Blacks in Colonial Veracruz

[ Latin American Studies ]

Blacks in Colonial Veracruz

Race, Ethnicity, and Regional Development

By Patrick J. Carroll

The book probes the conditions that shaped the lives of inhabitants in Veracruz from the first European contact through the early formative period, colonial years, independence era, and the postindependence decade.



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6 x 9 | 262 pp. | 4 figures, 5 maps, 36 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-71233-1

Beginning with the Spanish conquest, Mexico has become a racially complex society intermixing Indian, Spanish, and African populations. Questions of race and ethnicity have fueled much political and scholarly debate, sometimes obscuring the experiences of particular groups, especially blacks. Blacks in Colonial Veracruz seeks to remedy this omission by studying the black experience in central Veracruz during virtually the entire colonial period.

The book probes the conditions that shaped the lives of inhabitants in Veracruz from the first European contact through the early formative period, colonial years, independence era, and the postindependence decade. While the primary focus is on blacks, Carroll relates their experience to that of Indians, Spaniards, and castas (racially hybrid people) to present a full picture of the interplay between local populations, the physical setting, and technological advances in the development of this important but little-studied region.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Human and Material Consequences of Indian and European Contact
  • 2. The Hows, Whens, Whos, and Whys of the Afro-Veracruz Slave Trade
  • 3. Regional Production, Market, and Capital Development
  • 4. Afro-Veracruzanos and Changing Colonial Labor Patterns
  • 5. Slaves and Social Change, 1570-1720
  • 6. Two Routes to Freedom: Cordoba and Jalapa
  • 7. Free Afro-Veracruzanos and the Late Colonial Socioeconomic Order
  • 8. Adjustment, Independence, Politics, and Race
  • Conclusions
  • Appendixes
    • 1. Materials Relating to the Afro-Mexican and Afro-Veracruz Slave Trade
    • 2. Materials Relating to Demographic and Economic Change
    • 3. Materials Relating to Afro-Veracruzanos and Socioeconomic Change
  • Notes
  • Sources Cited
  • Index

In the first introduction to this book, written in 1990, I wrote:

Afro-Veracruzanos represent a largely forgotten people who have received less attention than other groups that contributed to the emergence of colonial New Spain. This study attempts to add to the handful of post-World War II works that include, among others, the ground-breaking investigations of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, the overview of Colin Palmer, the comparative perspective of Gerald Cardoso, and the regional Veracruz inquiries of Adriana Naveda Chávez-Hita and Gilberto Bermúdez Gorrochotegui.

Because of increasing attention devoted to Afro-Mexicans over the last decade, the above statements are no longer true. Since 1990 not only has the number of studies on blacks in colonial Mexico proliferated, but the level of their sophistication has increased as well. In my mind, this monograph has one central point in common with these newer works. Their overarching goal is to place Afro-Mexicans in some type of broader context. The exact nature of that context and the strategies to accomplish this may vary from scholar to scholar, but the goal of each is to determine what Afro-Mexicans had in common with and what set them apart from other groups in this complex organic colonial setting. Brief mention of but a few of these new investigations and their findings will illustrate this point.

Most of the new studies, like this one, took a regional approach to the Afro-Mexican experience, and, I suspect, for many of the same reasons explained below. Matthew Restall has begun publication of a variety of inquiries on the black experience in Yucatán. Therein he focuses on evolving views of nationality and identity that Afro-Yucatecos, Indians, and Spaniards held of themselves and each other. He then analyzes the impact of these perceptions of "alterity" on the everyday lives of members of each group both within their subcommunities and within the regional society as a whole. Restall is joined in his Afro-Yucatecan inquiry by Francisco Fernández Repetto and Genny Negroe Sierra. Norma Angélica Castillo Palma and Francisco González Hermosillo Adams study the black experience in the Puebla region. Their work focuses on the intersection of such social constructs as race, ethnicity, class, and gender with the aim of gauging their effects on the lives of individuals and groups within a broader societal context. Juan Miguel de la Serna examines black slave labor within the obraje industry of colonial Querétaro. Assuming a broad structuralist perspective on this theme, he sheds light on the interplay of economic and demographic forces in dictating the viability or inviability of black slave labor in a proto-industrial setting. Brígedo Redondo has also published a monograph on blacks in the southern state of Campeche. And María Luisa Herrera Casasús has written a short ethnographic study of black slaves in the Huasteca region that included parts of many of the mid- and northeastern states of the Republic. It too endeavors to place this group within a broader regional setting.

Researchers at the Universidad Veracruzana continue to do ground-breaking work on the theme. Former Aguirre Beltrán student Fernando Winfield Capitaine has remained active in the field for thirty years now. His anthropological and structural line of inquiry on the topic continues to inform us all. Adriana Naveda Chávez-Hita has also added new contributions to Afro-Veracruzano studies. She is currently completing a doctoral thesis dealing with the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, and gender within a rapidly changing eighteenth-century Córdoba, Veracruz, urban environment. This study, Annales in approach, will provide an urban dimension to the rural experience of Afro-Córdobans which she has already given us with in her Esclavos negros en las haciendas azucareras de Córdoba, Veracruz, 1690-1830.

Two scholars have produced important works that do not focus principally on Afro-Veracruzanos, but do shed light on their lives. Gilberto Bermúdez Gorrochotegui's recent book on seventeenth-century Xalapa devotes a good deal of attention to Afro-Veracruzanos and their interaction with other groups. His exhaustive research and fine interpretive analysis provide added insights into the history of this important provincial capital and adds to our understanding of the context in which Afro-Xalapans lived during this period. Susan Deans-Smith's work complements my own on black Veracruzanos in three ways. First, she provides a much fuller description of eighteenth-century economic development in Orizaba than I do. Second, whereas I provide a bottom-up approach, she provides a top-down perspective into economic development in the districts of Córdoba and Orizaba. And, finally, her much more in-depth discussion of the late colonial competition between tobacco and sugar culture (especially in her fourth chapter) has obvious implications for understanding Córdoba's unusually persistent adherence to slave labor in the late eighteenth century.

Not surprisingly, a number of important new works on Afro-Mexicanos and related fields have focused on central Mexico. Brígida von Mentz' monumental study of labor ranks among the best. Well researched and well conceived, it explores themes of race, ethnicity, labor, gender, and power in some depth. It adds significantly to our understanding of blacks within the core of Mexico's colonial society. R. Douglas Cope's fine investigation offers a thoughtful alternative to ethnographic approaches for integrating the black experience into that of colonial Mexico City as a whole. He argues that a more "plebeian" based set of cultural- and class-derived distinctions superseded racial differentiation in determining social status by the end of the seventeenth century in Mexico City. Cope suggests that recognition of this development is prerequisite to understanding late colonial blacks' and other groups' "fit" into the capital's overall late colonial social order. Juan Pedro Viqueira Albán makes a similar argument in his remarkable study of folk culture and behavior in Mexico City during the Bourbon period.

Impressive new studies on special themes such as the family, gender, and colonial institutions that deal with black Mexicans in the main or in part have also appeared in the last decade. Ben Vinson's work on the pardo militia stands out among this genre of new investigations. Using an accommodationist rather than an assimilative interpretive approach, his findings highlight black community formation and agency in the process of Afro-Mexicans' integration into colonial Mexican society. He has a manuscript currently under publication consideration with a major university press which promises to make a major contribution to the field. Herman Bennett is another fine young scholar who applies an accommodationist approach to the study of Afro-Mexicans. His work on family, identity, and black community relations with other groups is very promising. From this perspective he mirrors the work of scholars who have treated these themes in other spatial and temporal contexts. María Elena Cortés de Jacome's study of the black family also deserves mention.

Finally, new works on gender have contributed to our knowledge of Afro-Mexican life vis à vis the lives of their white and Indian counterparts. Some of Solange Alberro's and Susan Kellog's inquiries illustrate this body of literature. Steve Stern's insightful study of gendered negotiations in eighteenth-century Mexico, although broader in focus, also tells us a good deal about Afro- and plebeian women's agency in struggles with men for power within their homes and their communities. And all of these works inform us about some of the consequences of the interplay of such social constructs as gender, race, ethnicity, and class in the lives of colonial women.

The above list of new scholars who entered or continued in the field of Afro-Mexican studies is not by any means exhaustive. Yet it suffices to illustrate the rapid growth of this line of inquiry. I would estimate that more scholarly publications have appeared on Afro-Mexican studies or on related themes in the decade since the first printing of Blacks in Colonial Veracruz than in all the previous decades of the twentieth century combined. If this rate of growth in the field continues much longer, future investigators will no longer be able to refer to Afro-Mexicans as a "forgotten people." The last ten years have witnessed enormous strides in filling this void in Mexican history. I feel privileged to include this second edition of my work among such a valuable corpus of studies that are beginning to allocate Afro-Mexicans their rightful historical place in the evolution of the Mexican nation.

Blacks in Colonial Veracruz employs an Annales approach to the study of Afro-Mexicans and their "fit" within evolving Mexican society. This holistic perspective on historical development offers two distinct advantages in this endeavor. It invites comparisons and contrasts with other groups, however defined, and thereby places Afro-Mexicans within, instead of apart from, Mexican society. Such a perspective, in my judgment, more closely approximates the actual black Mexican experience. It also provides a subaltern view of broader themes such as economic, social, and, to a lesser degree in this case study, political development. I shall say more about this advantage a bit later.

For many of the early years (1521-1640), blacks outnumbered whites in New Spain. And, contrary to popular notions about their distribution, Afro-Mexicans were not confined to coastal lowland regions. Blacks were present in virtually every setting within the viceroyalty. African slaves played a critical role in the economic take-off of the colony between 1550 and 1630. Despite restrictive legislation, blacks were the most socially outgoing of any of the racial groups in the emerging society. As a result, they contributed much more heavily to the racial and ethnic integration of the colonial community than their slave status would have implied. Politically, Afro-Mexicans had limited and primarily indirect influence over the developing order. Their greatest early impact was in the form of slave revolt. At times this danger caused royal and local officials alike to alter their administrative policies. During the independence and immediate post-independence period, however, Mexican-black political input became more direct and powerful. Racially mixed descendants of African slaves maintained a high profile in the ranks of revolutionary forces. They also made their presence felt in politics during the first federal period of the new nation (1824-1830).

The second dimension of this work goes beyond a description of what happened to blacks in Mexico. Although this is a very important question, it leads to an even broader one. Relatively speaking, how did the Afro-Mexican experience compare to the experiences of other groups in colonial New Spain? To answer this query it is necessary to place blacks and their descendants in Mexican society, and consequently an unusual perspective on the development of New Spain surfaces. Afro-Mexicans, both slave and free, were working class individuals. This subaltern view of societal formation is extremely difficult to tap from a historiographical perspective. Poor working folk leave a scant paper trail. Researchers have found it difficult to reconstruct the past from their vantage point. Black slaves, and to a lesser degree free black racial hybrids, remain somewhat of an exception to this rule. Bondpersons, as extremely valuable property, were listed more frequently in records than free laborers who toiled and socially interacted with them. White racism and consequent attempts to discriminate against and subordinate slaves and free persons of African descent also heightened the likelihood of their appearance in written records, including laws as well as notarial, parish, criminal, and census records. With this relatively heavy subaltern representation in these types of historical records, and with the objective to place Afro-Veracruzanos in context within New Spain's developing broader colonial community, we are able to provide a bottom-up view of overall development, one that yields fresh insights into the changing profile of the overall society and the dynamics shaping it. The study's temporal breadth, stretching from 1570 to 1830, enhances our understanding of these phenomena.

Unfortunately, the complexity of placing Afro-Mexicans within the colonial society dictated some compromises. The most important methodological accommodation was to limit the investigation to a regional focus. Probing such questions at the viceregal/national level would have been far beyond the resources of one researcher. I selected central Veracruz as my region of focus because it is a lightly researched zone of colonial development, and records necessary to support my research design were accessible. Since that time a number of regionally based inquiries have provided critical conceptual, methodological, and comparative contributions that have greatly facilitated my task. Adriana Naveda Chávez-Hita's and Gerald Cardoso's works on Veracruz, Cheryl Martin's book on rural Morelos, Nancy Fariss' study of Yucatan, and John Chance's investigations on Oaxaca have been most helpful because of their comparable chronological scopes stretching throughout the colonial period. Added to these monographs are a number of more chronologically limited but equally insightful works by such scholars as William Taylor, David Brading, Peter Bakewell, Eric Van Young, and Brian Hamnett.

When possible I compared my findings in central Veracruz both for blacks and for the broader regional society with the findings of the above-mentioned scholars. This placed the events in central Veracruz within better context. In the end a historical tapestry emerged by interweaving threads from the local physical setting and racially and ethnically pluralistic populations that constantly changed in size, age, gender, and health. The tension of the weave was always changing as a result of the introduction of new technology that is not only physical but organizational and social in character. Steel, draft animals, the arch, and gunpowder had obvious impacts. The influence of foreign concepts involving whole economic and political systems was less obvious. Religion, imperialism, racism, and persistent ethnocentrism proved even more subtle forces of change. The mesh of those fibers was heavily overlaid at times with the gilded threads of European imperial pressures that were most prominent in the early (1550-1630) and the late colonial years (1720-1820).

The sculptured fabric of the society that the intertwining strands of physical environments, populations, technologies, and imperial forces wove was three-dimensional in character. Multi-ethnic Afro-Mexicans, whites, and Indians were caught up in these threads and together formed an evolving economic structure for the ongoing material well-being, and sometimes ill-being, of the broader regional society. The mix of forces outlined social relationships. These relationships in turn gave rise to informal beliefs and practices that helped order this extremely complex setting. Finally, the interplay of these various pressures created an equally changing polity that was a blend of local, viceregal, and international colors which provided a more formal structure to Veracruz' cultural tapestry through laws, agencies, and institutions.

Beyond the foregoing structural context, this work supplies a human dimension. It is, after all, a history, a record of human events. The collective lives of Afro-Mexicans, of Indians, of persons of mixed race, as well as of whites produced the color and light that illuminates this structural fabric of regional life. Therefore my study ultimately becomes the story of people's lives, their trials, and their accomplishments. We should remember such past experiences because our present and future rest upon them.


By Patrick J. Carroll

Patrick J. Carroll is Joe B. Frantz Professor of History at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.

"Carroll's book is a solid, welcome addition to the scholarly literature on slavery and society during the colonial period and the Wars of Independence in Mexico and Latin America in general.... With its high level of ambitions and wide perspectives, the book is clearly a most valuable one."

—Hispanic American Historical Review

"Carroll makes an important contribution to better understanding of the colonial experience and the reality of the past and present racial discrimination in Mexico.... His writing is most inspired when he describes and interprets the lives of colonial Afro-Veracruzanos and their role in Mexican society."

—Geographical Reviews