Joseph Younger, Graduate Student, History

Slave Law and Strategic Citizenship: Frontier Violence, Factional Politics and National Sovereignty in the Rio de la Plata Borderlands (1850-1864)

Mon, 04/12/2010
4:30 - 6 PM, Kerstetter Room, Marx Hall
Event Category: 
Graduate Students

LEGS, or "Law-Engaged Graduate Students," meets once every two weeks during the academic year to discuss a work in progress by one of our Graduate Associates. Academic papers, dissertation proposals, and dissertation chapters have been presented at these meetings, to an audience of fellow graduate students.

In the LEGS Seminar on April 12, Joseph Younger will present "Slave Law and Strategic Citizenship: Frontier Violence, Factional Politics and National Sovereignty in the Río de la Plata Borderlands (1850-1864)."  

The paper is available here (password required).

Here is Joseph's abstract:

During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the borderlands region connecting modern-day Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina witnessed nearly constant conflict.  Debates over sovereignty were at the heart of the factional and international conflicts sweeping the region.  Focusing on slave legal strategies to assert Uruguayan citizenship and escape Brazilian extraterritorial slave laws, this article argues that slaves were important and forgotten protagonists in these broader debates over sovereignty in the Río de la Plata borderlands.  Using judicial records, the article explores ways 
slaves and former slaves constructed citizenship and with it national sovereignty in courtrooms throughout the borderlands in the service of personal freedom.  It also explains how slave legal strategies exacerbated borderlands contradictions between national divisions and economic connections, provoking renewed conflicts over sovereign boundaries.  

The article begins by looking at how Brazilian slaves exploited the factional and international wars sweeping the Río de la Plata basin during the 1830s and 1840s by fleeing their masters.  As the conflict deepened and Uruguayan leaders turned to manumission to support their extended military campaigns, Brazilian ranchers responded by actively courting imperial intervention in the borderlands to end the fighting and maintain their cross-border economic system and their access to slave labor in order to operate it. 

By the early 1850s, slaves in the borderlands faced new and aggressive Brazilian legal claims that rendered them vulnerable to re-enslavement.  To counter these arguments, slaves and former slaves emphasized their Uruguayan citizenship and rights under Uruguayan laws in borderlands courtrooms.  By framing their own cases in terms of on-going abuses of Uruguayan citizens and violations of national laws, slaves successfully linked their own fate to that of the broader Uruguayan political community.  In particular, narratives of the repeated enslavement of its citizens signaled to the Uruguayan state the profound limitations on its own sovereign authority. 

Uruguayan legal reformers responded to the challenges to sovereignty and order the slave cases presented by hardening national boundaries, but in doing so, they severed cross-border economic relationships, threatened labor discipline, and triggered violent responses from Brazilian masters and their Uruguayan factional allies.  These groups reasserted notions of imperial sovereignty in the borderlands in an effort to secure renewed Brazilian (and Argentine) intervention to protect their property rights, culminating in the Triple Alliance War, the largest conflagration in South America's history.