Friday, June 2, 2017

Casa lóbrega (Bleak House)

I am having to take a break from work, because I feel like I've been reading a Spanish version of Charles Dickens's Bleak House.  If you have never read Bleak House, I advise against it.  I have read it, and it's a slog.  It is the story of a lawsuit that drags on for years and years, involving inheritance and the squabbles produced at times by such matters.

In 1806, Agueda Seguí, citizen of St. Augustine, Spanish East Florida, died at the age of 80.  Her third husband, Juan Capó, followed her in death two years later, at 96.  What occurred after that sure reads like Bleak House, especially when the story is found in some eighteen pages of cramped, crabbed, two-hundred-year-old handwriting that suffers from fading, wormholes, bleed-through, and smudges.

Juan and Agueda both died intestate.  Thus, an administration was conducted, to see what the contents of the estate were, what they were worth, and how they would be distributed.  Agueda's three daughters from a previous marriage and Juan's three sons from a previous marriage entered into a squabble over the few simple belongings of the deceased couple, who had no children together.  The sons claimed exclusive rights to all the belongings, never mind Agueda's contribution to the 23-year marriage.  The daughters, of course, felt cheated.  And thereby hangs the tale which, like Dickens's story, does not seem to have reached a true resolution, except that the governor told the sons that they could do nothing more than liquidate the assets of the estate, rather than taking and using the property, which included 8 slaves.

Lorenzo Capó, who may have been Juan's nephew or cousin (I have yet to determine the family relationships here through original documents, but I'm working on it) was asked to be the administrator, and he must soon have realized what a mess he had walked into.   He petitioned Governor Enrique White to appoint an impartial expert for the evaluation of the estate.  The governor responded with two appointees -- Bartolomé de Castro y Ferrer, a lawyer, and Martín Hernández, the city's master carpenter.

There is a silver lining, however:  Genealogical information.  A whole boatload of it!  Death records, marriage records, baptism records -- all are referred to in this long file, with certifications by various priests stationed in St. Augustine over the years.  The children of each are identified, along with the husbands of the daughters, which makes them a little easier to trace, though the task is generally easier in Spanish documents (and those of other Romance-language countries) anyway, because they tend to identify women by their maiden surnames rather than their married names.  English-based documents tend to forget women's maiden surnames, making them much harder to trace.

In this file also is a chilling look at the institution of slavery, practiced in Spanish Florida.  There is a list of the inventory of slaves, including children.  One four-year-old is assessed at 100 pesos.  Another, a six-month-old little boy who was ill, is assessed at 30 pesos.  These eight human beings were the costliest, and most valuable, assets of the estate.

The file also contains a glimpse of the daily life of this couple, who did not have much besides their slaves.  The inventory of their house and its meager contents takes up barely half a page, and the house ends up being valued at 104 pesos, 3 reales, 1/2 maravedí*.

Though this real-life Spanish version of Bleak House is difficult to slog through, the gems and nuggets contained in it are worth the slog.

[*  The peso at the time of this inventory, 1809, was roughly equivalent to the U.S. dollar.  8 reales made up 1 peso, and a maravedí was around 1/30 a real, of less value than a U.S. penny.  The value of the house comes to, in round numbers, $1616.22 in 2016 U.S. dollars.  The sick little enslaved boy's value comes out to $466.22, and the healthy four-year-old girl to $1554.05.]

[Estate of Juan Capó and Agueda Seguí (Administration), Testamentary Proceedings, Reel 142, Bundle 312, No. 4, East Florida Papers.]

No comments: