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  • Black Belizeans and Fugitive Mayas:Interracial Encounters on the Edge of Empire, 1750–1803
  • Mark W. Lentz (bio)

In 1796, the commander of the Guatemalan presidio of Petén, José de Gálvez, together with its leading prelate and the caciques of the nearby pueblos of San Andrés and San José, registered a formal complaint: an increasing number of runaway black slaves from Belize taking refuge there had been marrying Maya women in their villages. The officials objected to these unions, stating that they did not want “their blood mixed with these newly Christian blacks” and alleged that the asylum seekers took Maya brides in thinly disguised attempts to exploit native female labor.1 The cacique of San Andrés, don Raimundo Chatá, backed by the leading civil and ecclesiastical authorities in a rare moment of unity, advocated the removal of the escaped slaves to a site set aside for blacks on the other side of Lake Petén (see map in Figure 1).2 The result of this proposed policy of segregation was the creation of a “new pueblo for blacks converted to the faith.” By 1800 San José de los Negros (modern-day San Benito) had been established and a short-term injunction on marriage with outsiders, advocated most vocally by Gálvez and Chatá, had been imposed with the approval of the fiscal of the Audiencia of [End Page 645] Guatemala, don Diego de Piloña.3 Located at the western end of Lake Petén, pointedly described as a “rifle shot away from the fort,” this black town remained racially segregated until at least 1825.4

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Figure 1.

Map of the Diocese of Yucatán, Including Parishes Surrounding Lake Petén

Source: Mapa de la parte del Obispado de Yucatan comprendida entre 13 y 19 grados de latitud norte y 281 á 289 de longitud oriental de la Isla del Hierro, 1806, Archivo General de Indias, Mapas y Planos-México, No. 496.

The justification for the segregation and the subsequent relocation of runaway slaves points to a significant shift in frontier posts’ reactions to runaway blacks, who according to royal decrees had the right to refuge on putatively religious grounds. Although the wording of the complaint against the former slaves hearkened back to earlier preoccupations with the “blood purity” of non-Christian [End Page 646] Spaniards, the consensus among Petén’s indigenous, religious, and military leadership regarding the removal of the Belizean runaways derived more from immediate concerns arising from events in the Greater Caribbean than from late medieval concepts linking Jewish or Muslim ancestry to tainted bloodlines. The direst threat to the stability of the Caribbean came from the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), but the expansive English presence in the region also had a major role, bringing hundreds of slaves and freed blacks who resisted enslavement and colonial subjugation. The closest of these sites was Belize. Although uprisings there were rare and flight was much more common, the insurgent tendencies of runaway slaves were cause for alarm. While earlier marriages between castas (colonial subjects of mixed ancestry), often of African descent, were not unheard of, the arrival of unprecedented numbers of runaway slaves, many of them African-born, anglophone, and unbaptized, led the established residents of the presidio to perceive them as a conspicuously alien and potentially disruptive element.5

To persuade their superiors in the Audiencia of Guatemala to agree to a forcible removal of the runaway slaves from the presidio’s Indian and ladino population, Chatá and Gálvez emphasized the slaves’ foreign origins and raised suspicions about the sincerity of the runaway slaves’ conversions.6 In the eighteenth century, slaves were increasingly labeled in terms of national origin, and the cacique and the commander associated the asylum seekers with a rival imperial power, Britain, to undermine the slaves’ own efforts to integrate.7 [End Page 647]

Religion had always played an underappreciated role in colonial identity formation; both Maya and Spanish authorities cast doubt on the depth of the faith of the newly arrived and recently converted slaves. Moreover, Chatá and the other caciques of Petén contrasted the remaining pockets of unconverted...


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