A Few Thoughts, by Sarah Backhouse

There were times during the project when I encountered individual documents or recurring themes that have forced me to stop and have a good, hard think.

One particular document stands out, a government proclamation published in Montevideo on 20 July 1812. Article number 4 of this ‘Bando’ states that (my translation): ‘all persons who speak favourably of the revolutionary government [of Buenos Aires], or of its unworthy cause, whether in public or in private, if they are discovered will within 24 hours be sentenced to death, regardless of class, dignity or sex.’

Obviously we know that historically such injustices were not uncommon, and that legislation such as this was unremarkable within oppressed communities. But to see a government-issued proclamation condemning to death those who voice a controversial opinion, in black and white on my laptop screen, was chilling. This document was the actual piece of paper that the citizens of Montevideo would have seen (according to the publication details of the document, which instructs for it to be exhibited in a public Plaza for all to see), and perhaps understood as a personal death sentence in many cases.

In addition to a wealth of documents relating to the big important things happening in Latin America in the nineteenth century (wars of independence, changing political regimes, the establishment of constitutions and industrial reform, to name just a few), I was delighted to discover that the documents in the digital archive also provide extraordinary glimpses of everyday life.

One police notice from Argentina dated 1799 instructs citizens to keep the streets of Buenos Aires clear of rubbish and in good repair. Do we conclude, therefore, that the streets were neither clean nor in good repair? In Peru in 1808, a pamphlet announced a charity collection for the widows and orphans of Zaragoza, Spain, during the Napoleonic wars. I wondered, what was the reaction to international aid in the early nineteenth century, when life at home was hardly easy? A touching document describing an 1837 prize-giving ceremony at a public school in Argentina, rewarding children who had distinguished themselves, provides proof that concern for the well-being of children is universal and encouraged, regardless of the current political situation. Perhaps this helps to answer my question.

I have been pondering one particularly influential theme that crops up repeatedly in the documents: the freedom of the press. Something so easy to take for granted in today’s overly-saturated media culture, this constitutional law greatly influenced Latin American culture and politics when it was first introduced and was vociferously defended in times of censorship. Furthermore, this law has greatly shaped the content of the digital archive, which reflects the trend of an overwhelming increase in published documents in Latin America in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as writers eager to express their thoughts regarding the government of their newly-liberated countries are given the green light. In this case, the fact of the existence of these documents tells a story, and is evidence in itself of the political developments of the time.

The writers of nineteenth-century Latin America were so keenly aware of their place in history and of their role as witnesses to the enormous upheavals and historical developments that occurred in their countries. I was particularly interested to read a short historical novel, La Huerfana de Pago-Largo, by Francisco López Torres, about a young orphan girl who represents nineteenth-century civilisation and humanity, by rejecting tyranny, embracing liberty, practicing virtue and combating church abuse.

The church is one institution in particular that suffered considerable upheavals. Living in the UK, it is difficult to imagine life in a society so heavily dominated by the church. The documents in the digital library give an idea of the extent to which the church influenced many aspects of everyday life. In one such document, a dialogue of the Bishop of Cadiz, inhabitants of the city are urged to reform their behaviour, in accordance with that required by the local junta. I tried to imagine how I would feel, especially as a child, if my behaviour was so explicitly monitored by not only my parents and school teachers, but also by the government and the church. I couldn’t.

The nineteenth century was a period when the nations of Latin America were struggling to define themselves, to clearly establish their territories and declare themselves to the world. I was particularly fascinated by the series of documents in the digital library concerning the border disputes in the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina. Travelling through the region myself a few years ago, and crossing the border from one country to the other every few days for several weeks, I was completely oblivious to the fact that the border had only been defined following a laborious process of long drawn-out disputes and negotiations. I wish I had worked on this project before my South American travels; I might have understood a little more about what I witnessed.

To find out more about the author, Dr Sarah Backhouse, see her website.

This entry was posted in Digital Library, Project Update, Research Themes by Deborah Toner. Bookmark the permalink.

About Deborah Toner

Deborah worked at the Institute for the Study of the Americas as a postdoctoral research fellow in Latin American history from 2011-12, on the project ‘Liberalism in the Americas’, which is creating a digital library of resources for the study of liberalism in Peru and Argentina in the long nineteenth century. Now a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Leicester, Deborah continues to work with ISA in overseeing the Liberalism in the Americas project as it comes to fruition. She completed her PhD on alcohol and nation-building in nineteenth-century Mexico at the University of Warwick, where she also completed her MA and BA in history.

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