- Forced Migration in the Spanish Pacific World: From Mexico to the Philippines, 1765–1811 by Eva Maria Mehl
Study of the Iberian Pacific, connecting the histories of colonial Latin America and East Asia, has recently become a burgeoning field. Scholars are looking beyond the perennial themes of transpacific commerce to trace the circulations and impacts of migrants whose lives connected both sides of the Pacific Ocean, including slaves, merchants, missionaries and bureaucrats. In this work, Mehl brings another group of migrants into the picture: military recruits. Between 1765 and 1811, viceregal authorities dispatched roughly 4000 recruits from Mexico to the Philippines.
Many of these soldiers were forcibly recruited, either as convicts or as transients caught in the sweep of anti-vagrancy campaigns in the cities of New Spain. Mehl places this history of forced recruitment in the context of two strong threads in the social history of late Bourbon Mexico: Spanish military strategies in the Philippines, and the global history of convict labor in the early modern period. Mehl also contextualizes the transpacific deployment of forced recruits in the broader history of the Iberian Pacific. The Mexican viceroyalty had played a pivotal military role in the defense of Spanish interests in the Philippines since the late sixteenth century, deploying thousands of soldiers—many of them convicts—to fight on its frontiers and erect its forts. These connections, Mehl argues, changed and intensified in the second half of the eighteenth century.
The aftermath of the British occupation of Havana from 1762 to 1764 was a wakeup call for Spanish defensive strategies in the Philippines, and colonial authorities in the archipelago consequently sought a reliable supply of soldiers and laborers from New Spain. These strategic demands in the Philippines fit well with the expanding supply of potential Mexican recruits, which was made possible by changing policies toward the urban poor in New Spain. Thus, Mehl not only connects New Spain and the Philippines a generation before the Mexican Wars of Independence, but she also brings into relation two vital aspects of the Bourbon Reforms that heretofore have largely been examined separately in Spanish imperial history: imperial defense and social reforms.
Mehl places vagrants at the center of this intersection between Bourbon military and social policies. Whereas previous forced recruitment campaigns had focused on deporting convicts and entrapping debtors at gambling houses linked to recruiting offices, Mehl argues that recruitment efforts shifted in the late eighteenth century toward deploying vagrants in Mexican cities. A series of crop failures, as well as advancing capitalist land accumulation in the Mexican countryside, had driven thousands of former peasant farmers to the cities. Between 1784 and 1787, for example, 40,000 migrants arrived in Mexico City to seek relief (125). The rising number of rural poor in the cities drove colonial authorities in Mexico to expand their definition of vagrancy, making thousands of "idle" migrants vulnerable to arrest.
Authorities in New Spain associated vagrants with criminality, unproductivity, and poverty, but Mehl cautions here that the actions against migrants did not stem solely from a top-down use of power. She notes several dozen cases in which families requested the deportation of unruly sons. Such episodes, Mehl argues, demonstrate [End Page 406] that popular classes participated in elite discourses and policies. Beginning in 1786, Mexican authorities began to deport convicted vagrants and rejected family members as part of their annual levies to support the far-flung defenses of the Spanish forces in the Philippines. For the 300 men who suffered this fate, their lot only worsened when they arrived at their destination, for Spanish authorities in Manila only accused them of bringing their social troubles with them to Asia. The same accusations of gambling, idleness, vagrancy, and crime that had beset them in Mexico now cast them as threats to the delicate balance of power in the archipelago.
Mehl's study is to be commended for connecting the domestic troubles of New Spain to the strategic challenges of Spanish imperialism...