Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva. Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico: Puebla de los Ángeles, 1531-1706. Cambridge Latin American Studies Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xvii + 226 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-41981-9; $39.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-41218-6.
Reviewed by Miguel Valerio (Washington University)
Published on H-LatAm (February, 2019)
Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)
Beginning with the pioneering work of Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán in the 1940s, colonial Afro-Mexicans have received a great deal of academic attention, perhaps second only to the attention colonial Afro-Brazilians naturally receive (Herman L. Bennett, Joan Cameron Bristol, Patrick J. Carroll, Nicole von Germeten, Colin Palmer, Frank T. Proctor III, and Ben Vinson III, to name a few exemplary Afro-Mexicanists). Yet this scholarship has mainly focused on Veracruz, New Spain’s main port of entry, and the viceroyalty’s capital, Mexico City. Thus, Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva’s Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico is a much-needed addition to this scholarship, for Puebla was New Spain’s second largest city and sometimes Mexico City’s rival, as well as seat to the viceroyalty’s wealthiest and therefore most powerful diocese, whose most famous bishop, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza (r. 1640-55), successfully campaigned to remove a viceroy, the Duke of Escalona. Similar to Mexico City (see Colin A. Palmer, Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650 ), Puebla’s enslaved black population reached close to, if not surpassed, twenty thousand in the mid-seventeenth century, the era that serves as the focus of most of Sierra Silva’s book (p. 108). As Sierra Silva rightly asserts, Puebla—ironically, for the city was founded to be a free city (see chapter 1)—was home to New Spain’s second largest slave market. Urban Slavery also adds to the growing scholarship on the colonial urban black experience (Bennett [Mexico City], Germeten [Mexico City], and Tamara J. Walker [Lima], to cite just three—and not to mention the plethora of work about the black experience in Brazil’s colonial urban centers). This well-written and exhaustively researched book, then, expands the scholarship about colonial Afro-Mexicans beyond the traditional geographic focus of Veracruz and Mexico City and contributes to the growing bibliography on the black experience in colonial Latin American lettered cities. The letter here is important because it is through the written word, particularly notarial records, that the transactions—mostly slave sales—discussed in the book, especially the first four chapters, is studied.
Though not demarcated as such, the book can be divided into two parts. The first part, which would comprise chapters 1 through 4, focuses on slave markets and labor. The second part, chapters 5 and 6, centers on enslaved Afro-Poblanos’ lived experience. Chapter 1 concentrates on Puebla’s transformation from its founding as a free city to an urban center highly dependent on slave labor. Chapter 2 studies slave labor in Puebla’s textile mills (obrajes) and, more important, documents the transition from an enslaved indigenous labor force to an African one, as natives’ 1542 emancipation was progressively enforced. The book also dwells on enslaved Asians in Puebla throughout but Afro-Poblanos fill its bulk. While obrajes mainly used male slaves, the city’s many convents used enslaved female Afro-Poblanas, as shown in chapter 3. Along with chapter 2, this chapter underscores a division of labor along gender lines: enslaved (male) Afro-Poblanos in the obrajes produced textiles, while enslaved (female) Afro-Poblanas in the convents washed, cleaned, and cooked for the city’s many cloistered women. Chapter 4, the book’s longest, studies Puebla’s slave market. While Puebla has not featured prominently in studies of slave markets, this chapter stresses its breadth: Puebla participated actively in the intra-Caribbean trade and Portuguese traders were a permanent presence in the city until 1640, when Portugal broke away from Spain. Such was the demand for African slaves in Puebla that Veracruz’s port of entry was moved a few miles south so that a road to transport slaves directly to Puebla, bypassing Mexico City, could be built. This road made transporting slaves to Puebla cheaper and underlines how slavery affected infrastructure. The chapter also identifies the place of origin of most slaves sold in Puebla, with Angolans and Kongolians making up 61 percent (p. 130). I was surprised to learn that most Africans sold in Puebla were young boys in their teens. This age range is significant because it is younger than what is normally assumed in the scholarship (see, for example, Sowande M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage ). This means that Africans were violently uprooted from their lives at a younger age than is generally thought. This could open new avenues of research into the implications of being violently removed from a community at this age. For example, did the enslaved celebrate their rites of passage before capture? This chapter also challenges the claim that in New Spain, “African slaves were used primarily for mining,” sustaining instead that the urban slave population surpassed the slave mining population of the north (p. 111).
Chapter 5 focuses on how hired-out enslaved Afro-Poblanos used that mobility to maintain wide social networks. This mobility in turn “rooted enslaved people in the social fabric” and thereby discouraged flight (p. 145). This chapter thus focuses on the largest portion of Puebla’s enslaved Afro-Mexicans, as domestic (female) slaves and (male) enslaved journeymen outnumbered Afro-Poblanos in the obrajes and convents combined. Chapter 6 focuses on the marketplace as the locus where (in this case, enslaved and free[d]) Afro-Poblanos’ social, economic, and familial bonds were more evident. As in any colonial Latin American urban space, the plaza, which functioned as a site of administrative, social, and commercial activity, was the node of these networks. Unlike the slave market, which was dominated by the merchant class, the public marketplace/plaza was a “plebian” space where Poblanos of diverse backgrounds mingled, resulting in many interethnic relationships. These two chapters, then, accentuate “the diverse strategies by which people of African descent constructed community” in colonial Puebla in particular and colonial Latin America in general (we could even include other Afro-diasporic contexts here) (p. 145).
The book’s strength lies in its case-by-case analysis, providing innumerable examples of enslaved Afro-Poblanos’ experiences, yet this analysis is more quantitative, giving us a global picture of the staggering volume of the slave trade into Puebla. The focus on the institution of slavery also risks erasing free(d) Afro-Poblanos’ experiences, mobility, social networks, and agency. Did enslaved Afro-Poblanos outnumber the free(d) or vice versa? What percentage of Afro-Poblanos were free(d)? Nonetheless, Sierra Silva’s book remains an excellent first investigation into colonial Afro-Poblanos’ lives and Puebla’s place in the broader African diaspora as New Spain’s second largest slave market (if not society) and home to the viceroyalty’s second largest Afro-Mexican population, enslaved and free(d). As a study of the colonial urban black experience, the book shows continuities across geographies while highlighting important differences. Compared to Mexico City (see Palmer, for example) and Lima (see Walker, Exquisite Slaves: Race, Clothing, and Status in Colonial Lima , for example), Afro-Poblanos seem to have been less harassed by colonial policing authorities and hardly ever suspected of conspiring to seek their freedom by forceful means. In other words, enslaved Afro-Poblanos, especially outside the obrajes and convents, seem to have enjoyed more liberties than their urban counterparts elsewhere. Thus a final question remains: does the book make an argument for a benign form of slavery? Chapter 2 answers that question by underscoring that Poblano slaveholders and overseers were capable of the cruelties we have come to associate with slavery.
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Miguel Valerio. Review of Sierra Silva, Pablo Miguel, Urban Slavery in Colonial Mexico: Puebla de los Ángeles, 1531-1706.
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