Taking Tyrants to Court: Civil Litigation in the Spanish Empire during the Age of Enlightenment


ACLS Fellowship Program , Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars


This book is about the Enlightenment, but its protagonists are not European intellectuals. They are illiterate, poor or enslaved colonial subjects who sued their superiors in royal courts. Comparing four types of civil litigation in five regions of Spain’s empire, the book reveals that suits against “proximate authority figures” swelled during the late 1700s in the colonies rather than in the mother country. Close analysis of the suits women, slaves, and Indians brought against husbands, masters, and native leaders shows that colonial litigants invoked new concepts of rights, sovereignty, and equality, producing a colonial Enlightenment. Such findings encourage us to reconsider the place of the Spanish empire in traditional narratives of the West and to rethink the geography of modernity.