The Americas 59.1 (2002) 118-119
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Ben Vinson III's work on the internal functioning and social role of colonial Mexico's free-colored soldiers impresses in many ways. First, it challenges conventional wisdom, which has long considered the unexpected loss of Havana to England in 1762 a turning point in New Spain's military affairs because it prompted the Spanish Bourbons to rapidly expand their overseas colonial militia. Vinson demonstrates that the free-colored militia, which first came into being in the mid-1500s and remained operational until the dawn of the nineteenth century, rendered valuable military services to the Spanish Crown that proved wrong those who considered it an "untrained [and] undisciplined" force (p. 223). More importantly, Vinson argues that the militia's duties allowed free-colored soldiers to become important public actors who not only mediated land claims and influenced local politics, but also nurtured a sense of corporate-based racial identity and successfully transformed the social meaning of blackness.
Vinson first traces the evolution of the free-colored militia. The two most common types of units were independent free-colored and racially integrated companies; a third, less general type of corps, consisted of militias in former maroon communities. He also differentiates among the units' theaters of service; independent free-colored corps generally operated in New Spain's cities, while coastal rural towns were the main home of integrated units. In addition, Vinson explains how conditions of duty changed for free-colored militiamen, with the critical epoch being the 1670s-1760s. During that time large-scale mobilizations, together with the increased regularization of daily responsibilities, transformed militia service into a routine endeavor and provided troops with significant internal autonomy.
The author next addresses the free-colored militia's structural organization. He again notes a number of differences between units in urban locales and those in rural areas. Corps in Mexico City and Puebla, for instance, more fully implemented Spanish organizational models (first the tercio and later the regiment system), and also had a bigger and more varied range of officer grades. Vinson then details officer career trajectories and concludes that strategic conditions in cities like Antequera and Veracruz allowed well-qualified free-colored blacks to rise through the ranks. His examination of militia finances and salaries, on the other hand, suggests that such earnings did not necessarily alter the lives of most militiamen. [End Page 118]
Vinson subsequently analyzes recruitment procedures, as well as occupational and marriage patterns, to determine the effects, if any, of militia service on social mobility. Although service in urban militia units could enhance the social image of free-colored blacks vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts, it did not necessarily improve a soldier's job opportunities. Vinson also notes that militia service in cities might broaden a free-colored soldier's choice of brides, but that such prospects did not result in a successful whitening strategy. Militiamen in rural areas found their choices even more limited, as neither military service nor intermarriage with whites proved to be reliable vehicles for class advancement.
Militia service, however, allowed the free-colored militia to ease the stigma associated with color. Vinson demonstrates that free-colored blacks used their corporate status to claim privileges such as tribute relief based on their pardo, moreno, or mulatto status, and in so doing demonstrated an unprecedented level of "racial confidence and awareness" (p. 165). Such racial self-assurance, however, did not always emerge when civilian authorities challenged the soldiers' fuero privileges. Those confrontations only took on a clear-cut racial significance when fuero rights were flagrantly abused, a situation that was more prevalent in rural settings.
In conclusion, this authoritative, thoroughly analyzed, and well-researched volume offers many other revealing insights about the free-colored militia. The volume is further endowed with thirty-six tables, an index, endnotes, and an appendix with twelve tables. Although non...