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“My Conscience is Free and Clear”: African-Descended Women, Status, and Slave Owning in Mid-Colonial Mexico

  • Danielle Terrazas Williams (a1)


On March 8, 1679, Polonia de Ribas entered her last will and testament into record at the offices of Alonso de Neira Claver, the royal notary public of Xalapa. The will included information about Polonia's family, possessions, debts to be collected, and how she wanted her estate distributed after her passing. She was well acquainted with the appropriate processes and venues to ensure that such matters were officially acknowledged. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Polonia demonstrated her legal acumen by documenting half a dozen transactions with the notary public in Xalapa.

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1. Archivo Notarial de Xalapa, Unidad de Servicios Bibliotecarios y de Información, Colecciones Especiales, Universidad Veracruzana, Xalapa, Veracruz [hereafter ANX], March 8, 1679, fols. 486v–489r.

2. ANX, March 14, 1679, fols. 489r–490v.

3. During the early and middle colonial period, the term “criollo” was used to designate people of African descent in the colonies, as opposed to someone born in Africa or Europe.

4. Herman Bennett establishes that in New Spain there were significantly more free people of African descent by the mid seventeenth century. He states, “By 1646, the creole population, largely free and comprised of mulattos, numbered 116,529, whereas the predominantly African slave population totaled 35,089.” Bennett, Herman, Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 27.

5. María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez's pioneering work on enslaved and free women in Mexico City is the only book in any language that is wholly dedicated to African-descended women's history in colonial Mexico. Gutiérrez, Velázquez, Mujeres de origen africano en la capital novohispana, siglos XVII y XVIII (Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia [hereafter INAH], UNAM, 2006). For a close examination of free women in seventeenth-century Xalapa, see Danielle Terrazas Williams, “Capitalizing Subjects: Free African-Descended Women of Means in Xalapa, Veracruz during the Long Seventeenth Century” (PhD diss.: Duke University, 2013). For an overview of experiences of free and enslaved women in central Veracruz, see Ludlow, Ursula Camba, “Altanería, hermosura y prosperidad: reflexiones en torno a conductas de negras y mulatas (Siglos XVII–XVIII),” in Mujeres en Veracruz: fragmentos de una historia, 2nd ed., Becerra, Fernanda Núñez and Arcocha, Rosa María Spinoso, eds. (Xalapa, Veracruz: Gobierno del Estado de Veracruz, 2012), 1931.

6. For clarity's sake, “Veracruz Port” and “Port of Veracruz” refer to the city. Discussions regarding “central Veracruz” and “the central Veracruz region” refer to the contemporary state.

7. Cambas, Manuel Rivera, Historia antigua y moderna de Jalapa, y de las revoluciones del Estado de Veracruz, 5 vols., facsimile edition (London: British Library, Historical Print Editions 2011 [1869–1871]), 55.

8. Rivera Cambas, Historia antigua y moderna de Jalapa, 67.

9. Rivera Cambas, Historia antigua y moderna de Jalapa, 73–74.

10. Carmen Blázquez Domínguez estimates that important functionaries spent only about half their time in the port. Domínguez, Blázquez, Breve historia de Veracruz (Mexico City: Colegio de México, 2000), 63.

11. Carroll, Patrick J., Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: Race, Ethnicity, and Regional Development, 2nd ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 95.

12. Gorrochotegui, Gilberto Bermúdez, Historia de Jalapa, siglo XVII (Xalapa, Veracruz: Universidad Veracruzana, 1995), 123; Carroll, Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, 168.

13. These numbers were extracted from Bermúdez Gorrochotegui's data. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 123. Carroll's population profile by percentage is similar for this same time period. Carroll, Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, 168.

14. Xalapa is approximately 100 kilometers (or 65 miles) from the Port of Veracruz.

15. Carroll, Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, 20. Xalapa and Orizaba had an earlier initiation into the slave trade, but Córdoba had the longest-lasting involvement, and great economic investment, in the purchase and use of slave labor, especially during the eighteenth century. For a detailed examination of slavery on the sugar estates of Córdoba, see Chávez-Hita, Adriana Naveda, Esclavos negros en las haciendas azucareras de Córdoba, Veracruz, 1690–1830, 2nd ed. (Xalapa, Veracruz: Universidad Veracruzana, 2008).

16. The port also served as a strategic point of military defense, often carried out by militiamen of African descent. Although the historiography has leaned toward their impact in the late eighteenth century, militiamen of African descent even earlier played a role in the defense of Xalapa and the port. While it is uncertain when they were first formed, Bermúdez Gorrochotegui cites a compañía de pardos in Xalapa by 1694. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 348. Christon I. Archer has noted that African-descended militiamen protected Veracruz Port as early as 1621. Archer, Christon I., “Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain: Interrelationships and Conflicts, 1780–1810,” Journal of Latin American Studies 6 (November 1974): 237. For an in-depth history of African-descended militiamen in colonial Mexico, see Vinson, Ben III, Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001); Vinson, Ben III, “Los milicianos pardos y la construcción de la raza en el México colonial,” Signos Históricos 2:4 (December 2000): 87106; Vinson, Ben III, “The Free-Colored Military Establishment in Colonial Mexico from the Conquest to Independence,” Callaloo 27:1 (2004): 150171; Booker, Jackie, “Needed But Unwanted: Black Militiamen in Veracruz, Mexico, 1770–1810,” The Historian 55:2 (Winter 1993): 259276; and Christon I. Archer, "Pardos, Indians, and the Army of New Spain, 231–255.

17. According to Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, it was primarily enslaved indigenous and encomienda laborers who worked on Xalapa's earliest Spanish-owned farms. However, he adds, by the second half of the sixteenth-century, more encomienda indigenous workers, enslaved Africans, and free salaried employees filled the labor demands of the town and its environs. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 306. For important contributions to the regional study of Veracruz, see Chávez-Hita, Adriana Naveda and Florescano, Enrique, eds, Historia General de Córdoba y su Región (Xalapa, Veracruz: Universidad Veracruzana, 2013); Domínguez-Domínguez, Citlalli, “Uniendo el comercio de la mar del norte y la mar del sur: la bioceanidad en el Caribe vista través del eje Veracruz-Acapulco, en la segunda mitad del siglo XVI,” Iberamérica Social, Special Volume 2 (February 2018): 1026; Mantecón, Matilde Souto, “La imagen de la ciudad de Veracruz en doce planos de los siglos XVII al XIX,” in El Golfo-Caribe y sus puertos: Tomo I, 1660–1850, Gareis, Johanna von Grafenstein, ed. (Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, 2006), 377410; Escamilla, Juan Ortiz, ed., El Veracruz de Hernán Cortés (Xalapa, Veracruz: Universidad Veracruzana, 2015); Citlalli Domínguez-Domínguez, “La población afromestiza de Coatepec, Veracruz: mestizaje e integración social, 1646–1791” (Bachelor's thesis: Universidad Veracruzana, 2006).

18. Important contribution to these efforts in the historiography include Frank, Zephyr L., Dutra's World: Wealth and Family in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004); Furtado, Júnia Ferreira, Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Hanger, Kimberly S., “Landlords, Shopkeepers, Farmers, and Slave-Owners: Free Black Female Property-Holders in Colonial New Orleans,” in Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas, Gaspar, David Barry and Hine, Darlene Clark, eds. (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2004), 219236; Sharp, William F., Slavery on the Spanish Frontier: The Colombian Choco, 1680–1810 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976); Berlin, Ira, Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974); Franklin, John Hope, The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943); Johnson, Michael P. and Roark, James L., Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974); Koger, Larry, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985); Woodson, Carter G., ed., Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830 (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1924); Schweninger, Loren, Black Property Owners in the South, 1790–1915 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); and Dornan, Inge, “Masterful Women: Colonial Women Slaveholders in the Urban Low Country,” Journal of American Studies 39:3 (2005): 383402. A brief paragraph in a work by Luis M. Díaz Soler points out that both Spanish law and authorities sought to protect the rights of black slave owners. Soler, Díaz, Historia de la esclavitud negra en Puerto Rico (Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Universitaria, 1965), 251.

19. Ferreira Furtado, Chica da Silva, 154.

20. Higgins, Kathleen J., ‘Licentious Liberty’ in a Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabará, Minas Gerais (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 82.

21. Ferreira Furtado, Chica da Silva, 147.

22. Wheat, David, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570–1640 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 151155.

23. Wheat, Atlantic Africa, 155.

24. The free women of Cap Français were also more likely to purchase enslaved women than enslaved men. Susan M. Socolow posits that this was likely the case because free women needed laborers familiar with their industries or because “they believed they could more easily control slave women.” Socolow, “Economic Roles of the Free Women of Color of Cap Français,” in More than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the America, David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, eds. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 286.

25. Graubart, Karen, “Los lazos que unen. Dueñas negras de esclavos negros, ss. XVI–XVII,” Revista Nueva Corónica 2 (July 2013): 637.

26. Graubart, “Los lazos que unen,” 635–636.

27. While there is a dearth of literature on free women of African descent, there are important contributions on enslaved women in New Spain, especially by pioneering Mexican scholars. See Velázquez Gutiérrez, María Elisa, Mujeres de origen africano en la capital novohispana, siglos XVII y XVIII (Mexico City: INAH, UNAM, 2006); Masferrer, Cristina and Velázquez, María Elisa, “Mujeres y niñas esclavizadas en la Nueva España: agencia, resiliencia y redes sociales,” in Mujeres africanas y afrodescendientes: experiencias de esclavitud y libertad en América Latina y África, siglos XVI al XIX, Velázquez, María Elisa and Undurruaga, Carolina González, eds. (Mexico City: Secretaría de Cultura, INAH, 2016), 2958. For an examination of the significantly understudied history of enslaved children, including a discussion of enslaved girls, see León, Cristina V. Masferrer, Muleke, negritas y mulatillos: niñez, familia y redes sociales de los esclavos de origen africano de la ciudad de México, siglo XVII (Mexico City: INAH, 2013).

28. I argue that Xalapa, even without the numerical representation of African descendants found in Mexico City or even Puebla, should be considered a slave society. Sherwin Bryant reframes the notion of the slave society as one that is not numerically conscripted but one in which the master-slave relationship permeates all of society, regardless of prevalence. Bryant, Sherwin K., Rivers of Gold, Lives of Bondage: Governing through Slavery in Colonial Quito (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2014). Herman L. Bennett argues that Africans and their descendants in Mexico, especially the increasingly litigious free population, help us reconsider the category of slave societies by focusing on their qualitative impact on labor systems, cultural expectations, and religious institutions. Bennett, Herman, Colonial Blackness: A History of Afro-Mexico (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). Frank Proctor's work on the impact of African-descendant labor in the woolen mills is an important reminder that given the volatility of labor pools in the colonial period, African-descended people could have a significant impact on local industries, even those that historically sought indigenous laborers. Proctor, Frank T. III, “Afro-Mexican Slave Labor in the Obrajes de Paños of New Spain, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” The Americas 60:1 (July 2003): 3358.

29. During the sixteenth century, San Antonio Huatusco, located in the province of Quauhtochco (now spelled Huatusco), was known as San Antonio Otlaquiquiztla. Located in central Veracruz, it was one of the oldest Spanish towns in the region, dating its founding to Cortés's visit in 1521. However, scholars believe that San Antonio Huatusco is noted in the Codex Mendoza and that the province served as a regional Aztec capital before the conquest. Modern-day San Antonio Huatusco is approximately 55 miles from Xalapa and 75 miles from the Port of Veracruz. Umberger, Emily, “Huatusco,” in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, Evans, Susan Toby and Webster, David L., eds. (New York: Garland Publishing, 2001), 349.

30. The term vecino denoted legal status as an acknowledged householder of a town or city. It could also indicate a long-time resident of a town.

31. Under Spanish law, the legal age of consent for women was 25. Polonia claimed to have been a slave owner from as early as 1646, and since she does not anywhere indicate that anyone ever served as her proxy before that date, she must have been at least 25 years old in that year.

32. For an examination of the eighteenth-century social dynamics of Coatepec's African-descended, indigenous, and Spanish populations, see Domínguez-Domínguez, “La población afromestiza de Coatepec, Veracruz.”

33. ANX, March 8, 1679, folss. 486v–489r. The identifier “Guinea” does not refer to the contemporary nation but was a generic term identifying slaves born in various parts of West and West-Central Africa.

34. Tenampa is also referred to as Nuestra Señora del Rosario and Nuestra Señora del Rosario Tenampa. Tenampa included a sugar mill and a hacienda.

35. A carta de libertad, or “freedom card,” was the notarized document that verified the manumission of a slave. ANX, December 17, 1643, fols. 426r–427r.

36. The term bozal referred to an unhispanicized person of African descent. It was usually assigned to someone born in Africa, or one who had not yet learned the Spanish language, or had not yet become acculturated to Spanish customs, including those not yet or only recently baptized. The term “Berbesi” loosely referred to groups of Africans who lived near the Guinea rivers, the area now known as the western Niger River. Other groups from this area included the Biafra, Mandinga, and Jollof. On ethnic designations of enslaved populations in Mexico, see Schwaller, Robert C., Géneros de Gente in Early Colonial Mexico: Defining Racial Difference (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2016); Beltrán, Gonzalo Aguirre, “The Rivers of Guinea,” Journal of Negro History 31:3 (July 1946): 290316; Boyd-Bowman, Peter, “Negro Slaves in Early Colonial Mexico,” The Americas 26:2 (October 1969): 134151; and Riley, G. Micheal, “Labor in Cortesian Enterprise: The Cuernavaca Area, 1522–1549,” The Americas 28:3 (January 1972): 271287.

37. Patrick Carroll establishes that the larger trajectory of enslaved Africans entering colonial Mexico was mirrored in Xalapa, citing that 65 and 70 percent of purchases of enslaved laborers occurred between 1590 and 1610. Carroll, Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, 29–37.

38. While the transatlantic trade to New Spain decreased precipitously after 1640, the slave trade did not cease, due to the emergence of a thriving internal market of enslaved Africans and their descendants during the seventeenth century. For an examination of this internal market in the central Mexican region, see Seijas, Tatiana and Silva, Pablo Miguel Sierra, “The Persistence of the Slave Market in Seventeenth-Century Central Mexico,” Slavery and Abolition 37:2 (2016): 307333.

39. For a discussion of the importance of dowries in colonial Mexico, see Lavrin, Asunción and Couturier, Edith, “Dowries and Wills: A View of Women's Socioeconomic Role in Colonial Guadalajara and Puebla, 1640–1790,” Hispanic American Historical Review 59:2 (May 1979): 280304; Lavrin, Asunción, “In Search of the Colonial Woman in Mexico: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives, Lavrin, Asunción, ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), 2359.

40. Lavrin, “In Search of the Colonial Woman in Mexico,” 34.

41. More research is required to establish whether these women were outliers or in some respects representative of African-descended women, but the question offers an impressive range of possibilities. Velázquez Gutiérrez, Mujeres de origen africano, 267–269.

42. Lavrin, “In Search of the Colonial Woman in Mexico,” 34.

43. ANX, February 4, 1609, fols. 477r–479v; ANX, June 29, 1643, fols. 398r–406r.

44. ANX, March 29, 1669, fols. 204v–208v. Doña Juana Josefa Orduña Loyando y Sousa is noted as a vecina of Xalapa.

45. While dowries could be transferred after the death of the parent, Polonia's will specifically stated that she had already provided her daughter with the stipulated amount. Unfortunately, Polonia's gift is not documented in the notarial archive as a separate entry that would establish the date of transfer. She likely intentionally included it in her will to offer a more formal postscript to the earlier unnotarized action. Polonia may have also cited it in the will to establish that Melchora was not due any further inheritance since her dowry was so substantial.

46. ANX, September 15, 1645, fols. 554bis v–558r.

47. ANX, May 5, 1642, fols. 294r–306r.

48. ANX 1642, fol. 545r, as quoted in Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 165.

49. ANX, December 20, 1655, fols. 78r–79r. The ingenio San Sebastián Maxtlatlan experienced a boom in the early 1600s, as its owner Juan López Ruiz served as a supplier for markets in Puebla de los Ángeles and Veracruz. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 163.

50. ANX, June 16, 1664, fols. 85v–87v.

51. I examined all dowries from 1600 to 1700. This data is specifically for the dowries registered between 1640s to the early 1680s. I analyzed this range to offer some comparative sense of the value of dowries around the time Polonia de Ribas would have offered her daughters their dowries, and to establish the value of dowries around the time of her passing.

52. ANX, December 22, 1654, fols. 63v–64v; ANX, December 13, 1655, fols. 106r–107v; ANX, December 9, 1673, fols. 71v–72r; ANX, April 4, 1675, fols. 97r–98r; ANX, August 17, 1676, fols. 154v–156r.

53. ANX, August 8, 1642, fols. 344v–335v; ANX, October 15, 1679, fols. 598v–599v. The practice of providing orphaned girls modest dowries was common in colonial Latin America. Socolow, Susan Migden, The Women of Colonial Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 119. Many of seventeenth-century Xalapa's Spanish families still had close ties to Spain and some likely saw these dowry donations as part of their religious duty. For the practice of charity dowries in Spain, see Tikoff, Valentina K., “Gender and Juvenile Charity, Tradition and Reform: Assistance for Young People in Eighteenth-Century Seville,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 41:3 (Spring 2008): 307335. While dowries are often discussed as crucial for well-heeled or aspirational families, A. J. R. Russell-Wood describes how precarious the lives of Brazilian women with little or no resources for a dowry could be: “For the daughter of poor parents or an orphan, a dowry could mean the difference between an honorable marriage and prostitution.” Russell-Wood, A. J. R., “Women and Society in Colonial Brazil,” Journal of Latin American Studies 9:1 (May 1977): 14. In late-colonial Venezuela, regular officers attempted to provide for the social welfare of economically vulnerable women with the establishment of a widow and orphan pension plan. Miller, Gary M., “Bourbon Social Engineering: Women and Conditions of Marriage in Eighteenth-Century Venezuela,” The Americas 46:3 (January 1990): 261290.

54. ANX, December 14, 1643, fol. 438v; ANX, May 16, 1644, fols. 466r–467v; ANX, December 29, 1647, fol. 244r; ANX, November 19, 1672, fols. 522r–523r; ANX, May 11, 1682, fols. 59r–62v; ANX, April 1, 1660, fols. 335v–337v; ANX, November 2, 1683, fols. 133v–135v.

55. ANX, September 15, 1640, fols. 143r–145v; ANX, November 23, 1646, fol. 340r; ANX, September 3, 1654, fols. 45r–48r; ANX, October 11, 1680, fols. 577r–581v; ANX, July 8, 1668, fols. 157v–162r; ANX, November 30, 1672, fols. 529r–533r; ANX, June 4, 1684, fols. 184v–187r.

56. ANX, September 15, 1645, fols. 554bis v–558r; ANX, July 11, 1669, fols. 231r–232r; ANX, March 3, 1685, fols. 224v–229r.

57. The first was valued at 4,412 pesos and the second at 3,731 pesos. ANX, March 16, 1675, fols. 90v–94v; ANX, October 23, 1681, fols. 34r–39r.

58. ANX, October 11, 1664, fols. 105v–110v; ANX, December 14, 1677, fols. 265r–269r; ANX, April 22, 1671, fols. 370r–374v; ANX, September 15, 1671, fols. 396v–400r; ANX, September 30, 1671, fols. 412r–419r.

59. ANX, September 6, 1688, fols. 395r–396r.

60. ANX, June 29, 1643, fols. 398r–406r; ANX, March 29, 1669, fols. 204v–208v.

61. ANX, March 8, 1679, fols. 486v–489r.

62. For a more complete history of San Francisco, see Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 357–370.

63. For an examination of confraternities and mass requests, see Larkin, “Confraternities and Communities,” 200–206.

64. For an overview of the institution in colonial Mexico, see Lavrin, Asunción, “Cofradías novohispanas: economías material y espiritual,” in Cofradías, capellanías y obras pías en la Ámerica colonial, López-Cano, María del Pilar Martínez, Von Wobeser, Gisela, and Muñoz Correa, Juan Guillermo, eds. (Mexico City: UNAM, 1998), 4964; Von Germeten, Nicole, Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006); Larkin, “Confraternities and Communities: The Decline of the Communal Quest for Salvation in Eighteenth-Century Mexico City,” in Local Religion in Colonial Mexico, Martin Austin Nesvig, ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2006), 189–214; Von Germeten, Nicole, “Routes to Respectability: Confraternities and Men of African Descent in New Spain,” in Local Religion in Colonial Mexico, Nesvig, Martin Austin, ed. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2006), 215234.

65. For the importance of confraternities among African-descended people, see Nicole Von Germeten, Black Blood Brothers; Silva, Pablo Miguel Sierra, “From Chains to Chiles: An Elite Afro-Indigenous Couple in Colonial Mexico, 1641–1688,” Ethnohistory 62:2 (April, 2015): 361384; and Bristol, Joan Cameron, Christians, Blasphemers, and Witches: Afro-Mexican Ritual Practice in the Seventeenth Century (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2007), 93112.

66. This distinction was later taken up by Juan Díaz Matamoros, the wealthy slave owner and proprietor of the sugar mill Nuestra Señora de la Concepción. ANX, January 9, 1616, fol. 713r.

67. No indigenous people are mentioned in any capacity in her notarial documents.

68. The Xalapa parish secretary informed me that some of the documents were lost or severely damaged in a fire. Others were lost when they were temporarily removed from the church during reconstruction from the fire damage. However, I reviewed all extant parish records for the seventeenth and early eighteen centuries. None of the baptismal, confirmation, marriage, or death records cite Polonia de Ribas or her five children. Archivo Eclesiástico de la Parroquia del Sagrario Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón, Entierros, Casamientos, Bautizos, caja 1, libros 1 and 3; and Entierros, Casamientos, Bautizos, caja 2, libro 4. For the importance and prevalence of godmothers, see Proctor, Frank T., “La familia y comunidad esclava en San Luis Potosí y Guanajuato, México,” in La ruta de la esclavitud en África y América Latina, Cáceres, Rina, ed. (San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 2001), 240250.

69. ANX, March 15, 1670, fols. 284r–285v.

70. While godparents could play many important roles throughout the life of the child, Frank T. Proctor reminds us that, at least among Spanish godparents, they rarely helped to manumit enslaved children. Proctor, Frank T. III, “Gender and the Manumission of Slaves in New Spain,” Hispanic American Historical Review 86:2 (2006): 325326.

71. ANX, January 6, 1668, fols. 119r–121r.

72. In regard to her management of finances, Polonia de Ribas was cited as a vecina of Xalapa, but there are no references in her documents regarding tribute payments. In fact, none of the notarial files examined for this study cite tribute requirements for the African-descended population in Xalapa. Further study at the Archivo General de la Nación is required to ascertain whether Xalapa's residents were subject to tribute demands in the seventeenth century or whether this was the case only later, in the eighteenth century. For the history of tribute and how African-descended people negotiated this fiscal duty, see Ben Vinson III, Bearing Arms for His Majesty, 132–172.

73. I reviewed all sales of slaves from 1600 to 1700 in Xalapa. Throughout the seventeenth century, the average cost of a slave, male or female, in central Veracruz hovered between 300 and 400 pesos. Variations in price depended more on age and health than on gender. These averages are substantiated by Patrick Carroll's work. Carroll, Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, 35.

74. The 1620 prices are noted in Carroll, Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, 35.

75. Carroll, Blacks in Colonial Veracruz, 35.

76. ANX, February 25, 1655, fols. 69v–70r.

77. ANX, March 14, 1679, fols. 490v–492r.

78. ANX, December 16, 1637, fols. 16v–17r. A “bachiller” is defined as the “holder of a bachelor's degree,” less common and more prestigious in the sixteenth century than at present. It could also be the honorific title of a secular priest. Márquez, Ophelia and Wold, Lillian Ramos Navarro, eds. Compilation of Colonial Spanish Terms and Document Related Phrases (Midway City, CA: Society of Hispanic Historical and Ancestral Research, 1998),, accessed April 12, 2018.

79. ANX, December 29, 1643, fols. 425r–426r. The title afforded Pedro de Yrala the status of “head priest,” a position without term restrictions. He would have also “held the parish as a benefice or quasi-feudal property,” which allowed him access to “parish income, labor, and provisions permitted by law or custom.” Taylor, William B., Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth-Century Mexico (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 79.

80. ANX, December 14, 1643, fols. 433r–437r.

81. ANX, June 14, 1660, fols. 348v–349v. Taylor, Magistrates of the Sacred, 79.

82. In the sixteenth century, officials had hoped that the site of La Antigua, Veracruz, with its landscape better protected than the Port of Veracruz from the severe northerly winds, would serve as the principal colonial port of what is now Veracruz state. The location was abandoned in 1599 due to its sandy inlets, which were incapable of sustaining large vessels. The principal port was relocated to a southern site closer to Hernán Cortés' original landing in 1519 and christened La Nueva Veracruz, today's Veracruz. Rivera Cambas, Historia de Antigua y Moderna de Jalapa, 67. ANX, April 19, 1642, fol. 270r–270v; ANX, January 19, 1655, fols. 66v–67v.; ANX, February 13, 1642, fol. 285r/v; ANX, December 14, 1643, fols. 433r–437r.

83. ANX, December 31, 1655, fol. 95v.

84. ANX, December 22, 1664, fols. 117r–118v. Polonia is cited as his apoderada, a woman who has been appointed as a legal proxy by way of a notarial poder (power).

85. Velázquez Gutiérrez, Mujeres de origen africano, 363–365.

86. Velázquez Gutiérrez notes that Pascuala had four children before she married the Inquisition surgeon. Given the date of the gift, the transfer of the revenues likely began before she married and had additional children with her legitimate husband. It was also noted that her family would receive these funds until they had all passed away. Velázquez Gutiérrez, Mujeres de origen africano, 363–364.

87. However, Velázquez Gutiérrez states that there is no documentation to confirm that Pascuala's parents were ever enslaved. Velázquez Gutiérrez, Mujeres de origen africano, 364.

88. Velázquez Gutiérrez, Mujeres de origen africano, 364.

89. ANX, September 2, 1676, fols. 164v–165v.

90. So important were inns along the Camino Royal that the governor of New Spain, Hernán Cortés, ordered their construction at regular intervals and fixed their prices. del Valle Pavón, GuillerminaDesarrollo de la economía mercantil y construcción de los caminos México-Veracruz en el siglo XVI,” América Latina en la Historia Económica 27 (January-June 2007): 9.

91. ANX, June 10, 1609, fols. 149v–150r; ANX, March 16, 1609, fols. 86v–87v.

92. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 243.

93. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 147. For the importance of the transportation industry and early New Spain's economy, see Guillermina del Valle Pavón, “Desarrollo de la economía mercantil,” 7–49.

94. ANX, February 24, 1712, fols. 504r–509v.

95. ANX, March 11, 1704, fols. 289r–291v. In an earlier notarial entry, Ana de la Cruz is also referred to as a mulata. ANX, September 22, 1694, fols. 39v–40v. However, two months after her March 1704 entry, she is recorded as a parda. ANX, May 18, 1704, fols. 291v–292v.

96. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 329.

97. ANX, March 8, 1679, fols. 486v–489r.

98. For a discussion of the persistent struggles with debt in large colonial industries, see Bakewell, P. J., Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico, Zacatecas 1546–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); and Trigg, Heather B., “The Ties That Bind: Economic and Social Interactions in Early-Colonial New Mexico, A.D. 1598–1680,” Historical Archaeology 37:2 (2003): 6584. For a fascinating examination of debt between communities, see Yannakakis, Yanna, “Witnesses, Spatial Practices, and a Land Dispute in Colonial Oaxaca,” The Americas 65:2 (October 2008): 161192. For cases of debt peonage in various industries, see Chevalier, François, Land and Society in Colonial Mexico: The Great Hacienda (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 277288; Martin, Cheryl English, Governance and Society in Colonial Mexico: Chihuahua in the Eighteenth Century (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 5662; and Cope, R. Douglas, The Limits of Racial Domination: Plebian Society in Colonial Mexico City, 1660–1720 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 98102. For a discussion of money-lending by convents in Spanish America, see Burns, Kathryn, Colonial Habits: Convents and the Spiritual Economy of Cuzco, Peru (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), 4169.

99. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui notes that Xalapa's principal hacienda owners demonstrated the greatest need for credit between 1620 and 1630. Bermúdez Gorrochotegui, Historia de Jalapa, 304.

100. For a discussion of loans among African-descendants in Puebla, see Pablo Miguel Sierra Silva, “From Chains to Chiles,” 361–384.

101. Tamara J. Walker discusses the importance of asserting one's “reputation” rather than “honor” in colonial Latin America, as the rhetoric of “honor” was often denied to people of African descent and lower-class castas. Walker, Tamara J., “‘He Outfitted His Family in Notable Decency’: Slavery, Honour and Dress in Eighteenth-Century Lima, Peru,” Slavery and Abolition 30:3 (September 2009): 394395.

102. Frank T. Proctor explores the juridical origins of manumission and examines how the freeing of slaves served as fertile ground for contestation. Proctor, Frank T., “Damned Notions of Liberty”: Slavery, Culture, and Power in Colonial Mexico, 1640–1769 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2010), 152185.

103. ANX, February 16, 1675, fols. 77v–78v.

104. ANX, September 2, 1676, fols. 164v–165v.

105. ANX, March 8, 1679, fols. 486v–489r.

106. ANX, March 14, 1679, fols. 490v–492r.

107. ANX, September, 2, 1676, fols. 164v–165v.

108. ANX, March 8, 1679, fols. 486v–489r.

109. For manumission trends and rhetorical devices, see Cole, Shawn, “Capitalism and Freedom: Manumissions and the Slave Market in Louisiana, 1725–1820,” Journal of Economic History 65:4 (December 2005): 10081027; Hanger, Kimberly S., Bounded Lives; Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997); Schwartz, Stuart B., “The Manumission of Slaves in Colonial Brazil: Bahia, 1684–1745,” Hispanic American Historical Review 54:4 (November 1974): 603635; and Johnson, Lyman, “Manumission in Colonial Buenos Aires, 1776–1810,” Hispanic American Historical Review 59:2 (May 1979): 258279.

110. ANX, September 2, 1676, fols. 164v–165v.

111. Proctor offers an important discussion of manumission trends and affective relationships. See Proctor, Frank T. III, “Gender and the Manumission of Slaves in New Spain,” Hispanic American Historical Review 86:2 (2006): 309336. Kathleen Higgins also highlights the importance of physical proximity to develop the intimacy between slave and slave owner that could lead to manumission. See Higgins, Licentious Liberty, 47–48, 52.

112. Lockhart, James, Spanish Peru, 1532–1560: A Social History, 2nd ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 210211.

113. Writing about white women slave owners in the US South, Inge Dornan argues, in “Masterful Women,” that “[hiring out] enabled them to receive from their slaves' work at the same time as it extricated them from a great deal of the practical side of slave management. Unlike women who employed their slaves in their own businesses, or female planters who put their slaves to work in their households and fields, urban women slaveholders who hired out their slaves did not have to supervise their slaves' work” (390). Dornan argues that hiring out slaves also excused women from having to mete out punishment, an option she theorizes was preferred by women who owned adult male slaves (391). Dornan later clarifies that slave owners ruthlessly abused their slaves when they saw fit, regardless of the gender of the owner" (399). She writes, “The evidence suggests that women slaveholders generally conformed to contemporary notions regarding the management of slaves and differed little from their male peers in [disciplining their slaves]” (400). US historian Larry Koger writes, “In many instances, black slave owners were no different from white slave masters. They both exploited the labor of slaves to extract a profit and used their slaves as commodities.” Koger, Larry, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790–1860 (London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1985), 94. Evidence from Brazil demonstrates the similarity of behaviors exhibited by Portuguese slave owners and African-descended women. Kathleen Higgins cites a case of a free woman of African descent named Roza de Azevedo who had enough resources to buy “property and thirty slaves valued at twenty thousand cruzados.” Higgins, Licentious Liberty, 54.

114. Lockhart describes the privileges of slaves who were owned by temporarily absent slave owners in Peru. One shipmaster's female slave had keys to the house, “received visitors and guarded the chest [her slave owner] kept in his bedroom, full of gold, silver, and papers.” Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532–1560, 205. For Brazil, Higgins found that nearly 75 percent of the slaves in the jurisdiction of Sabará “did not live in the town boundaries . . . for many of those living both inside and outside town, personal contact with their masters was limited.” Higgins, Licentious Liberty, 47.

115. For the United States, Koger argues that “after the freed slaves purchased their kinsfolk, they manumitted their loved ones.” Koger, Black Slaveowners, 44. For the United States, Carter G. Woodson argues for what would later be referred to as the “philanthropy” or “benevolence” thesis. Woodson's theory of benevolent slave owning posits that free African Americans purchased family and friends and kept them as slaves to preserve family ties and protect them from the insecurity of “free” life—a supposition taken up by other scholars. David L. Lightner and Alexander M. Ragan provide a succinct summary of scholars who have reasserted Woodson's philanthropy theory. Lightner, David L. and Ragan, Alexander M., “Were African Americans Slaveholders Benevolent or Exploitative? A Quantitative Approach,” Journal of Southern History 71:3 (August 2005): 537. Notably, they include some of the early foundational books on slavery, including Berlin, Ira, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974); Franklin, John Hope, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (New York: Knopf, 1967); Oakes, James, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: Norton, 1998); and Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Vintage Books, 1989). Importantly, Woodson's logic rests on the condition that many US states and territories had enacted laws impeding manumission in ways that made freeing an enslaved member of your own family a less desirable option.

116. Hanger, Bounded Lives; Bounded Places, 34.

117. Hanger, “Landowners, Shopkeepers, Farmers, and Slaveowners,” in David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine, eds., Beyond Bondage, 225.

118. Wilson, Calvin D., “Negroes Who Owned Slaves,” Popular Science Monthly 81 (November 1912): 486487.

119. Wilson, “Negroes Who Owned Slaves,” 488.

120. Wilson, “Negroes Who Owned Slaves,” 485.

121. Bennett, Africans in Colonial Mexico, 18.

122. Lockhart, Spanish Peru, 1532–1560, 205.

123. Regarding transitioning strategies, Júnia Ferreira Furtado notes, “[T]heir only chance of diminishing the social exclusion and stigma of their origins was to avail of precisely the mechanisms the whites used for their survival and promotion. The first of these mechanisms was to purchase a slave, which enabled the owner to remove herself from the world of work. For the freedwomen who registered wills in Tejuco in the eighteenth century, slaves were not only their main source of wealth but also of social affirmation.” Ferreira Furtado, Chica da Silva, 147.

124. Dantas, Mariana L. R., “Humble Slaves and Loyal Vassals,” in Imperial Subjects: Race and Identity in Colonial Latin America, Fisher, Andrew B. and O'Hara, Matthew, eds. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 126.

125. Socolow, “Economic Roles of Free Women,” 286–287.

126. Higgins, Licentious Liberty, 85.

127. In the Brazilian context, Mariana L. R. Dantas discusses the dual benefit of slave owning. She writes, “Because owning slaves allowed [people of African descent] to avoid the types of labor usually associated with slavery, it marked more publicly their transition from property to property holder, improving the general perception of their quality.” Mariana L. R. Dantas, “Humble Slaves and Loyal Vassals,” 126.

128. For an excellent interrogation of “truth” and notarial practices, see Burns, Kathryn, “Notaries, Truth, and Consequences,” American Historical Review 110:2 (April 2015): 350379.

129. Many children who were cited as “natural” or “illegitimate” had biological fathers (including Spaniards) who were active in their lives and who were willing to be acknowledged publicly in Xalapa's parish records. That is to say that illegitimacy did not necessarily mean that fathers were not involved in their children's lives or that they all wanted to remain anonymous. This is especially evident in my exhaustive review of the seventeenth-century confirmation and baptism records of Xalapa's main parish. Archivo Eclesiástico de la Parroquia del Sagrario Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón, Entierros, Casamientos, Bautizos, caja 1, libros 1 and 3; and caja 2, libro 4.

130. The royal notary public of Xalapa, Alonso de Neira Claver, signed all of Polonia's documents. However, Polonia may have interacted with any number of notarial assistants who often served as the first point of interaction in the drafting process, before the official notary public reviewed the documents for final approval and added his signature. For an in-depth discussion of notarial practices, see Burns, Kathryn, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010).

131. For further discussion on well-connected free women who owned businesses, land, and slaves in seventeenth-century Xalapa, see Danielle Terrazas Williams, “Capitalizing Subjects.”

132. Xalapa's notarial archive documents cases in which people owned slaves for as little as a few weeks.

I would like to thank the editorial staff and anonymous reviewers of The Americas for the diligent work that helped propel this article forward. I would also like to acknowledge the scholarly contributions of Pete Sigal and Rachel S. O'Toole, both of whom read early drafts. With sincere gratitude, I would also like to thank my thoughtful colleagues at Oberlin College who offered substantive feedback in various stage of the work. A special thank you goes to the hardworking archivists and archival assistants of the Special Collections Library at the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Veracruz, whose generosity and patience helped me share this history.


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