Hidden Histories in San José’s Catacombs
As we continued to navigate the winding passageways, which grew increasingly smaller, more complex, and lower in height, we learned about the catacombs’ most horrifying use.
By Alison Mosier-Mills
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n May 14, while accompanying Nat Wyatt on a sourcing expedition to El Carmen, I visited Hacienda San José, a former sugar, corn and cotton plantation that has been transformed into a luxury hotel and World Heritage Site. Located about three hours south of Lima, the expansive property is gated off from the poor community that surrounds it. It’s so concealed, in fact, that the massive house and chapel are completely invisible from the long dirt road lining the property’s perimeter.
After purchasing tickets from a guard at the gate, we entered the hotel’s main grounds. Attuned to the irony that today’s owners are able to make a hefty profit by marketing the history of the transatlantic slave trade to wealthy tourists, we had a desire to think critically about the ways that Peru’s racial power dynamics continue to manifest today.
The home and surrounding grounds were, admittedly, aesthetically beautiful. In addition to amenities meant to appeal to the contemporary tourists, including fountains, pools, and decadent breakfast buffets, the Spanish colonial architecture and lush landscaping are alluring. This elegance was also profoundly disturbing, given that little has visibly changed since the plantation’s former owners smuggled hundreds of African slaves onto the property. Much of the furniture and décor inside the building is original to its 17th century origins, and our tour guide informed us that one of the property’s large trees has stood there for more than four hundred years—ever since the house was first built.
The most distressing element of the tour, however, was our descent into the plantation’s extensive catacombs. Our guide casually asked if we were claustrophobic before handing us flashlights and leading us into a relatively large cement room beneath the hotel’s present-day courtyard restaurant. She explained that this room, which was equipped with a trap door leading to the home’s upper interior, was designed to protect the plantation owner and his family in the event of a pirate attack. Other basement rooms were most often used for storage, while some served as burial chambers for family members.
As we continued to navigate the winding passageways, which grew increasingly smaller, more complex, and lower in height, we learned about the catacombs’ most horrifying use. After the transatlantic slave trade was declared illegal in 1854, the plantation’s owners continued to funnel slaves onto the property through the catacombs, which extend more than 27000 meters away from the main house. Slaves who arrived on the coast were forced to walk through the dark, oxygen-deficient passageways for days until they arrived at San José. Many died along the journey. The catacombs served a similarly torturous purpose for disobedient slaves who worked on the plantation: a common punishment consisted of locking a slave in complete darkness for weeks at a time. Those who tried to escape through the pitch-black network of passageways often scraped their limbs on the rough stone walls, and eventually succumbed to a slow and painful death due to gangrene.
Although the catacombs are the most overtly horrible remnant of the plantation’s dark past, they lie unseen below the contemporary hotel’s beautiful exterior—and beneath many of the towns that surround the substantial property. It would be difficult to find a more blatant emblem of the dangers of burying a tragic past below a profitable tourist destination.
Alison Mosier-Mills is a senior double American Studies and History of Science and Medicine major in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.