Photo of Dr Silvia Espelt Bombin

Dr Silvia Espelt Bombin

Research interests

My current project studies peace-making as a door on to cultural exchanges and negotiation of power between Indians, Africans and several competing European colonial powers in the frontier territories located in the Guianas and Brazilian Amazon. Initial archival research for this research project was provided by a Leverhulme Trust SAS between August 2016 and July 2017, which I spent in Portugal. Based on archival research but incorporating archaeology, anthropology and linguistics, this project aims to understand: 1) whether each European state had an overarching imperial policy and if it changed –or not– with time, place and ruling authorities, focusing mainly on France and Portugal but also incorporating other states and commercial companies with interests in the area, significantly English, Dutch and Spanish; 2) if indigenous and African polities and their own intra- and inter-ethnic alliances and conflicts had an effect on peaceful or violent exchanges with Europeans, and whether they engaged similarly depending on the European interlocutor.

My current research has developed from my work as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Leverhulme project ‘Past Lessons for Future Changes in the Brazilian Amazon’ working with Prof. Mark Harris at the University of St Andrews (2013-205). I developed my own research strand securing funding from the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant (2014-2015), and I focused on the negotiation of power and space between European empires and indigenous people in the Lower Brazilian Amazon and Eastern Guianas. Archaeological, linguistic and anthropological research has demonstrated that the region was crossed by multi-ethnic and multilingual indigenous groups. My approach brings history into the interdisciplinary discussion of the region. Through the analysis of archival sources written in French, Portuguese, English, Spanish and Latin I expand these findings in two ways. First, I reconstructed the indigenous history of these borderlands, showing that indigenous polities and networks changed but did not all disappear with the European colonisation of Pará, Amapá (Brazil) and French Guiana. Second, that French and Portuguese imperial rivalry, colonisation and frontier politics can only be understood including indigenous people .

Another strand of my research focuses on the Spanish Empire through the specific case of Panama. My PhD thesis (2011) was entitled “A free coloured elite? Trade, identity and social mobility in Panama City, 1700-1770”. It analysed a lengthy lawsuit between Europeans and African descendants in the context of the Bourbon Reforms that led to the free trade decrees. My work challenged historiographic understandings of race in Spanish America by showing that Panama’s free African descendants shaped the empire’s eighteenth century racial policies through their notarial petitions, that blood-based arguments used to exclude people of colour from trade had their origins in economic motives originated by the Bourbon reforms, and that the elite of colour employed a combination of individual and collective mechanisms for upward socio-economic mobility. An article and several chapters have come out of this research, and I am now working towards the publication of the monograph and another article.