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date: 08 December 2021

Society and Justice in Colonial Brazil in the 17th and 18th Centurieslocked

Society and Justice in Colonial Brazil in the 17th and 18th Centurieslocked

  • Isabele de Matos Pereira de MelloIsabele de Matos Pereira de MelloInstituto de História, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro


In early modern societies, the duty of enforcing justice was one of the principal tasks of the monarch. Judicial power could be exercised both directly by the monarch—the supreme magistrate—or by those he delegated it to—judges or his courts. In the vast territory of Portuguese America, different institutions were created to ensure access to justice, to help govern the people, to assist in long-distance administration, and to maintain control over the crown’s dominions. Ouvidorias-gerais, judges, and courts were established with their own institutional officials, intermixing lower- and higher-level jurisdictions and exercising justice over distinct territorial spaces. To understand the functioning of judicial institutions in colonial society, it is important to analyze the universe of magistrates, their careers, judicial practices, and complex relations in the social environment. Magistrates, as an important professional group recruited by the Portuguese monarchy, had multiple overseas possibilities. They could serve at the same time as representatives of royal power and allies of local groups. These men faced a colonial reality that allowed them a wide sphere of action, the exercise of a differentiated authority, and a privileged position as intermediaries between local elites and the king. Even though all magistrates were subject to the same rules of selection, recruitment, appointment, and promotion, the exercise of justice in the slaveholding society of Portuguese America demanded a great capacity for adaptation and negotiation, for the application of law in the mosaic of local judicial situations. Magistrates circulated in different spaces, creating and working in different judicial institutions in the difficult balance between theory and practice, between written law and customary law.


  • History of Brazil
  • 1492–1824

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