Debating “Defects”: Slavery, Disability, and Legal Medicine in Late Colonial Colombia

Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Schwartz, Stuart


This dissertation examines the ways that slavery uniquely entangled colonial legal and medical authority through the practice of legal medicine in Colombia (New Granada) in the eighteenth century. During the last century of Spanish colonial rule, imperial reforms to medical licensing incorporated a growing number of doctors into legal disputes, who influenced judgements that affected enslaved people’s lives—such as their value, their ability to live where they pleased, and their fitness for freedom. This study charts the medicalization of slavery’s routine legal processes which labeled enslaved people’s experiences with chronic illness, disability, and trauma as “defects.” It examines how four legal mechanisms transformed this early modern term into a coherent concept that institutionalized important legal consequences for enslaved people. I illustrate how medical ideas and medical practitioners influenced the functioning of slave law, and the strategic ways that enslaved people responded. This dissertation is the first full-length study to examine the relationship between slavery, black litigation, and the praxis of legal medicine in Latin America, before the formalization of the field in the nineteenth century. It demonstrates how enslaved people with “defects” leveraged contemporary medical ideas and provisions in colonial law to protect and improve their health, making the notion of “defects” work in their favor. Through their petitions, enslaved people entered debates typically restricted to enslavers, priests, medical practitioners, and jurists about how to interpret “defects” in a body that was legally considered both property and a colonial subject. Their cases linked slavery to medico-legal practices and a larger debate about the influence of medical expertise on the administration of justice. Ultimately this research on the history of enslaved people’s efforts to secure healthcare under Spanish colonialism connects with Afro-descendants’ long and ongoing struggle against medical disparities and juridical inequities.

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