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Afro-Mexican Slave Labor in the Obrajes de Paños of New Spain, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

  • Frank T. Proctor (a1)

On April 5, 1723, Juan Joseph de Porras, a mulatto slave laboring in an obraje de paños (woolen textile mill) near Mexico City, appeared before the Holy Office of the Inquisition for blasphemy. According to the testimony of six slaves, including Porras’ wife, while his co-workers prepared to bed down for the night in the obraje Porras had blasphemed over a beating he had received from the mayordomo (overseer) earlier in the day. Señor Pedregal, the owner of the obraje, testified that Porras was one of nearly thirty workers, all Afro-Mexican slaves or convicts, who lived and labored in his obraje without the freedom to leave.

The case against Juan Joseph de Porras and dozens of others like it in the Mexican archives raise important questions, not only about the makeup of the colonial obraje labor force, but also about the importance of Afro-Mexican slavery in the middle of the colonial period. Was the Pedregal labor force, composed entirely of slaves and convicts, the exception or the rule within obrajes of New Spain? If it was not exceptional, how important were slaves to that obraje and others like it? What exactly was the demographic makeup of the obraje labor force in the middle of the colonial period? And, how might the answers to those questions change our understanding of the histories of labor and slavery in colonial Mexico?

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1 The manufacture of cotton textiles was largely a cottage industry and falls outside the scope of this study.

2 AGN Inq vol. 803 exp 62 fs. 569–73.

3 Palmer Colin A., Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570–1650 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 73 ; Greenleaf Richard E., “The Obraje in the Late Mexican Colony,The Americas 23:3 (1967): 233 ; Grijalva Manuel Miño, La protoindustira colonial Hispanoamericana (México, DF: Colegio de México, 1993), pp. 9698 ; and Simpson Lesley Byrd, Many Mexicos, 4th ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 132.

4 Gibson Charles, The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), p. 245.

5 Palmer , Slaves of the White God, p. 3 ; Carroll Patrick J., Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: Race, Ethnicity, and Regional Development (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), pp. 30–1; and Menard Russell R. and Schwartz Stuart B., “Why African Slavery? Labor Force Transitions in Brazil, Mexico, and the Carolina Lowcountry,” in Slavery in the Americas, ed. Binder Wolfgang (Würzburg, Germany: Königshausen and Neumann, 1993), p. 101.

6 During this period 110,000-150,000 slaves were imported to New Spain, making it the second largest importer of slaves after only Brazil up to that point. See Palmer , Slaves of the White God, pp. 2830.

7 Cook Sherburne F. and Borah Woodrow, The Indian Population of Central Mexico, 1531–1610 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963). Borah and Cook argue that the Indians of central New Spain declined from a population of 9–25 million prior to conquest to approximately one million in 1640.

8 According to Enrique Florescano, the importance of slaves to the economic history of the colony was much greater than their numbers might suggest. The growth of the mining and sugar industries prior to 1630, which relied heavily upon slave labor, represented the transition from a subsistence to a market economy in New Spain. Florescano Enrique, “La formación de los trabajadores en la época colonial, 1521–1750,” in La clase obrera en la historia de México de la colonia al imperio, ed. Florescano Enrique, Sánchez Isabel González, Angulo Jorge González, Zarauz Roberto Sandoval, Cuauhtémoc Velasco A. and Toscano Alejandra Moreno (México, DF: Siglo Veintiuno Editors, 1996), pp. 5879.

9 Patrick Carroll actually dates the beginning of the decline in demand for slave labor in Jalapa, Veracruz, to around 1610 when the local indigenous population began to rebound. See Carroll , Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, pp. 30–1.

10 Furthermore, the ability of Portuguese merchants to deliver slaves was severely undermined with the Dutch attacks on the Portuguese Atlantic Empire, particularly the invasion of Angola in 1640. See Beltrán Gonzalo AguirreThe Slave Trade in Mexico,HAHR 24:3 (1944), p. 419 . After 1640, the importation of slaves to New Spain was sporadic at best. See Palmer Colin A., Human Cargoes: The British Slave Trade to Spanish America, 1700–1739 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981).

11 Cope R. Douglas, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660–1720 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), pp. 95–6.

12 Chávez Carbajal María Guadalupe, “La gran negritud en Michoacán, época colonial,” in La presencia africana en México, ed, Martínez Montiel Luz María (México, DF: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1995), p. 103 ; and Super John C., “Querétaro Obrajes: Industry and Society in Provincial Mexico, 1600–1810,Hispanic American Historical Review 56:2 (May 1976), p. 206.

13 Salvucci Ricard J., Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico: An Economic History of the Obrajes, 1539–1840 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 110 . Salvucci guardedly argues that the assumption that slaves were unimportant to obraje workforces needs to be “reconsidered.” He based his discussions of the importance of slave labor in obrajes largely upon a synthesis of the regional findings of the scholars who focus on Puebla, but does not pursue an in-depth inquiry into the importance of slavery to the obrajes of Mexico City.

14 Martin Cheryl English, Rural Society in Colonial Morelos (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985), p. 139 ; Morin Claude, Michoacán en la Nueva España del siglo XVIII: Crecimiento y desigualidad en una economía colonial (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1979), p. 257 ; and Chávez-Hita Adriana Naveda, “Trabajadores esclavos en las haciendas azucareras de Córdoba, Veracruz. 1714–1763,” in El trabajo y los trabajadores en la historia de México, ed. Frost Elsa Cecelia, et al., (México, DF: Colegio de México, 1979), pp. 162–81. These authors date the decline of slave labor in Mórelos, Michoacán, and Córdoba, Veracruz, respectively, to the first half of the eighteenth century, not the seventeenth century. Patrick Carroll, however, dates the transition from slave to free labor in Jalapa and Orizaba, both in Veracruz, to the second half of the seventeenth century. See Carroll , Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, p. 71 .

15 Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 3.

16 Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, pp. 40–1.

17 Villanueva Margaret A., “From Calpixqui to Corregidor: Appropriation of Women's Cotton Textile Production in Early Colonial Spain,Latin American Perspectives 12:1 (1985), pp. 1740.

18 Bazant Jan, “Evolution of the Textile Industry of Puebla, 1544–1845,Comparative Studies of Society and History 7:1 (1964), pp. 66–7.

19 Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 99.

20 AGN Inq vol 803 exp 62 fs 569–573.

21 Enrique Florescano, et. al., La clase obrera en la historia de México.

22 Angulo Jorge González and Zarauz Roberto SandovalLos trabajadores industriales en Nueva España, 1750–1810,” in La clase obrera en la historia de México, p. 219.

23 Juan Manuel de la Serna H.Disolución de la esclavitud en los obrajes de Querétaro a finales del siglo XVIII,” in Rutas de la esclavitud en África y América Latina, ed. Cáceres Rina (San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 2001), p. 180.

24 Urquiola José IgnacioLos trabajadores de los obrajes,” in Los obrajes en la Nueva España, ed Viqueira Carmen y Urquiola José Ignacio (México, DF: 1990), p. 193 . Urquiola found that nearly 73 percent of workers were free wage laborers.

25 Altman Ida, Transatlantic Ties in the Spanish Empire: Brihuega, Spain, & Puebla, Mexico, 1560–1620 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 58 ; and Palmer , Slaves of the White God, pp. 73–4.

26 Kagan Samuel, “The Labor of Prisoners in the Obrajes of Coyoacán, 1660–93,” in El Trabajo y los trabajadores en la historia de México, ed. Frost Elsa Cecilia, et al. (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 1979), p. 206 ; and Gracía Alberto CarabarínEl trabajo e los trabajadores del obraje en la ciudad de Puebla, 1700–1710” (MA Thesis, Universidad Autonoma de Puebla, 1984), pp. 25–9. The singular exception to the rule seems to have been Guadalajara, see Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 107.

27 AGN Archivo del Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal vol 5 exp 44. Presumably, the inspection included every obraje in Mexico City. Salvucci reports that there were twenty-four obrajes in the capital city in 1604, but that number was reduced to only ten in 1720. This number does not include the 8–10 obrajes in operating in Coyoacán and Tacuba through the end of the seventeenth century. See Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, 138.

28 Cope , The Limits of Racial Domination, 94 ; Urquiloa José IgnacioEmpresas y empresarios,” in Los obrajes en la Nueva España, ed. Viqueira Carmen and Urquiola José Ignacio (México, DF: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1900), p. 239.; and Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 101 . Salvucci estimates that the mean size of obrajes in the Valley of Mexico was forty-one workers, with a standard deviation of twenty-eight. Urquiloa argues that the average size of an obraje was 40–60 workers.

29 Super, “Querétaro Obrajes,” pp. 206–7. Super presents a similar timeline for changes within the obraje labor force of Querétaro.

30 Horn Rebecca, Postconquest Coyoacan, Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519–1650 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 218.

31 Beltrán Gonzalo Aguirre, “La esclavitud en los obrajes novoespañoles,” in La ortodoxia recuperada (en torno a Ángel Palerm), ed. Glantz Susana (México, DF: Fondo de la Cultura Económica, 1987), p. 255.

32 For a complete transcription of the inspection see O'Gorman Edmundo, “El trabajo industrial en la Nueva España a mediados del Siglo XVII: Visita a los obrajes de paños en la jurisdicción de Coyoacán,Boletín del Archivo General de la Nación 11: 1 (Enero-febrero-marzo, 1940), pp. 33116.

33 Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 111.

34 AGN Civil vol. 355 exp. 3 fs. 115–158.

35 O'Gorman , “El trabajo industrial,” pp. 74–7.

36 AGN General de Parte vol. 8 exp 27 fs. 14v.

37 AGN Clero Regular y Secular vol. 103 exp 4 fs. 102–216.

38 AGN Tierras vol. 1056 exp 5 fs. 1–37.

39 AGN Archivo del Tribunal Superior de Justicia del Distrito Federal vol 5 exp 44. This visita did not include non-Indians, either free nor slave.

40 AHN,#11,vol. 50 fs. 48–67.

41 AGN Tierras vol. 3221 exp 1 fs 31–33..

42 AHN, Veedor, Fernando, #687, vol. 4618, fs. 922–25; and AHN, Veedor, Fernando, #687, vol. 4621, fs. 568–70.

43 Konrad Herman W., A Jesuit Hacienda in Colonial Mexico: Santa Lucía, 1576–1767 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980), pp. 208–10.

44 AHN, Anaya, Jose de, #6, vol. 17, fs 158–163.

45 The sale actually indicates that 26 slaves were associated with the obraje and related properties. However, only 23 were listed in the census of the obraje and only 21 were included in the sale. AGN Tierras vol. 1056 exp 5 fs. 12v and 15–19.

46 AGN Tierras vol. 3221 exp 1 fs 31–33.

47 AGN Civil vol. 24 fs. 137–139v.

48 Interestingly, Adriana Naveda Chávez-Hita found that slaves represented nearly 25–50 percent of the total value of sugar haciendas in Córdoba. Thus the worth of slave workforces compared to the total value of the productive units, haciendas or obrajes, in industries that relied upon slaves was very similar. See Chávez-Hita NavedaTrabajadores esclavos,” p. 178.

49 AHN, Francisco de Valdez, # 692, vol. 4700, fs. 322–26. The slave males clearly sold well below their market value. The Apresa y Gándara estate had been seized to settle outstanding debts, which may have prompted the low sales costs. The power of attorney used to sell the slaves also includes a list of 25 slaves who had been seized by creditors pending the settlement of those debts.

50 AHN, Andrés de Almogueras, #11, vol. 50 fs. 48–67.

51 AGN Clero Regular y Secular vol. 103 exp 4 fs. 102–216.

52 AGN Tierras vol. 3221 exp 1 fs 31–33.

53 The size of the slave labor force was reduced from 35 when he purchased the obraje in 1659 to 21 in 1666. The documents did not indicate what happened to those 14 slaves.

54 AGN Clero Regular y Secular vol. 103 exp 4 fs. 102–216.

55 Carbajal ChávezLa gran negritud en Michoacán,” p. 103.

56 AGN Tierras vol. 1816 exp 1 fs 76–78.

57 Super, “Querétaro Obrajes,” 206.

58 Altman , Transatlantic Ties in the Spanish Empire, p. 58.

59 Pohl Hans, Haenich Hutta, and Loske Wolfgang, “Aspectos sociales del desarrollo de los obrajes textiles en Puebla colonial,Comunicaciones. Proyecto Puebla-Tlaxcala 15:(1978), pp. 4145.

60 Gracía Carabarín, “El trabajo e los trabajadores del obraje,” pp. 2529.

61 AHN, Francisco de Valdez, # 692, vol. 4700, fs. 322–26.

62 See footnote 28.

63 AGN Tierras vol. 932 exp 1 fs. 1-280. The census also lists 13 deceased slaves.

64 AGN Tierras vol. 260 exp. 1 fs. 15–25; and AGNAHJ leg 305 exp 2. These are the only two inventories included in this study that listed any indebted workers.

65 AGN Inq vol. 793 fs. 234–79. The document does not make clear the overall size of the labor force, or the importance of slaves within it.

66 Altman , Transatlantic Ties in the Spanish Empire, p. 57.

67 Martin , Rural Society, p. 141.

68 Many scholars, particularly Richard Greenleaf, argue that these Cedulas Reales had little or no impact on obraje operation in New Spain. See Greenleaf , “The Obraje in the Late Mexican Colony,” pp. 233235.

69 Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 110.

70 Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 111.

71 Valdés Dennis N., “The Decline of Slavery in Mexico,The Americas 44:2 (1987), p. 171.

72 Barrett Ward, and Schwartz Stuart, “Comparación entre dos economías azucareras coloniales: Morelos, México y Bahía, Brasil,” in Haciendas, latifundios y plantaciones en América Latina, ed. Florescano Enrique (México, DF: Siglo XXI, 1975), p. 553 . The authors do not provide the value of a kilogram of sugar, nor the prices of slaves, only the value of a slave, an ox, and a mule calculated in market value of sugar.

In part these trends reflect the changes in fortune of the sugar industry. Around the 1690s sugar began a long and protracted recession that lasted well into the second half of the eighteenth century, recovering in the 1760s. Whether or not declining prices made slaves more affordable for obrajeros is difficult to ascertain, but that trend should not necessarily be equated with declining demand for slave labor. See Martin , Rural Society, p. 7.

73 O'Gorman , “El trabajo industrial,” pp. 33116.

74 AGN Inq vol. 583 exp 4 fs. 491.

75 AGN Tierras vol. 1056 exp 5 fs. 22v–23.

76 AHN Nicolas de Arauz, #5, vol. 11, fs. 91–2.

77 AGN Real Fisco de la Inquisición vol. 22 exp 7 fs. 125–136.

78 Gibson , The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule, pp. 245–6.

79 Salvucci , Textiles and Capitalism in Mexico, p. 50.

80 AGN Inq vol. 441 exp 5 fs. 503–542; AGN Inq vol. 680 exp 40 fs. 291–295; and AGN Inq vol. 454 exp 21 fs. 445–454.

81 AGN Inq vol. 435 exp 4–5 fs. 287–93.

82 AGN Inq vol. 454 exp 21 fs. 445–454.

83 AGN Inq vol. 431 exp 9 fs. 265–279. José I. Urquiola found similar complaints by Indian obraje workers in the pre-1630 period and it is certainly possible that such abuses against Indians continued after 1630.

84 AGN Inq vol. 583, exp. 4, fs. 390–519. Similar atrocities in the Díaz de Posadas obraje were investigated in the inspection of 1660. See O'Gorman , “El trabajo industrial,” pp. 6162.

85 Barry Higman notes the “propensity” of African slaves to run away when compared to Creole slaves. See Higman B.W., Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), pp. 386–93. Similarly, African born were much more rebellious than were Creole slaves during much of the history of slavery in the Americas. Nearer the end of slavery, however, historians highlight the importance of Creole slaves as leaders in slave rebellions. See Genovese Eugene D., From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), pp. 1821.

86 Despite the myriad forms of slavery in Africa, the distinctions between them and in the Americas were significant. The racialized nature of slavery in the Americas, economies based solely upon mono-crop agriculture and slave labor-the higher levels of violence and workloads slaves faced in mono-crop production-and the greater social distance between masters and slaves may have all been unexpected to Africans. See Lovejoy Paul E., and Trotman David V., “Experiencias de vida y expectativas: Nociones Africanas sobre la esclavitud y la realidad en América,” in Rutas de la esclavitud en África y América Latina, ed. Càceres Rina (San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 2001), pp. 379403.

Furthermore, historians have taken great pains to connect specific instances of African rebelliousness in the Americas to historical processes in Africa. For example, John Thornton connects the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina to the Civil Wars in the Kingdom of Kongo in the eighteenth century. See Thornton John K., “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion,American Historical Review 96:4 (1991), pp. 1101–13. Paul Lovejoy attempts to link the Malê rebellion of 1835 in Bahia to the jihads of the Central Sudan in the nineteenth century. See Lovejoy Paul E., “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslims Slaves in Bahia,Slavery and Abolition 15:(1995), pp. 151–80. Ray A. Kea “considers the [St. John slave] rebellion in the context of Akwamu [Akan speaking region of the Gold Coast] state-building processes.” See Kea Ray A., “‘When I die, I shall return to my own land’: An ‘Amina’ Slave Rebellion in the Danish West Indies, 1732–34,” in The Cloth of Many Colored Silks. Papers on History and Society, Ghanaian and Islamic, in Honor of Ivor Wilks, ed. Hunwick John, and Lawler Nancy (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996), p. 160.

87 Wyatt-Brown Bertram, “The Mask of Obedience: Male Slave Psychology in the Old South,American Historical Review 93:5 (1988), p. 1232.

88 Reis João José, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, trans. Brakel Arthur (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 142 . Even Africans who had been slaves in Africa would have found their social position in the New World shockingly foreign.

89 I am exploring this hypothesis in greater detail in my current project.

90 Elkins Stanley M., Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).

91 Johnson Lyman L., “Manumission in Colonial Buenos Aires, 1776–1810,HAHR 59:2 (1979), p. 271 ; and Schwartz Stuart B., “The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil: Bahia, 1684–1745,HAHR 54 (1974), p. 612.

92 AGN Inq vol. 441 exp. 5 fols. 503–42.

93 Eric Van Young argues that in the second half of the eighteenth century the growth in urban demand for foodstuffs coupled with the population growth of the Indian population, resulting in a reduction in absolute access to land, forced Indians into a labor market in which manpower was no longer the scarce commodity it had been even up to the early decades of that century around Guadalajara. He dates this transition to a “buyers’ [labor] market” to a few decades after a similar transition occurred in the Valley of Mexico. See Hacienda and Markets in Eighteenth-Century Mexico: The Rural Economy of the Guadalajara Region, 1675–1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), p. 249.

94 Libby Douglas Cole, “Proto-Industrialization in a Slave Society: The Case of Minas Gerias,Journal of Latin American Studies 23:1 (1991), pp. 135 . After the collapse of mining in the eighteenth century a burgeoning cottage textile industry, based largely upon slave labor, developed during the nineteenth century.

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