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  • Counting Heads: Race and Non-Native Tribute Policy in Colonial Spanish America
  • Cynthia Milton and Ben Vinson* III

The legitimate children of indios with Spanish or mestiza women just as the natural children of Indian women, no matter that their fathers were or are Spanish, and the sons of free blacks, zambos, or zambaygos with Indian women, whether legitimate, natural or espurios [children of adulterous unions], and equally the sons of blacks with Indian women even if their fathers are slaves, should satisfy the Royal Tribute.

Providencia of the Junta of the Royal Treasury, 1787.1


When the Accountant General of Royal Tribute presented the above provision in 1787, it was unclear precisely who was supposed to pay royal tribute. Conceived originally as an indigenous levy of specie and labor, soon after its initial implementation tribute extraction spread to other population groups. However, no singular law had emerged stating exactly who was to pay and who was not. The interpretation and application of tribute laws could vary by region, situational circumstances, and even according to the individual personalities and agendas of colonial officials. As a result, certain aspects of tribute policy remained muddled and seemingly random throughout much of the colonial era.

Nevertheless, tribute represented a centerpiece of Spanish colonialism. It helped define economic and social relations. Despite its centrality, many of the important non-economic functions that tribute fulfilled greatly diminished its overall cohesion as a colonial institution. On the one hand, tribute contributed towards establishing the boundaries of racial station within colonial society. On the other, tribute policy was entwined with, and helped manage, colonial notions of illegitimacy and gender. Because race and gender proved to be slippery categories in colonial Spanish America, attempts at articulating and enforcing a coherent tribute policy grew strained. Colonial subjects simply found plenty of room to maneuver. They could evade tribute by seeking exemptions based on racial privilege, or they could obscure their own racial statuses through tested methods of “passing.” In sum, colonial Spanish tribute policy both reified and loosened racial identities.

That tribute concretely defined “Indian” status in the Spanish realm has been well studied elsewhere; but how tribute served to inform the status of other racial categories remains a relatively unexplored topic.2 This essay focuses on the evolution of tribute policy towards non-native peoples, targeting principally African-based and mestizo populations. Specific attention is paid towards the gendered and racial aspects of collection and evasion. In an effort to stimulate future research, as well as to pull together much of the existing literature on non-native tribute, certain aspects of this essay offer a meditation on the meaning of colonialism, exploring the fringes and boundaries of colonial racial policy through economic lenses.

Beginnings of the Tribute System

From Columbus to Cortes, from Pizarro to De Soto, the early Spanish explorers and settlers in the Americas appeared singularly fixated with finding the easiest and quickest means of extracting wealth from the New World. As is well documented in the historical record, the tremendous vitality of the Aztec and Inca empires meant that once Spanish forces landed on the mainland, there would be plenty of spoils for the victors to share, at least initially. As those sources dried up, the discovery of silver in Mexico (1530–46) and Peru (1538–45) sustained the wealth extraction model of colonial development, as silver mines began to emerge on the colonial landscape.3 At the same time, the Spanish conquerors found themselves in the advantageous position of being able to appropriate pre-existing indigenous tax structures, labor drafts, trade networks, and tributary systems to enhance their revenue.

Tribute collection in particular represented a prominent feature of the colonial revenue stream. In the region surrounding Mexico City alone, tribute revenues peaked at over 450,000 pesos per year during the sixteenth century, while eighteenth century revenues consistently averaged over 200,000 pesos.4 These were considerable sums. Although the income could not begin to keep pace with the millions generated in mining, it was still sufficient to pay large portions of Mexico’s colonial administrative salaries in the late seventeenth century. Francisco de Seijas y Lobera’s detailed study of the colonial...

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