Marriage and Slavery in Colonial Venezuela

Demonstration in Paris, France; People supporting the free elections in Venezuela, democracy and Juan Guaido, February 2, 2019 (Shutterstock/ Elena Dijour)

On September 2, the National Academy of History and the Venezuela History Network in Caracas announced the transcription and digitization of 430 volumes of archival documents on slavery. Established in 1888, the National Academy of History contains a library of nearly 200,000 titles and archival collections that feature documents from Venezuela’s Colonial (1502-1821) and Republican eras. A series of events inspired archivists, anthropologists, and historians to relocate and digitize the institution’s Civil-Slaves Section Collection. Venezuela’s economic crisis along with the COVID-19 pandemic made archival documents largely inaccessible, but when the 2020 rain season damaged one of the rooms containing the obscure and fragile collection, scholars advocated to rescue it from deterioration. Furthermore, the Venezuela History Network, the Gerda Henkel Foundation, and the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts have agreed to participate in the digitization project. When the Civil-Slaves Section Collection is released to the public, Afro-Venezuelans and scholars can learn about the “different tactics enslaved peoples employed to access freedom during the colonial period,” noted researcher Guillermo Ramos Flamerich.

Institutions like the National Academy of History are important because much of what we know about the history of slavery, race, and social hierarchy comes from archival documents like court trials, petitions, and slave trade records. These primary sources offer researchers a window into the lives of historical figures and everyday people from transnational and intersectional viewpoints. Archival records like marriage contracts can even reveal stories of how African heritage was stigmatized for its association with enslavement. Additionally, those records can tell us what enslaved and free people did to resist racial discrimination. One handwritten court proceeding, held at the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, detailing an enslaved woman’s petition to end her son’s marriage to an enslaved person demonstrates this reality.

In May 1792, freeman Simón Mesones married enslaved Soledad Ponce in Aragua, Venezuela.1 Typically, a man would first propose to his bride promising marriage and then he visited the parish office where an official documented the civil statuses of the man and woman. Simón was a free mulatto while Soledad was an enslaved person of Don Josef Ignacio Gamarra Teniente de Justicia Mayór, the highest official authority of Aragua. Soledad’s race was unrecorded and is therefore unknown. The couple later received their marriage license, and before they were married, the Pragmática (a Bourbon law created by King Charles III) was recited to Simón and Soledad ordering them to get permission from their parents to marry each other, especially if their civil statuses were unequal.2 Not long after the wedding, Simón Mesones’ mother, Francisca petitioned her local court to dissolve the marriage.

Francisca, a “slave of Doña Teresa Mesones,” was upset that her free mulatto son had married an enslaved woman against her will. She fought against Simón’s marriage because she was concerned about her family’s future at a time when life was full of uncertainties and hardships for non-white people. While slavery was a restrictive way of life for Blacks, mulattos, and pardos, marriage offered individuals some freedom in the spouses they chose to marry. Whites, Blacks, Indians and pardos often married people of a similar race and social class in order to maintain their family’s honor. However, some people intermarried out of love, while others did so to improve their social status. For example, marriages between poor whites and wealthy non-whites were sometimes based on whites achieving greater economic status while the non-whites gained more social prestige for themselves and their children because of the increased status whiteness brought into the family.

In Colonial Latin America, high social status and honor were predicated on Catholic faith, a university education, a good social reputation, wealth, and whiteness. “Spanish blood” was prized in this racialized society where Spanish-born whites were at the top of the hierarchy and white creoles, free pardos, enslaved Indians, and black slaves followed them to the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid. While non-white people could acquire social status and honor through financial wealth and Catholic religion, many could not achieve equal status with whites in their community because they did not have enough “whiteness” in their blood. People of African, Indian, and slave heritage did not have a “purity of blood” like white peninsulares (Spanish-born) or criollos (American-born, but ethnically Spanish). Therefore these non-whites either had to get a limpieza de la sangre (a cleaning of the blood) by either buying a title of white from the Spanish Crown (cédula de gracias al sacar) or intermarrying with whites in order to “whiten” their family’s heritage and achieve great social prestige. Through these methods, non-whites acquired more opportunities to use respective titles like Don and Doña, hold public office, and enhance the marriage prospects of their children. This was the society Francisca Mesones lived in and wanted her son to adapt to as they both were non-whites.

As a slave mother, Francisca knew about la infame de calidad (a bad quality of social status). She knew that slave status was the worst social status in society because any individual who possessed it would remain a slave for the rest of his life unless someone manumitted him. Francisca also knew that any mother who was a slave would always bear slave children, and since Simón was fortunate to achieve freedom she was determined to ensure that he and her grandchildren would be free. Francisca first sought to overturn her son’s marriage by petitioning for a case of marital opposition in the juzgado del alcalde primero (cabildo court of first instance). Most cases of marital opposition were proposed by parents who believed their children mistakenly wed people with la infame de calidad in regard to race, social status, morality, and finances. In this case, Francisca specifically petitioned the courts because she took issue with Soledad’s enslavement which signified low social status and a “stain of black ancestry.” The local court later denied her request.

Despite this setback, Francisca continued to fight against her son’s marriage by appealing to the highest court in her region of the captaincy of Venezuela: the Audiencia of Caracas. For two years Francisca asked the courts to ban the marriage. Typically, Fathers were the ones who petitioned the courts to impede the unequal marriages their children accepted. Men were expected to possess patriarchal traits (later known as Machismo), such as being strong, authoritative, and the heads of their households. Women were expected to embody the cultural traits of Marianismo, in which they were to be pure, humble, religious, and chaste like the Virgin Mary. Therefore, Francisca’s petitioning of the courts was groundbreaking because she donned a patriarchal role when she consistently spent her money appealing to the courts to protect her son’s socioeconomic future. Nevertheless, this case meant so much to Francisca that like so many mothers who love their children, she spent years and plenty of money trying to rectify the mistake she believed Simón made with his life.

In 1794, the Audiencia ruled in favor of Simón, effectively declaring that since Simón was a freeman, his enslaved mother had no right to infringe upon his decision to marry a slave. In the final comments of the transcript, the Audiencia acknowledged la infame calidad and the slave status the couple’s children would inherit. The Audiencia explained that Simón will always be responsible for feeding, clothing, and taking care of his wife and children even if she still labors for an enslaver who originally assumed that financial burden. The Audiencia also left Simón with a guilty conscience when they suggested that his children may dishonor him when they learn he could have prevented them from becoming slaves by marrying a free woman in the first place:

It is very natural that although the free man proposes everything for the desire to marry a slave woman, after being married he begins to repent, and even hate that marriage that in a certain way reduces him to the servitude in which he finds his wife, increasing his feeling for the consideration that his children will follow the condition of the mother, they will be like her, slaves, and they will not be able to give him the obedience, reverence and help that they would have given him if he had a marriage with a free person. -The Audiencia of Caracas, December 2, 1794

In the nineteen-page transcript that details the Mesones’ story, the issue of la infame calidad along with matriarchal rule demonstrates how race and slave heritage determined social status. It is possible that many, non-white freemen married black slave women because they loved them so much that they were willing to risk having slave children with them. Although Francisca Mesones and the Audiencia of Caracas wanted Simón to make a rational decision about marriage, they both learned that the oppressive laws of slavery complicated and even ruined the lives of both slaves and freemen who sometimes wanted to wait for widespread freedom together. Moreover, archival stories like this will give researchers at the National Academy of History much to look forward to in uncovering and reconstructing the historical past of black people in Venezuela.

  1. La Audiencia de Caracas, “No. 158, Real Audiencia consulta persona libre casarse con persona esclava, 2 de diciembre 1794,” Archivo General de Indias, Ministerio de Educación, Cultura, y Deporte, Seville, Spain, 1794. The document on the Mesones case is a nineteen-page transcript of the court proceedings. The primary source, dated December 2, 1794, is a digitized copy of the original, hand-written account of the case Francisca Mesones presented to the Audiencia of Caracas. The primary source was discovered by Dr. Cristina Soriano of Villanova University. Today it is held at the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain.
  2. Susan Migden Socolow, “Acceptable Partners: Marriage Choice in Colonial Argentina, 1778-1810,” ‎(Institut fuÌ r Spanien- und Lateinamerikastudien: UniversitaÌ t Augsburg, 1987). It is unknown whether or not Simón actually spoke to his mother about marrying a slave, but what the court transcript stated was that the couple married without Francisca’s permission and had a celebration afterward.
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Menika Dirkson

Menika Dirkson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Morgan State University. She received her Ph.D. in History from Temple University while her M.A. in History and B.A. in History, Latin American Studies, and Cultural Studies are from Villanova University. She has received grants from the Philadelphia Foundation and Thomas Jefferson University’s Arlen Specter Center for her research on police-Black community relations in Philadelphia following the Civil Rights Era. Dirkson’s research and writing have appeared in articles for the Urban History Association’s The Metropole and the Washington Post. She is currently working on a book entitled, Hope and Struggle in the Policed City: The Rise of Black Criminalization and Resistance in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Twitter @Philadelphian91.