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Africans in Colonial Mexico

Absolutism, Christianity, and Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640

Herman L. Bennett

Publication Year: 2003

"This book charts new directions in thinking about the construction of new world identities.... The way in which [Bennett] integrates race, gender, and the tension between canon and secular law into his analysis will inspire re-examination of earlier studies of marriage in Latin America and the Caribbean." -- Judith A. Byfield

Colonial Mexico was home to the largest population of free and slave Africans in the New World. Africans in Colonial Mexico explores how they learned to make their way in a culture of Spanish and Roman Catholic absolutism by using the legal institutions of church and state to create a semblance of cultural autonomy. From secular and ecclesiastical court records, Bennett reconstructs the lives of slave and free blacks, their regulation by the government and by the Church, the impact of the Inquisition, their legal status in marriage, and their rights and obligations as Christian subjects. His findings demonstrate the malleable nature of African identities in the Atlantic world, as well as the ability of Africans to deploy their own psychological resources to survive displacement and oppression.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Blacks in the Diaspora

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pp. ix-x

This book began with what I thought were two simple but related questions: In what ways did Catholicism shape the African experience in colonial Mexico? and Why did Spaniards subject Africans and their New World descendants to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition? In seeking to answer these questions I have incurred numerous debts that I happily acknowledge. Friends who have shaped...

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Introduction: Africans, Absolutism, and Archives

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pp. 1-13

In 1640, the year the Portuguese slave trade to Spanish America ended, the Kingdom of New Spain (colonial Mexico) contained the second-largest population of enslaved Africans and the greatest number of free blacks in the Americas.2 In little more than a century following the successful expedition of Hernando Cortés against the Mexica (1519–1521), the Spaniards...

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1: Soiled Gods and the Formation of a Slave Society

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pp. 14-32

New World slavery was ostensibly, but not exclusively, rooted in agricultural production. Slaves spent their lives toiling on estates—haciendas, engenhos, and plantations—cultivating cash crops.2 In most regions of the Americas, slave labor also contributed substantial foodstuffs (cereal, grains, fruits, vegetables, and livestock) to subsistence,

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2: “The Grand Remedy”: Africans and Christian Conjugality

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pp. 33-50

Slaves posed numerous problems for masters intent on defining them solely as chattel. In their epic struggle, masters and slaves repeatedly clashed while attempting to impose their respective visions of slavery. As persons, slaves limited the extent to which masters could classify them as property. Slaves had to be made and constantly refashioned. Yet in the Spanish New World,...

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3: Policing Christians: Persons of African Descent before the Inquisition and Ecclesiastical Courts

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pp. 51-78

In keeping with the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and at the behest of Charles V and Philip II, New Spain’s secular clergy manifested greater vigilance over the laity during the second half of the sixteenth century.3 As the Old World population in the Indies expanded due to voluntary and involuntary migration, royal and ecclesiastical offcials called for greater discipline...

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4: Christian Matrimony and the Boundaries of African Self-Fashioning

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pp. 79-125

In 1584, an exceptionally dark black man entered the Sagrario, a parish church adjacent to Mexico City’s cathedral, and, in the presence of his small entourage, petitioned the ecclesiastical scribe for a marriage license. In voicing his request, the self-identified black man, Francisco, simultaneously proclaimed his nationality and Christian sensibility...

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5: Between Property and Person: Jurisdictional Conflicts over Marriage

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pp. 126-153

On April 2, 1579, the ecclesiastical judge and vicar general of New Spain’s archdiocese, Dr. Don Sancho Sánchez de Muñon, received a petition from Antón, an enslaved black man who resided in Mexico City with his owner, Alonso de Estrada. In his petition, Antón noted that several years previously he had married Inés, an enslaved black woman in “the Holy Mother Church.”...

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6: Creoles and Christian Narratives

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pp. 154-191

After mass on March 6, 1575, inquisition offcials in Mexico City escorted thirty-one penitents—wearing sanbenitos, with candles in hand, nooses around their necks, and paper coronets on their heads—from the Franciscan chapel of San José.3 Outside, the tribunal’s alguacil and his deputies stripped the twenty-four men and seven women of their shirts and then placed them on...

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pp. 192-194

A different historical perspective emerges when we acknowledge that Christian absolutism shaped New Spain’s African presence. Slavery—as a juridical status and way to discipline labor—simply did not constitute the full extent of the African experience. At the height of the slave trade in Mexico, Africans and their New World progeny wielded diverse identities juridically based in the...


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pp. 195-196


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pp. 197-251

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 253-272


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pp. 273-275

E-ISBN-13: 9780253109859
E-ISBN-10: 025310985X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253342362

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 5 figures, 3 maps, 1 bibliog., 1 index
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: Blacks in the Diaspora