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Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Sixteenth-Century Santiago de Guatemala

Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Sixteenth-Century Santiago de Guatemala

The society, culture, and economy of a colonial Spanish American city.

December 2003
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273 pages | 6 x 9 | 4 maps, 9 tables |

The first century of Spanish colonization in Latin America witnessed the birth of cities that, while secondary to great metropolitan centers such as Mexico City and Lima, became important hubs for regional commerce. Santiago de Guatemala, the colonial capital of Central America, was one of these. A multiethnic and multicultural city from its beginning, Santiago grew into a vigorous trading center for agrarian goods such as cacao and cattle hides. With the wealth this commerce generated, Spaniards, natives, and African slaves built a city that any European of the period would have found familiar.

This book provides a more complete picture of society, culture, and economy in sixteenth-century Santiago de Guatemala than has ever before been drawn. Robinson Herrera uses previously unstudied primary sources, including testaments, promissory notes, and work contracts, to recreate the lives and economic activities of the non-elite sectors of society, including natives, African slaves, economically marginal Europeans, and people of mixed descent. His focus on these groups sheds light on the functioning of the economy at the lower levels and reveals how people of different ethnic groups formed alliances to create a vibrant local and regional economy based on credit. This portrait of Santiago also increases our understanding of how secondary Spanish American cities contributed vitally to the growth of the colonies.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Colonial Foundations
  • Chapter Two: The Rise of a Commercial Center
  • Chapter Three: Interregional and International Merchants
  • Chapter Four: The Fringes of the Commercial Networks
  • Chapter Five: Harvesting and Transporting Wealth
  • Chapter Six: Replicating the European Material World
  • Chapter Seven: The Wealth of Literacy
  • Chapter Eight: African Slaves and Free Workers
  • Chapter Nine: Indigenous Corporate Structures
  • Chapter Ten: Indigenous Laborers
  • Chapter Eleven: The Ever-Present Past
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Robinson A. Herrera is Assistant Professor of History at Florida State University.


The history of early Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala is often reduced to the defining moment of contact between Spaniards and natives. Santiago's early history typically appears as a Manichean battle between the Spanish evildoers and the noble natives. This portrayal is not only simplistic but also exclusionary.

The role of Black slaves and even of indigenous peoples from outside Guatemala remains absent from images of the sixteenth century. It would seem that, after the initial battles between indigenous peoples and European intruders, a colonial society miraculously burst from the ashes of vanquished native civilizations. Consequently, the complexity of the society that developed remained poorly understood.

Making matters worse, the very study of Santiago has suffered from the notion that the city was no more than a sleepy, peripheral Spanish American settlement. Far from somnolent, Santiago developed into a bustling commercial center that resembled larger Spanish American settlements, yet it also possessed unique traits linked to its origins.

Early Santiago served as the foundation on which subsequent colonial structures arose. During its first two generations, interethnic interaction and economic mechanisms that still survive came into existence. The roots of late colonial phenomena first appeared in Santiago's early decades, a time of great upheaval and changes. Coerced modes of labor such as African slavery, the consolidation of land into large agrarian enterprises, and the dominance of export-driven economic strategies were born and developed during the sixteenth century. Indeed, the period saw the birth of what today is known as ladino Guatemala. Yet without a profound understanding of early society, made possible only by studying mundane documents such as those generated by notaries, the lives of Santiago's residents have remained largely buried in obscurity and covered by a layer of misunderstanding. Peeling back the layers of historical forgetfulness reveals a richly textured urban center that hardly resembled an economic backwoods.

Nestled in the Valley of Panchoy, surrounded by three active volcanoes, and occupying the site of modern-day Antigua Guatemala, Santiago, named after the patron saint of Spain, benefited from a temperate climate and plentiful rain. A water supply also existed close to the city. The fertile soil, appropriate for all manner of indigenous crops such as maize and for introduced agricultural products ranging from wheat to cattle, eventually attracted a relatively large European population. Centuries of use have not damaged the volcanic valley's fecund soils. In fact, the same lands continue to yield harvests of staples, among them a variety of beans and vegetables. Because of its altitude (1,524 meters above sea level), the pestilence of mosquitoes prevalent in the humid lowlands did not torment Santiago's residents, an important consideration before insecticides and chemical repellents.

The Valley of Panchoy's meteorological benefits were not lost to Santiago's wayfarers and residents. A traveler to Santiago in the late sixteenth century described the valley around the city as "fertile land, colder than hot, and very healthful and abundant with all manner of foods."' Despite major ecological changes, the region continues to enjoy what is best described as an "eternal spring" due to its cool climate and abundant rainfall nearly year-round.

What initially attracted Spaniards to the area that constitutes modern-day Guatemala had little to do with climate or soil and much more to do with events in distant Mexico. Hernando Cortés and his ambitious lieutenants, Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóbal de Olid, tenuously established in the Valley of Mexico, sought to increase their wealth by expanding the number of indigenous communities under their suzerainty. Alvarado eventually headed to Guatemala and Olid to Honduras in search of the wealth and political influence that eluded them in Mexico. While the native peoples of Central Mexico eventually proved extremely profitable, the Spaniards' immediate quest centered on liquid wealth in the form of easily transportable gold, silver, or precious stones.

True, the conquest of indigenous peoples like the Mexicas yielded considerable treasure, but that wealth did not satisfy the demands of all those clamoring for immediate riches. Consequently, Spaniards pushed for rapid expansion into unexplored areas. As justification, they often cited a desire to convert natives to the Catholic faith, yet worldlier concerns also strongly motivated new undertakings. In one of his self-serving yet judicious letters to Charles V, Cortés mentions stronger reasons for continuing conquest. He writes of receiving news of "an island populated by women without a single male" and of that island's wealth in pearls and gold. Tales of the wealth of exotic lands, whether truly believed or intended for distant readers, served as a catalyst for new expeditions, as Cortés makes abundantly clear.

Cortés likely heard of the kingdoms of Utlatlán and Guatemala from natives in the Central Valley of Mexico. He sent two envoys, who returned with one hundred Quiché or Cakchiquel natives who came with appeals for possible alliances.

Cortés receives nearly sole credit for sending the first Spanish envoys to Guatemala, yet at least one study suggests that Alvarado sent two Spaniards into Guatemala before Cortés, and that Cortés sent his representatives as a consequence of Alvarado's actions. However that may have been, Guatemala soon turned into a target for further expansion by Europeans.

Pedro de Alvarado undoubtedly realized that he would never attain the topmost position in Mexico, at least not so long as Hernando Cortés and others contested the position. Unfortunately, the garrulous Alvarado (Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes him as an expert speaker) did not leave behind written accounts of his time in Central Mexico. He did author four somewhat detailed letters of his campaigns, however. Only two of the four have survived, but they, like Cortes' writings, were crafted to exaggerate the writer's contributions and to shed light on his activities during the subjugation of native communities in Guatemala.

One may infer from Alvarado's letters that he saw in Guatemala an excuse at once to get away from Cortés' watchful gaze and, he hoped, to find an area that he could claim as his own domain. He was following the well-established pattern of seeking his fortune elsewhere instead of jockeying for authority in an already-established area. Cortés himself had left Cuba and traveled to Mexico as a result of his secondary position to that island's governor.

While Alvarado had proven his usefulness, Cortés knew better than to have the likes of him and Olid too close by; it was better to have them occupied in distant lands than to face the possibility of powerful underlings scheming in his immediate vicinity. Hubert Howe Bancroft concurs: "Nor was the parting devoid of pleasure, for one would be rid of sometimes unpleasant interference in affairs at the capital, while the other would be independent of any superior."

To appease his superior, Alvarado reverted to established patterns: the conquest of Guatemala began and operated under the guise of expanding Cortés' area of influence. Bancroft writes that "the general [Cortés] could not himself undertake the work, and the best proxy was this captain [Alvarado]." In the company of nearly five hundred fellow European fortune seekers, including his three brothers and two cousins, Alvarado traveled to Guatemala, likely with hopes of encountering fabulously wealthy kingdoms." In time, these individuals came to see themselves as primeros pobladores and worthy of royal favors for their meritorious service." Furthermore, many of the original conquerors successfully vied for the most coveted of all prizes, an encomienda.

As with all ventures of this type, the Alvarado expedition cut a swath of destruction wherever it went. The expedition engaged in total war against the native population, just as had the Spanish army in its European campaigns. The idea of sparing noncombatants the brutality of war apparently escaped Alvarado's band. Their path extended throughout Guatemala, from the contemporary border with Mexico to the central highlands and farther south to the Pacific lowlands and beyond into present-day El Salvador.

The Alvarado expedition also relied on native auxiliaries consisting of Mexicas, Tlaxcalans (likely the best represented), and members of other indigenous ethnic groups. The exact number of native auxiliaries remains unknown and, for this reason, a perennially controversial topic among historians. To both aggrandize the Spanish accomplishment and diminish potential accusations of abuse, Cortés gave importance to the role of native auxiliaries only when it suited his own ends. In relation to the conquest of Guatemala, however, he greatly diminished the number of native allies involved. Cortés writes that Alvarado "[took] along some native nobles from this city [Mexico-Tenochtitlán] and other cities from this area and with them some people, but not many, because the distance was too great." Díaz del Castillo, an eyewitness to these events, concurs with Cortés when he places the number of native auxiliaries at three hundred.

The low number of auxiliaries remains a constant in the histories written during colonial times as well. Like their Spanish colonial counterparts, most scholars today give a figure numbering in the hundreds. The Anales de los Cakchiqueles, one of the few surviving records produced by local natives, does not provide information on this topic.

Alvarado himself gives a valuable clue for determining the number of auxiliaries. Describing the battle against the natives of Acajutla (El Salvador), Alvarado writes: "I commanded a retreat of all my people, that we were 100 horse and 150 foot and another five or six thousand Indian friends." He does not specify whether the "Indian friends" hailed from Central Mexico or whether they had been recruited from indigenous communities in Guatemala. Colonial historian Fernando Alva Ixtlilxochitl writes that "there were no more than seven thousand Mexicans [Mexicas] and Texcocans ... and another thousand Cuauhtemalan [Guatemalans] present at that battle." His account stands in stark contrast to the oft-repeated number of three hundred native auxiliaries. He also writes that "twenty thousand warriors, very expert in warfare and of the coastal lands" were sent by the Nahua rulers Cuauhtémoc and Ixtlilxochitl to accompany Alvarado. Writing much later and using Alva Ixtlilxochitl and other sources, Bancroft puts the number of native auxiliaries at over 20,000. Francisco Fernández del Castillo postulates that a high number of native auxiliaries was quite probable because "always the Spanish went along with many Indians" and because "three hundred Indians would be an insignificant help for an expedition of importance." The evidence thus weighs in favor of a large number of native auxiliaries accompanying the Alvarado expedition more than it does for a small force.

In addition to natives and Europeans, people of other ethnic groups participated in the venture. Blacks, whether slave or free, also likely accompanied the Alvarado expedition. Indeed, in nearly all the territories invaded by Spaniards, Blacks and mulattos, usually slaves but also free individuals, accompanied the first arrivals and played a small but not insignificant military roles. At least one Black slave accompanied Cristóbal de Olid's campaign in Honduras. Given that conquest expeditions often incorporated Africans, it appears that Africans likely also accompanied Alvarado. Whether or not Blacks accompanied the first Europeans, they would soon come to play an important role in colonial society.

A multitude of distinct ethnic groups came together in Santiago. This confluence of cultures included Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, natives of the Uto-Aztecan- and Mayan-language families, and, conceivably, at least, some Africans. The meeting of cultures was anything but peaceful. Expecting an easy victory, the Europeans found the going much tougher than anticipated, in part because natives such as the Cakchiqueles quickly adapted to Spanish tactics. They took to ambushing, digging pits as traps for horses, and putting up sharp stakes to impede the cavalry and the European infantry as well. Díaz del Castillo contemptuously writes that "in this province of Guatemala the Indians were not warriors because they waited in crevices." Among the many wounded, Alvarado himself suffered a near-fatal lesion that left him with a permanent limp. Tragically, thousands of natives perished in the violent confrontations.

Immediately after their arrival, Spaniards began the process of founding a permanent settlement. Despite their efforts, initially, the city of Santiago did not have a fixed site. Its location changed as a result of natural and military factors. The first Spanish city in Guatemala--if one can call it that, since it most resembled an armed camp--was named Santiago and located at the Cakchiquel city of Iximché in 1524. It lasted only a short time; the chronicler Francisco Ximénez refers to the settlement as a "portable city." Furthermore, Ximénez further identifies the housing in the settlement as shacks made of branches and straw.

The Cakchiqueles soon rebelled against Spanish rule. Sometime later about fifty Spanish mutineers fled. In explaining his choice of Iximché, Alvarado wrote that he "made and built a city of Spaniards that is called Lord Santiago because here it is in the center of all the land." Three years later, in the more welcoming area of Almolonga, Santiago again came into existence, and following well-established patterns, a native settlement served as the foundation.

Luck conspired against the Spaniards, and the second city suffered near complete destruction from earthquakes, flood, and fire, forcing a third relocation, in 1541, this time to the Valley of Panchoy. The third location proved far more stable and, in recognition of its importance, the Audiencia was moved in 1549 from Gracias a Dios (Honduras), where it had been founded in 1544, to Santiago. Except for a seven-year interruption from 1563 to 1570, Santiago remained Central America's colonial capital until a disastrous earthquake forced yet another relocation in the late eighteenth century.

Important for the development of Santiago, the Audiencia de Guatemala constituted a politically separate entity from New Spain. Guatemala stood apart from that viceroyalty and had its own governorand high court.

Designed along classic Iberian lines, Santiago followed the near ubiquitous traza model characteristic of Spanish American urban centers. But Santiago's traza veered from rigidly straight lines to accommodate the unplanned demands of urban growth. Rather than growing as a strictly planned city, Santiago expanded almost haphazardly as the population grew and acquired land in the center and the surrounding areas. By the mid-sixteenth century Santiago consisted of eight. Exactly when the wards came into existence remains vague, but all eight contained multiethnic populations.

Following a deeply ingrained tradition that sought to provide a mantle of sacred protection over settlements and honor patron saints and Christian symbols, inhabitants used religious names to identify their wards.

With the exceptions of Santa Cruz and La Merced, which were named after powerful religious symbols, Santiago's early wards bore the names of saints: San Antonio, Santo Domingo, San Francisco, San Gerónimo, Santiago, and Santa Lucia del Espíritu Santo. The city took on the name of the most important saint while the barrios, with the exception of the one named after Santiago, adopted the names of other saints. Santiago's inhabitants did not choose names randomly; rather, they adopted a sacred name to create a protective spiritual barrier around their city. To its European residents, Santiago, then, much like any other Spanish city, represented Christian stability from whence emanated order and domination of the largely indigenous countryside.

Once established and properly named, Santiago and its barrios grew into a vibrant center for regional commerce. Unlike elsewhere in Spanish America, such as in Peru, Guatemala held little mineral wealth; Europeans were forced to rely on other commodities. Initially, native slaves, and later the export of agrarian goods, mainly cacao and cattle hides, allowed Santiago to grow into a vigorous entrepôt.

With this wealth, Spaniards, with the invaluable help of natives and African slaves, built a city that any European of the period would have found familiar. By the 1570s even such expensive and relatively rare possessions as books were available. Other Spanish cultural accoutrements such as wine, olive oil, textiles (chief among them Dutch laces and, later, Chinese silks) could easily be found in the city. All manner of clothing--at first imported and later locally made by highly trained artisans--appeared for sale throughout the city's shops and neighborhood markets. Natives could find in Santiago goods important to them, like cacao and Mixtec textiles. And although they were far less numerous, Blacks also participated in the city's economy either as laborers or as purchasers of goods. In short, life in the city revolved around commerce.

The exact size of early Santiago's population remains obscure. Constantly changing modes of counting individuals and shifting ethnic categories further complicate the issue. The inexact records that have survived suggest that roughly five hundred European vecinos lived in Santiago toward the end of the sixteenth century. Of course, that number excludes a large segment of the population, including other Europeans who went by different labels such as residente and morador.

Less numerous were Black slaves. I examined documents related to place of origin and dated 1544-1587 and have tallied a total of 249 Black slaves, with males outnumbering females. Santiago's native residents perhaps totaled into the thousands. Early Santiago's total population likely did not consist of more than eight thousand, for even in the midseventeenth century the population numbered less than that figure. Despite its size, Santiago still outranked humbler neighboring communities such as San Salvador. Its size combined with its political and economic position made Santiago the dominant urban area in Central America throughout the colonial period.


Sixteenth-century Santiago possessed at once unique and shared traits with other early Spanish American areas. Unlike its contemporaries, namely, Mexico and Peru, it developed largely from the export of agricultural and not mineral products. Whether indigenous, like cacao, or introduced, likewheat, agricultural products drove Santiago's growth and contributed to its economic health. Agriculture also served as impetus for the growth of the surrounding region.

In other ways, especially in its multiethnic makeup, Santiago also little resembled cities with more homogeneous populations. Santiago's population consisted of native, Spanish, and African groups. People from a host of distinct groups, some from as far away as Central Mexico, made up Santiago's indigenous populations. A large number of Europeans and Africans from different ethnic and cultural groups also traveled to Santiago; some moved to other areas, but others stayed to form part of the city's permanent population. The city's multicultural sectors coalesced into an amalgamated population with cultural elements from nearly all the major groups that resided in the city.

In other aspects, Santiago was similar to other sixteenth-century Spanish American areas. Coerced native labor formed the foundation of the city's workforce. The colonial order introduced a new dominant elite in the form of encomenderos. As in other Spanish American cities, a slew of escribanos poured into Santiago to cater to the voracious appetite for documentation of transactions. Materially, the city quickly filled with symbols of civil and ecclesiastical authority, such as the ubiquitous cabildo, churches, and monasteries. Santiago's initially smaller size and the havoc wreaked by countless natural disasters makes the city now resemble, on a smaller scale, colonial urban centers like Mexico City.

The study of Spanish Guatemala has developed in phases: narratives, institutional studies, social histories, and, most recently, ethnohistorical works. The modern histories dealing with sixteenth-century Santiago have been largely confined to the institutional genre. Most of the works produced since the 1970s have dealt with the eighteenth century. The main reasons for this have to do with the notion of an unchanging colovial era, that mechanisms extant in the eighteenth century were much like those functioning during the first one hundred years of the colony. Moreover, some of these works claim that sources do not permit a thorough study of all segments of early Santiago's multiethnic society. Thus studies of sixteenth-century Santiago have overwhelmingly focused on Spanish institutions and, to a lesser extent, on indigenous corporations.

Spanish Guatemala has also suffered from the "fringe phenomenon." Historians (and other scholars) have traditionally paid greater heed to areas such as Mexico and Peru. In a way, they have mirrored colonial society, for larger numbers of European immigrants settled in those wealthier regions. Therefore, early Guatemala, and sixteenth-century Central America as a whole, has received relatively little scholarly attention. Consequently, the corpus of scholarly works dealing with early Santiago is not as large as that which treats areas such as Mexico. Nonetheless, these works provide an important foundation on which to build. While primary sources form the core of this book, I could not have written it without the noteworthy scholarly studies that came before it.

Bancroft wrote perhaps the best-known narrative of the region. He mostly glorifies the conquerors, but his detailed account of how conquest ventures unfolded remains useful. The sources he used, the writings of the conquerors themselves, contributed to his interpreting the Spaniards' arrival as a positive influence on the area's natives. The popularity of grand narratives has waned in recent years, but works of this genre continue to be produced. Narrative works, such as those written by Oakah L. Jones, provide a good single source for those wishing to quickly access information on major events.

Among the earliest institutional histories of the region are works by Silvio Zavala and Jorge Luján Muñoz. Both historians employ a combination of sources; not relying solely on chroniclers or a limited amount of archival research in Seville, they incorporate documents found in local archives as well. Severo Martinez Peláez' work also falls into the institutional genre, although he does discuss different ethnic groups. Martinez Peláez' work has turned into an institution itself. It is required reading for legions of Guatemalan university students, and his interpretation of colonial society has conditioned the thinking of Guatemalan historians like no other modern work. In later years, he followed William B. Taylor's lead in the study of indigenous revolts. A number of significant institutional works dealing with colonial Guatemala were produced as a result of the Quincentennial. Perhaps the most notable of these is the compendium edited by Mario Monteforte Toledo.

The importance of encomiendas and the impact of encomenderos on early Santiago's formation mandated in-depth studies of the two topics. William L. Sherman studied the impact of encomiendas on the native population, while Murdo MacLeod undertook a systematic and meticulous cataloging of some of the region's encomenderos." Yet the process of the allocation of encomiendas as well as a prosopographical study of encomenderos was not undertaken until very recently. Salvador Rodríguez Becerra was among the first to study how powerful locals such as Pedro de Alvarado doled out encomiendas. Later, Wendy Kramer made masterly and innovative use of probanzas de méritos (testimonials of merit), revealing important information about the rivalries among Spaniards caused by the desire to acquire encomiendas. Her monograph also clarifies the chronology of conquest events and provides a fresh interpretation of the role of family and friendship links in the process of acquiring encomiendas.

In the 1970s scholars working on Guatemala began to move away from purely institutional works. MacLeod deserves much credit for moving the field in the direction of social history." While still somewhat institutional in orientation, his Spanish Central America illuminates important aspects of the region's Spanish and indigenous societies. An entire generation of historians has built on MacLeod's work.

Christopher H. Lutz also made a major contribution to the field with his social and demographic studies of colonial Santiago. Lutz' works reveal valuable information about the ethnic makeup of Santiago and how it changed over time.

Other scholars, like Pilar Sánchiz Ochoa, have studied the roots of the supposed early rivalry between Spaniards and criollos. She has also done significant work on the interethnic relations between natives and Spaniards.

Santiago's cabildo and the close ties that merchants had with that institution have received attention from both José Francisco de la Peña and Stephen Webre. It is noteworthy that while Peña's study predates Webre's by a number of years, both conclude that few impediments existed to merchants serving on Santiago's cabildo. Webre's interests have proved wide-ranging and fruitful; his studies of such diverse topics as the Spaniard-criollo dichotomy and potable water in Santiago have contributed to a better understanding of the colony.

The indigenous population has also received scholarly attention, though the majority of the works treat the precolonial and contemporary eras. Only recently has a sustained effort begun to study native peoples during the colonial period. In the main, anthropologists and not historians have been responsible for this change.

This aspect of the field can be divided into two strands: one that relies solely on Spanish-language sources, and another that uses documents in native languages (in addition to Spanish sources). Indigenous-language documents allow the understanding of the internal working of native communities. Yet the fact that a large corpus of native language sources has yet to be located mandates reliance on at least some Spanish-language documents.

Scholars studying natives during the colonial period and relying mainly on Spanish-language documents have produced many important studies. These individuals tend to be trained historians (though geographers have also played an important role). Sherman's work on native slavery (and other forms of labor) represents a great advance in the understanding of how Spaniards exploited indigenous workers in Central Americas. His work remains unsurpassed in its scope and subject matter. The geographer W. George Lovell has also done significant work on Guatemala's natives. He demonstrates a keen understanding of the subtleties of native-Spanish relations. Francisco de Solano and Elfas Zamora Acosta have also undertaken important scholarly work on the area. Solano stands out for his keen ability to extract much information from a seemingly small corpus of documents. Zamora uses a wider range of sources, and therefore his work tends to cover a larger geographic spheres. The important volume edited by Carol A. Smith contains works from historical and anthropological perspectives. Especially notable is the essay by Lutz and Lovell that traces the divide between indigenous highland and mestizo lowlands.

Only recently have scholars working on colonial Guatemala begun to mine indigenous-language sources. Among the first was Adrián Recinos. His main concern lay in the translation and annotation of indigenous-language documents. The anthropologist Robert M. Carmack pioneered the ethnohistorical use of colonial documents written in Quiché. He ably culls important information on Quiché settlement patterns from his sources. Robert M. Hill and John Monaghan, perhaps as a result of influence from Carmack and other prominent scholars working with native-language sources (mainly concerning the indigenous peoples of Mexico), have produced histories largely based on this type of material. Hill, especially, has done pioneering work with documents written in Cakchiquel.

The paucity of substantive studies on Santiago's early African population mandates increased reliance on works undertaken for other regions. Consequently, the works of Frederick P Bowser, James Lockhart, and Colin Palmer have proved quite useful. For the colonial period, a new generation of scholars has skillfully taken on the challenge. Catherine Komisaruk's dissertation analyzes the rise of Santiago's burgeoning Black population during the late colonial period. Paul Lokken's dissertation on Blacks and miscegenation straddles the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and uncovers crucial aspects of the changes within Santiago's Black population. Both works are essential reading for those seeking to better understand the rise and growth of the city's free and enslaved Black population.


This book focuses primarily on the nonencomendero and nonecclesiastical populations of Santiago de Guatemala and neighboring areas. While encomenderos do appear throughout the text due to their economic and social importance, they do not condition the narrative. I exclude them in part because they have received attention elsewhere and also because too much has been made of their role in shaping Santiago's early society. I have also excluded ecclesiastics, because, while they operated in society much as anyone else, a discussion of them would have detracted from the main thrust of the book: the growth of Santiago's popular sectors. I discuss all ethnic groups at length, allowing for a fuller picture of the interethnic interaction in colonial society. I discuss Santiago's Black population with equal emphasis on the roles of both women and men of African descent. I also consider natives, both those living in Santiago and those in surrounding communities. Using information I found in thousands of Spanish-language documents in local and international archives and libraries, I write about the years between 1538 to 1594. The book begins when Santiago's economy started to grow rapidly and ends when the city faced a major economic crisis after the decline of the export of cacao and indigo. The chronology covers two generations, those who accompanied Alvarado's expedition and those who knew no other home but Santiago. The book sheds light on the change in attitudes, the absorption of native culture by Europeans and of European cultural elements by natives, the rise of miscegenated populations, the growth of Santiago into a trade center that dominated the surrounding region, and the consolidation of the colonial society that expanded outward from Santiago.

Throughout the book, where appropriate, I reference comparisons with other areas of Spanish America. I must emphasize, however, that this book is not a comparative history of Santiago and other areas. I have endeavored to keep comparisons to a minimum, making them only when they serve to better explain the unique and the shared in Santiago. Comparisons also appear in cases where they reinforce local patterns.

This book mostly follows the corporate divisions that existed in early Santiago. Chapter Two and Chapter Nine deviate from the pattern, however. The use of credit proved so ubiquitous and the growth of Santiago into a regional center so essential to understanding local society that the two themes warranted their own chapters. Likewise, social organization of native people formed the heart of Santiago's physical layout, and native communities made possible Santiago's growth, necessitating a chapter dedicated to these themes.

The book clarifies previously poorly understood elements of Santiago's social, economic, and cultural history. In so doing, it presents fresh and controversial interpretations. The voices of the people who at one time harvested wheat, sold goods from shops, tended to the sick, and drafted legal documents come through. They are voices that for too long have been silenced." My hope is that the reader not only will get a better understanding of the technical aspects of sixteenth-century Santiago and indigenous settlements, but will also empathize with peoples with whom they share more similarities than differences. The peoples of Santiago loved their children, they coped as best they could with sometimes brutal circumstances, and they created strategies to deal with situations that no one could have foreseen. The book covers not only Santiago's complex interrelated groups but also natives living in their indigenous communities. It discusses diverse groups among them the humble, the enslaved, the university trained. In so doing it offers a window into the world of a sixteenth-century regional center and, more important, it resurrects a forgotten history.



“This certainly is a pioneering and original work . . . [that] in many ways stands alone. . . . The author’s documentary and archival support base is massive. I find his arguments convincing and well based.”
Murdo J. MacLeod, Graduate Research Professor of History, University of Florida


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