The viceregal Americas were a dynamic setting for global trade networks that extended in transatlantic, transpacific, and inter-American directions. Luxury goods, such as silks, yarns, fabrics, tapestries, ivory, ceramics, wines, foodstuffs, and medicines from China, the Philippines, and East Asia flooded American markets through the ports of Acapulco, Mexico, and Lima, Peru. These products, in addition to those from Europe and Central America, made their way to South American markets, despite numerous regulations imposed by the Spanish crown to curb the unrestricted entry and circulation of luxury goods in colonial society.
Walker's Exquisite Slaves is a detailed and animated examination of one of the most coveted types of luxury goods in viceregal Peru: fine textiles. While clothing has been a popular topic for historians and art historians alike, garments have been examined largely in disconnect with the subjects who owned and wore them in a variety of public and private settings. Exquisite Slaves is unique in that its focus is not simply on clothing but also on the social and legal interactions that surrounded the acquisition, regulation, and confiscation of textiles. Walker sets out to answer a central yet previously unaddressed question. What were the personal consequences of sumptuary laws, which restricted non-Spanish people from extravagant displays of wealth, on real people and bodies, especially those of slaves, in colonial Peru? While previous scholars have predominantly studied the dress of Indigenous and mestizo citizens, Walker shines a light on an often-invisible class of people in the annals of history: enslaved and free persons of African descent. Here, she artfully navigates travel writing, archival documents, and artistic representations to argue that clothes were the avenue through which slaves negotiated their appearance, social status, and freedom in viceregal Lima.
Walker's methodology is innovative in several ways. Each chapter of Exquisite Slaves centers on a distinct archival document, each of which ranges far beyond the typical notary documents taken up by previous scholars. By showcasing how textiles are key elements of newspaper notices, legal decrees, criminal investigations, lawsuits, and marriage annulments, Walker reminds us that material culture infuses and has profound consequences in myriad social interactions. In doing so, she also demonstrates that no detail in the historical record is too small or insignificant. For example, a lawsuit's mention of an elegant white shirt worn by an enslaved man brings Walker to the book's perhaps most significant finding: against the dominant narrative of colonial Peru—that enslaved and free people existed in very separate social spheres—Walker argues that there was much greater interaction between classes than previously imagined.
By parsing the fine details of primary sources, Walker also counters misleading accounts of Lima's social landscape offered in European travel writing. These observations often suggest that sumptuary laws had little consequence, as they describe limeños of all races and social classes as equally adorned in fine textiles and costly accoutrements. To the contrary, Exquisite Slaves identifies the discrepancy between the law and lived experience by illustrating the varying levels of access slaves and free people had to fine clothing. Chapter 1 examines a particularly blatant disregard for sumptuary legislation in public pageantry, when owners dressed their slaves in fine garments—what Walker terms an “aesthetic of mastery” (21).
Through the lens of archival documents, Walker looks beyond the surface of clothing to examine the motivations, struggles, and aspirations of the enslaved humans who donned it. While chapter 1 considers garments from the perspective of slave owners, the following chapters assess “the meanings slaves themselves assigned to dress” (44). Chapter 2 examines criminal investigations from Lima's Real Audiencia in the eighteenth century with an eye toward the role of dress in slaves' negotiations of legal status. It is here that she explores the family relationships and living arrangements that led to the theft, gifting, and inheritance of clothing, providing an intimate glimpse behind the closed doors of slaveholding society. In doing so, she transforms colonial subjects, chiefly slaves, from anonymous figures to individualized social agents who ultimately thwarted regulations meant to harness “clothing as a means to assert a color-based social hierarchy” (42).
At times, Walker's analysis verges on the subjective. In one criminal investigation in which a Spaniard accuses a slave of gifting stolen garments, she speculates as to why only one of the slave's nieces was a recipient. She suggests that the niece “had suspicions” of how her uncle acquired the clothing or that “tensions were at play in her relationship” with him (63). Unsubstantiated musings such as these pepper the chapters of Exquisite Slaves but do not detract from the book's historical rigor. Instead, they have the profound effect of personalizing the historical subjects. Many of the slaves mentioned in the archival documents resurface in later chapters, giving the book a narrative quality that is deeply humanizing and honoring of individual lives and hardships. As Walker traces their appearances, familial arrangements, mistreatments at the hands of their owners, and desperate attempts to secure freedom, she establishes an intimacy with her subjects across a vast historical divide. Chapter 3, for example, is a study of race and clothing through the lens of a 1741 marriage annulment. Walker thoughtfully navigates conflicting witness testimonies, which center on the husband's dress, appearance, and behavior, illustrating how slaves utilized dress to surpass racial boundaries. Ultimately, Exquisite Slaves inscribes enslaved and free blacks into the historical record with respect and sensitivity.
Of most interest to art historians will be chapters 4 and 6, which consider visual primary sources. The first analyzes the differences between Mexican and Peruvian casta paintings, by way of focus on Cristóbal Lozano's series of twenty paintings, commissioned in 1770 for Charles III's Royal Cabinet of Natural History. Unlike Mexican casta paintings, which circulated widely in colonial society, Walker argues that the Peruvian set was designed for a distant and singular audience that was eager for rigid taxonomies and fixed racial hierarchies. Her most important contribution here is the identification of several “material markers of difference,” (106), including headscarves and distinct manners of wearing garments, which accompany all sitters of African descent. Rather than being confined to a single chapter, these powerful illustrations would have been better dispersed throughout the text and examined alongside Walker's trove of archival documents, which come to life through comparison to this series. Chapter 6 devotes a short section to Afro-Peruvian artist Francisco “Pancho” Fierro (1807–1879), who painted enslaved and free blacks as they engaged in lively and cosmopolitan street life in post-independence Lima. Given the incredible detail that Fierro dedicates to garments, it is surprising that Walker only gives short consideration to his watercolors. However, she successfully highlights the ways in which Fierro dignified people of color in his depictions, unlike the accounts of European travelers, who either ridiculed their appearances or neglected them entirely.
More than simply what people and clothes looked like in viceregal Lima, Exquisite Slaves examines how slaves strategically navigated challenging circumstances as they donned an assortment of garments that were largely considered to be prohibited to them. As the later chapters move into the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Walker demonstrates that in both pre- and post-independence Lima, the self-presentation of slaves was surveilled and scrutinized in published runaway notices and as they enlisted in armies to secure upward mobility. It is here, but also in her dissection of earlier archival documents, that the author echoes the caution of historian Kathryn Burns on the often-biased practices of writers, whether notaries, scribes, or reporters, of the period. Walker is quick to remind us that slaves were likely subject to the majority of these prejudices. Exquisite Slaves is a much-needed addition to the study of race, slavery, and representation in the colonial Americas, while also serving as a model of meticulous and sensitive scholarship for scholars of any historical period. Methodologically speaking, the book is also a welcome addition to syllabi. Walker's masterful navigation of primary sources will greatly assist students who are grappling with incorporating historical sources into their research.