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  • Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico
  • Timothy E. Anna
Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico. By Ben Vinson III. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2001.

This is one of those rare books that delivers a great deal more than its title appears to promise. It is a study of the role of free-colored men in colonial Mexico’s militia system. “Free-colored” is not a Spanish term, but it refers loosely to all those persons of African descent who were not slaves—mulatos (Afro-Spaniards), pardos (Afro-Indians), and morenos (“pure blacks”)—but also including many other degrees of mixture. In 1793 there were over 370,000 free-colored in colonial Mexico, roughly six percent of the colony’s population. They were geographically concentrated in the central coastal regions, both on the Gulf and on the Pacific, and in some of those areas the free-colored outnumbered whites by as much as ten to one. In these districts, the local militia units formed specifically of free colored attained substantial importance, and had done so since the 1550s, long before the rapid expansion of white militia units in the Bourbon Reforms of the 1760s and after. Indeed, one of Vinson’s arguments is that the Bourbon Reforms brought about a period of crisis and decline for the exclusively colored militia units in favor of new white units. There were also important free-colored militia units in the colony’s two chief cities, Mexico City and Puebla, but in those cities people of color were greatly outnumbered by whites and indigenous.

Vinson uses the institutional history of the free-colored militias as a prism for examining race relations and racial identity in colonial Mexico, and it is in this that the book achieves its real fascination. The argument is that the militia corporate identity served as a superstructure for racial identity because membership in the militia gave enlisted men, especially colored officers, such privileges as exclusion from the colonial tribute levied on all non-whites and, in some locations and at some times, the military fuero, or exemption from civil law courts. These privileges, in turn, provided considerable distinction to the militia members and sometimes to their families and even to their entire communities. But the price of such privilege was high, for joining a pardo or moreno militia automatically meant a man had stamped himself (and his children and descendants) with the irredeemable stain of color in a colonial society entirely organized on class and caste lines.

This makes for an engrossing examination of black lives in colonial Mexico which goes well beyond the merely formulaic or legal, as Vinson enquires into the military careers, marriage choices, livelihoods, and lives of these militiamen, both full time and part time, both volunteer and conscript, from the lowest ranking enlisted men to the (very few) black officers of free-colored units. Notwithstanding their scarcity, it is a sensation to discover that there were some black officers in the mid-colonial era. Vinson makes the free colored of colonial New Spain come alive in a way that has rarely been seen in the historical literature, imbuing them with agency and mature self worth. The extent to which Spanish colonial culture revolved around and reinforced caste distinctions is powerfully clear in this book, and no one who reads it will be able to retain any romanticized view of colonial life. It is a subtle but persuasive revision of colonial society. Vinson uses extensive archival sources as well as a full array of modern scholarly sources. The research is broad, cross-regional, and multidisciplinary. Extensive tables summarize the data and show relevant patterns.

The existence of the fuero in the hands of some people of color was not, in and of itself, what presented a serious threat to the colonial caste system. It was, rather, the interplay of rank, family ties, and internal militia relationships that affected how the fuero worked. The militia was a “definitional aspect of race,” not only implementing caste divisions but helping to set them. And being free-colored was itself a remarkably indistinct thing. As Vinson...

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