Villanova’s Soriano Lectures on Social Movements, Access to Information in Colonial Venezuela

Dr. Cristina Soriano of Villanova University shared insights on the theme of her book Tides of Revolution: Information, Insurgencies, and the Crisis of Colonial Rule in Venezuela and how Venezuela sparked a revolution without the aid of a printing press.

PROVO, Utah (October 30, 2019)—In our globalized, digital age, political opinions are disseminated instantaneously. But for much of the 18th and 19th centuries in South America, access to information was wholly reliant upon access to printing presses—or so it was thought.

In a lecture at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday, October 30, Dr. Cristina Soriano of Villanova University analyzed the distribution of information throughout colonial Venezuela, noting that the political unrest that eventually led to Venezuelan independence was largely independent of a printing press.

“It seems totally clear that despite the lack of a printing press, Venezuelans were able to give shape to an incipient public sphere that was not grounded nor dependent on local newspapers or the printing press,” observed Soriano, director of Villanova’s Latin American Studies Program.

Soriano’s lecture echoed the theme of her recent book, Tides of Revolution: Information, Insurgencies, and the Crisis of Colonial Rule in Venezuela (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). The book was inspired by her desire to understand how Venezuela, a catalyst for South American decolonization, was able to spark 18th-century rebellion without a printing press in the country.

A printing press did not arrive to Caracas until 1808—decades after the machine appeared in Quito, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and other South American cities.

Historians studying the pre-digital age have long speculated that a linear relationship existed between access to printing presses and the emergence of national community, as the lack of mass printed communication widely restricted a country’s access to information and collective spaces for political debate. No printing press, they argued, signified no political community. Soriano refuted this claim, explaining that news of the French and Haitian revolutions in the late 18th century propagated through Venezuela quickly and forcefully, leading to increased unrest toward the Spaniards.

“The lack of a printing press, however, did not prevent the Venezuelan public from exchanging ideas and participating in what I think is an incipient yet very dynamic public sphere during the intellectually agitated period of the Age of Revolution,” explained Soriano. “Moreover, between 1790 and 1800, diverse political movements and popular rebellions, echoing the cause of liberty and equality, spread throughout the coastal region of Venezuela.”

Much of the intellectual revolt could be attributed to literature brought in by visitors from other countries, including Haiti, British-ruled Trinidad, and France. This hand-copied or externally smuggled propaganda made the local Spanish authorities wary, triggering efforts to spy on visitors, search all incomers and their belongings, and eliminate circulation of texts.

Eventually, a list of “forbidden texts” emerged, including the Declaration of Independence of Haiti, 1804, and a number of other influential documents from Haiti which were “capable of causing harmful impressions among the simple people,” per the Caracas Audiencia. This led to a confiscation order, resulting in the appropriation of many documents all over the coast, but the source of these texts was never discovered, nor the number of how many were in circulation.

“The guards managed to collect several copies of this document using the greatest discretion, because that’s a tricky thing here,” noted Soriano. “How do you find these papers without raising the interest and curiosity of the population?”

Although fewer than 10% of late-18th and early-19th century Venezuelans could read and write, a sense of national community was still forged through the oral transmission of political news. Further, information was sometimes disseminated through songs, poems, stories, dialogues, or public readings—all forms of communication that are overlooked when one focuses solely on the presence or dearth of printing presses.

“As historians, we tend to be victims of the literary world,” said Soriano. “We often forget that humans are not reading or writing all the time. There are other forms that we communicate with each other. And that’s why, in a way, my work is inviting people to look at other forms of media and information sharing that we use in society even today.”

—Samuel Benson (Sociology, ’22)