Of Lizards and Love Potions

January 20, 2023

Documents from the Spanish Inquisition reveal a cultural melting pot in 17th Century Manila

Over its nearly 400-year duration, the Spanish Inquisition was responsible for the prosecution of thousands of people living within the Spanish empire. Staffed by a highly educated and rigorous theocratic judiciary, the Spanish Inquisition recorded its efforts to identify and categorize “crimes against the faith” as well as understand why the people it accused committed crimes.

For decades, its documents have been a boon to historians working to write a “history from below,” a history of everyday people who often left no written record of themselves or their actions. In other words, the history of most of us. Now, a new article in the Journal of Social History takes a close look at the records, revealing a robust market for local knowledge in an early center of global trade.

The article, titled “Of Two-Tailed Lizards: Spells, Folk-Knowledge, and Navigating Manila, 1620–1650” assembles nearly 100 denunciations for the minor crime of hechicería (sorcery) made to the Philippine branch of the Mexican Inquisition between 1620 and 1650. Dr. David Max Findley of the isoTROPIC Research Group, the article’s author, argues these records represent an everyday occurrence in Manila: the exchange of local knowledge between diverse peoples.

Speaking of the documents, Findley says, “The inquisitors gathered every salacious detail they could about the spells people purchased, but also took information about the accusers and the accused. Inquisitors recorded names, ages, ‘races’ (based on Spanish categorizations of various peoples), birthplaces, and professions or social status. When all this information was considered at once, what began to appear was traces of a large, illicit market involving peoples from every continent.”

The basis of this market was hexes that addressed the most basic needs. Luck charms, medicines, divinations, and—above all—love spells predominated. Spells were popular across the population, including among soldiers, sailors, women, and other members of the Overseas Spanish Empire whose social status ranged from colonial elite to servant. The spells were predominantly sold by Indigenous Philippine peoples, whose concoctions were based on regional plants, animals, and rituals.

Other Asian peoples in Manila, including Moluccan, Indian and Japanese residents, also sold magical cures. Some imitated Philippine spells, while others offered remedies from their own homelands, leaning into clients’ sense of exoticism to portray their spells as more powerful. Some of the spells sold outside Manila’s walls—in the Bagumbayan district of Extramruros districts—even began to hybridize, mixing Philippine rituals with Spanish-Catholic invocations.

Inquisition records are, of course, a biased source, reflecting the distrust of their authors towards non-white peoples, non-Europeans, and members of the colonial order’s lower classes. Despite their limitations, Findley maintains these documents are worth studying, not just for what they report, but also for what they reveal.

“Manila’s hex market was remarkably cosmopolitan, even by 21st century standards. It involved people from throughout Asia, Europe, the Americas, and even East Africa. It was the first of its kind. And it contradicts the typical story of colonial societies, which present colonizers as not talking or learning from colonized peoples. Here, knowledge was flowing both ways, moving between colonized peoples and colonizers in risky trades. What these Inquisition documents offer is a tantalizing glimpse at the complexity and richness of past lives in the first global entrepot.”

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