of sexual behavior turned individual bodies into contested ground upon which imperial authorities established a new underlying political philosophy that combined moral and political authority with economic rationality. As such, the case files utilized provide compelling evidence for the late 18th century as a fulcrum point between early-modern judicial empire and modern disciplinary colonialism.

The study of sexuality in an imperial context integrates my recent research on women’s legal capacity in late colonial Spanish America with my longstanding interest in the organization and performance of governing authority. My first book examined the interaction between custom and law that enabled women in the early modern Spanish world to make autonomous legal acts despite formal strictures on their legal capacity. Contrary to much of the established literature, I found that in property contracts, marital disputes, and criminal activities, magistrates predominantly respected women’s customary right to make legal acts. In the course of researching that book, I also discovered an explosion in moral policing, prosecution of men and women for sexual offenses, and corrective punishment through economic service to the Crown. The intersection of these three phenomena, and the impressive documentary record left behind, allow me to investigate the tension between custom and prescription in a new way, and to draw out the political implications of late 18th-century family values.

More recently, I have also been researching the complicated notion of jurisdiction in Spanish imperialism that simultaneously perpetuated petty conflicts within the bureaucracy and provided social stability through the flexible application of royal dictates to local circumstances. From the classic work of John Leddy Phelan to Alejandro Cañeque’s recent The King’s Living Image, historians of the Spanish empire have recognized how jurisdictional imprecision facilitated the administration of early modern empire. I argue that jurisdictional imprecision is itself a metaphor for other forms of authority and place during the colonial period. Integrating jurisdiction-as-metaphor into the study of colonial sexuality helps to explain the failure of the Bourbon state to successfully transition to an effective modern disciplinary colonialism.

The state’s interest in illicit sex coincided with a crisis in royal authority caused by fallout from Spain’s participation in the Seven Years War. Saddled with debt and with its defensive shortcomings exposed by the British navy, the court of Charles III pursued a series of administrative, fiscal, and military reforms intended to rationalize, centralize, and magnify the Crown’s authority. Traditional scholarship on the period has centered on these Bourbon reforms, along with the often-violent reactions they elicited from subject populations in the Andean region. More recent scholarship has begun to turn attention to social reforms pursued by Bourbon officials, including the construction of poor houses and orphanages, the secularizing of marriage regulations, and controls on alcohol production and consumption. The two strains of reform, those aimed at economic rationalization, tax collection, and the centralization of power and those aimed at social control shared an underlying political theory of absolutist sovereignty that clashed with a centuries-old political culture of negotiation, consent, and decentralism. This tension was born of the “modernization” of colonial administration, and was nowhere more intimately felt than in state actions to monitor and control sexuality.

The Audiencia of Quito, roughly equivalent to modern Ecuador, provides an excellent venue to study this aspect of Bourbon reform. Situated between the Viceregal capitals of LIma and Bogota, Quito became the object of tax reformers in the 1760s, attention that led to a significant citywide revolt from 1765–1766. The impulse of civil authorities to monitor and control the city’s barrio residents and particularly their sexual proclivities emerged first with the Crown’s restoration of royal authority in the wake of the Rebellion of the Barrios. But the attention lasted far beyond the aftermath of the rebellion. Royal officials constructed an infrastructure of neighborhood policing together with a new network of royal factories staffed with prison laborers. This new system was fed with explosive growth in prosecutions of moral crimes, particularly illicit cohabitation. Luckily for me, it also produced an extensive trial record of prosecution, testimony, confession, and punishment that provides the raw data for documenting the connections between sexuality, colonial authority, and economic reform.

Spanish criminal prosecutions developed along regular and predictable steps, from allegation to appeal. Court appointed notaries, utilizing a combination of boilerplate and organic language, carefully documented each of these steps. Defendants were presumed guilty. Prosecuting magistrates directed both the investigation and adjudication of criminal acts, framing the interrogation of witnesses in terms established by the complaint. The initial witnesses responded to interrogation within a discursive space defined and controlled by the magistrate and the plaintiff. Confessions, on the other hand, temporarily diminished the magistrate’s control over the discursive terrain as defendants responded to charges and questions by often redefining the terminology used. Defendants then submitted their own witnesses and interrogatories, further seeking to change the language of the case. If found guilty, defendants invariably and immediately switched back to the language of the magistrate in an appeal for mercy. This predictable flow of cases reached to all corners of the Spanish empire, allowing for comparative evaluation of local popular sexual practices in disparate settings.

Ethnohistorians and social historians have long used court cases as rich sources for mining ancillary detail and anecdotal data in an effort to give voice to the popular sectors. I use these cases with an eye to their procedural context and to the “extra” information contained within their files. The regularity of criminal prosecutions open the possibility of a wide variety of readings. While I do closely read the documents in the tradition of ethno- and social history, I also submit my case files to distant reading techniques offered by texting mining and mapping. Using digital photography, I have collected all of the extant criminal prosecutions of illicit sex, murder, assault, and insult in the National Archive of Ecuador for most of the 18th century, and am in the process of transcribing these documents. Additionally, I have transcribed the weekly jail censuses of the city of Quito for the years 1732–1791 inclusive. While the individual cases and names represented in these documents provide compelling stories ripe for interpretation in their own right, taken together as a corpus and subjected to machine-reading techniques new analytical avenues open up. I am able to extract and compare procedural segments of cases and to map their occurrences in the city’s barrios. With the weekly jail censuses, I am able to demonstrate which magistrates took the lead in prosecuting moral offenses, and against which types of barrio residents. Using text-mining techniques to cluster similar documents such as Normalized Compression Distance (NCD) Analysis and Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) topic modeling, I can compare prosecutions over time to demonstrate innovations in criminal prosecution during the 1780s. This algorithmic approach to legal practice is completely innovative in the colonial Latin American historiography. By controlling for the procedural development of a prosecution as well as for gender, age, ethnicity, and other social markers present in the cases, I am able to document allusive popular, customary sexual norms. I then put this analysis of criminal conduct into the broader context of imperial governance and the economic, penal, and medical literatures produced by the Spanish Enlightenment. Finally, I analyze the system of punishment constructed to discipline those caught in the city’s sexual dragnet, and specifically the role of royal tobacco factories in convict reformation. My conclusions demonstrate that the barrios of Quito operated with a level of tolerance for sexual behavior by both men and women that would never be predicted nor accepted by the strict Mediterranean honor code that has dominated the Latin American literature on gender and sexuality (Twinam, 1999; Lipsett-Rivera and Johnson, 1998, Chambers, 1999, Lavrin, 1989).

The evidentiary base of this project is built on approximately 1000 cases of sexual and sexual-related crimes prosecuted in the Audiencia of Quito between 1760 and 1790. I have digital photographs of the case set in its entirety. In addition to the prosecutions, I have developed a database based on weekly jail censuses for more than 10,000 arrests in Quito during the 18th century. The database contains information on arrestee’s gender, crime, supervising magistrate, ethnicity, and occupation. These records are further complemented by institutional records of the Presidency of the Audiencia of Quito and the jails, royal factories, and poor houses of the city. Together, they provide comprehensive data to combine close and distant readings of practices of sex, neighborhood surveillance, and correction for the city and its hinterland.

By the time this fellowship begins, I will have completed much of the research. I have collected the documentary base for the project with trips to the National Archive of Ecuador in 2009 and 2011. Archival visits are complete. I have been transcribing cases with some graduate student assistance for the past two years. I have also written the necessary code for text mining over the past year. I will use time afforded by an ALCS fellowship to finish my analysis and to write the first draft of this manuscript. I hope to reach not only Latin Americanists, but also the rapidly growing audience of the Digital Humanities. All materials produced for this project, including maps, the criminal database, transcripts, and code will be hosted as a project archive at


Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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Posted in Latin American History
One comment on “fifth time’s a charm
  1. […] that grew up around them in the late 18th c. as part of my current book project, described in this post from September in the form of a grant proposal. Later in September and again in October, I took a […]

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Hacer juicio ú dictamen acerca de alguna cosa... significando que el objeto excita el juicio ú dictamen en la persona que le hace.

Deducir ante el Juez la accion ú derecho que se tiene, ó las excepciones que excluyen la accion contrária.

RAE 1737 Academia autoridades
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Chad Black

I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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