How an Inquisition trial helped uncover ordinary lives and gender relations in 17th-century West Africa

by Professor Toby Green

22 Nov 2021

African Voices From The Inquisition Vol 1 - front cover image
Front cover of "African Voices From The Inquisition Vol 1"

I began studying for my PhD almost 20 years ago. In those days, there were very few digitised resources, no phone cameras – and no alternative to spending long periods of time in archives where the budding researcher hoped to uncover nuggets of lost information from the past.

My PhD was centred on the history of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa, in the 16th and 17th centuries. This meant that I spent most of my research time in Lisbon, where the vast majority of early documents for the islands’ history are now located. And it was here that I came across an Inquisition trial that fascinated me for years, until, together with my colleagues Philip Havik and Filipa Ribeiro da Silva, we published an edition of it in the British Academy’s Fontes Historiae Africanae series earlier this year.

Most people don’t associate the Inquisition with West Africa but in fact the Portuguese Tribunal of Lisbon appointed officials in its colonies to enforce Catholic doctrine and practice. Mostly these officials were toothless and held few powers – though there were occasional spates of trials and denunciations, and a separate tribunal of the Inquisition was established in Goa. However, in the middle of the 17th century, two voluminous trials were produced in Cape Verde and on the adjacent coast of West Africa in Cacheu (modern-day Guinea-Bissau).

The life and trial of Crispina Peres

The latter trial was of a powerful local trading woman, Crispina Peres. Four hundred folios long in total, as soon as I looked at it, I realised that this offered by far the most detailed account of human relationships in this part of West Africa that I was ever likely to come across. It also provided the most detailed personal and biographical study imaginable of an ordinary West African woman, someone who did not belong to a royal household – indeed, it is extremely unlikely that a more detailed piece of biographical evidence will ever be found for gender relations in the distant West African past.

It’s one of those rare pleasures of the historian’s craft that – very occasionally – you become smitten with a character, a document, a series of events. You suddenly find a window into the themes which concern you. For someone like me, who researches the distant past of a region for which there are relatively few written sources, this can be a Eureka moment. Of course, the relative lack of written sources for the West African past is in its own way an opportunity, as I explored in my book A Fistful of Shells (2019): you begin to explore the nature of sources, what counts as a valid source, and how that validity is constructed, developing different windows onto the past as your source base expands. In my own case, I drew extensively on oral histories to build a different way into understanding the past.

All that being said, for me, the Crispina Peres Inquisition trial was that Eureka document. It contains unique insights into how people thought, the power of women in 17th century West African trade and daily life, religious experiences, household material culture and structure – as well as of course casting new light onto the realities and impacts of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in West Africa. We find here the conversations, insults, and plots hatched by people who lived 350 years ago, reproduced in a detail which makes us almost imagine that we might be there as well.

For many years, Philip Havik, Filipa Ribeiro da Silva and myself worked on the transcription and translation of the trial which the British Academy has now published. In A Fistful of Shells, I did draw on the trial in some of the chapters, but a book as wide-ranging as that one was could only touch the surface of a document like this. As Philip put it to me once, he felt as if “he owed something to Crispina”. She had been a powerful and influential figure, laid low by intrigue, gossip, and envy – and a desire by her commercial rivals to get the better of her and her partner, Jorge. Her life had ended sadly, but perhaps in publishing the trial, and recovering her moving and spirited defence of her beliefs and way of life, the sadness of that past could in some way be interred.

A Testament to Crispina and the lost history of West Africa

We wanted to publish the trial as a testament both to Crispina’s life, and the lost world which she inhabited – but also as part of our ongoing commitment to publishing sources for the African past. The British Academy’s Fontes Historiae Africanae series is a unique series that has published almost two dozen books of source material on the African past. These books offer both unique scholarly insights into the past, and fantastic resources for teachers seeking to bring that past to life in the classroom. If any materials can promote Global Cultural Understanding, it is surely the materials published here – and the insights they offer into the many different ways that people have lived, interacted, and constructed their worlds in the African past.

Toby Green’s book A Fistful of Shells won the 2019 Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, and he is chair of the British Academy’s Fontes Historiae Africanae Committee. African Voices from the Inquisition, Vol. 1: The Trial of Crispina Peres of Cacheu, Guinea-Bissau (1646-1668) is published by Oxford University Press for the British Academy.


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