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.Footnote 1 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.
On March 14, 1679, just six days later, as she lay sick in bed, Polonia de Ribas notarized one final act by commissioning an official carta de libertad (freedom card) for one of her slaves.Footnote 2 In this notarial entry, she freed Gerónimo de Yrala, a 50-year-old man designated as a negro criollo (an African-descended man born in the colonies).Footnote 3 At first, this act might appear ordinary. Many slave owners freed some or all of their slaves on their deathbeds because they believed it to be their final act of generosity. But this manumission case is remarkable for two reasons: Polonia de Ribas was a wealthy free mulata and Gerónimo de Yrala was her brother.
This article explores questions of family, status, and colonial economic sustainability through the complex and provocative life of free African-descended slave owner Polonia de Ribas. While Polonia occupied an exceptional position as a slave owner of her own family members, she was not the only woman of African descent who owned slaves or wielded economic influence in late seventeenth-century Mexico. In the 1600s, when many African-descended people in Mexico still labored as slaves in fields and urban centers, a new demographic of colonial society began to emerge: free African-descended women of means. Although free African-descended people existed throughout the Spanish colonies, as early as the Conquest era, the seventeenth century witnessed tremendous growth in their numbers.Footnote 4 As colonial Mexico's institutions took shape and local economies diversified, free women accessed developing labor markets, demonstrated geographic mobility, and keyed into interracial networks to secure their livelihoods.Footnote 5 Free women employed strategies similar to those of other people of means, but they also applied gendered strategies and found themselves in circumstances specific to their race, such as having enslaved family members or having been enslaved themselves. This article argues that while slavery loomed large in the extensive rural periphery, some free African-descended women in the jurisdiction of Xalapa, Veracruz, attempted to create social distance from slavery with their classed status as slave owners.
Xalapa, the present-day capital of the state of Veracruz, represented a significant hub of regional influence.Footnote 6 Throughout the early colonial period, new viceroys rested in Xalapa on their way to their investitures in the viceregal capital, often staying with a wealthy resident while enjoying the cooler weather of the hilly way station.Footnote 7 Spanish soldiers from the interior of Mexico traveling to the coast for expeditions to Florida also stopped in Xalapa for respite en route to the port of Veracruz.Footnote 8 Commercial businessmen from the port chose to maintain their stocked warehouses in the hillside town.Footnote 9 Most of the principal economic power players preferred the more moderate weather of Xalapa to the sweltering heat of the port, which helped shape the former town's distinctive profile.Footnote 10
In the second half of the seventeenth century, Xalapa and its agricultural environs counted a population between 7,000 and 9,000 inhabitants.Footnote 11 Indigenous people always accounted for the largest percentage, although estimates vary widely, between about 60 percent and 85 percent of the total population.Footnote 12 Excluding the largely indigenous agricultural zones that surrounded Xalapa proper, the demographics of the town changed drastically over the course of the second half of the seventeenth century, with the indigenous population doubling from 1,163 in 1651 to 2,487 by 1700. The Spanish population also expanded, from 281 to 659. The number of mestizos increased from 99 to 247. However, people of African descent represented the most significant change in the profile of the city during this time period. At mid-century, African-descended people accounted for 193 of the inhabitants of Xalapa. By the advent of the 1700s, there were 542 African-descended people, nearly tripling that population in half a century.Footnote 13 Of the approximately 4,000 people living in the town of Xalapa, the demographic breakdown is as follows: 63 percent indigenous, 17 percent Spanish, 6 percent mestizo, and 14 percent of African descent. However, this data represents the residents of the town but does not account for the more transient people of diverse backgrounds who stayed days, weeks, or months for goods, services, or repose in Xalapa.
Sugar cultivation dominated much of the agricultural development, but the town and its environs bustled with an impressive array of enterprises that looked far beyond its own jurisdiction. More than a sugar-producing rest stop for travelers on the Camino Real, Xalapa included elites and merchants who often had connections with the center of colonial authority, Mexico City.Footnote 14 Central Veracruz, anchored by Xalapa and its regional rural complements of Córdoba and Orizaba, formed the “heartland of New Spain's sugar industry until nearly the end of the seventeenth century.”Footnote 15 Veracruz Port served as the major port of entry for transatlantic travel and trade in goods, including African slaves, until the end of the seventeenth century.Footnote 16 The central Veracruz region, as a whole, relied on indigenous labor, along with that of free and enslaved Africans and African descendants, to invigorate the colonial economy.Footnote 17 Through agricultural development and Atlantic commerce, central Veracruz battled bouts of retraction and experienced occasional expansion during the early- and mid-colonial periods.
Some women of African descent in the region created opportunities within these shifting economic and social parameters by purchasing slaves. Unlike the cooks, spinners, weavers, food purveyors, laundresses, and house servants of the colonies, women of African descent who owned slaves experienced relative economic stability and benefited from both tangible and intangible advantages. In many ways, from their becoming moneylenders to their efforts to widen their children's social networks, female slave owners in seventeenth-century Xalapa offer a unique lens for examining the experiences of free women of African descent, their families, and their strategies of intergenerational economic survival. Finally, the notarial footprint of Polonia de Ribas offers important insights into how we understand slave owning among free people more broadly, and the gendered and racialized experience of slave owning, in particular.
Slave ownership among people of African descent continues to offer a complicated narrative. The vast majority of the scholarship on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States focuses on the economic considerations of free people of African descent.Footnote 18 While there is greater historiographical coverage on slave-owning women in the United States, a few important works address the practice for colonial Latin America. Arguably, the most famous case in the history of free women slave owners is the exceptionally wealthy Francisca da Silva de Oliveira, more commonly known as Chica da Silva. Owning more than 100 slaves in her lifetime, Chica da Silva stands as an outlier among free women in Latin America.Footnote 19 In Júnia Ferreira Furtado's richly documented history of this remarkable slave owner and her family, she argues that Chica da Silva's impact cannot be measured in her slaves, diamonds, grand estate, lavish clothing, or luxurious household items alone. Ferreira Furtado reminds us that social influence, public perception, and the ability to mobilize powerful people and their structures for one's own ends are also defining aspects of Chica da Silva's legacy and, I argue, the legacies of even free African-descended women slave owners who lived comparatively modest lives.
An examination of the historiography finds a wide array of practices and life chances for women who owned slaves. In the Brazilian context, Kathleen Higgins establishes that for one gold-mining community in Minas Gerais, African-descended women accounted for two-thirds of all African-descended slave owners and represented an overwhelming majority (70 percent) of women slave owners. However, she argues the prevalence may have had to do with the fact that Spanish men never felt economically threatened by free women who owned slaves, due to the small number of slaves the women individually held.Footnote 20
The inability to compete with larger slaveholders may explain this social and economic opening, but without the broad documentation for historical figures like Chica da Silva it is challenging to understand some of the slave-owning practices of African-descended women. In a separate case analyzed in her study, even scholar Ferreira Furtado seems perplexed that a free woman from the Coast of Mina living in Brazil opted to purchase an enslaved girl instead of purchasing the freedom of one of her two enslaved daughters.Footnote 21 In his examination of the early colonial experiences of African and African-descended people in the circum-Caribbean, David Wheat underlines some characteristics and practices among women who owned land, businesses, homes, and slaves.Footnote 22 While slave owning was likely not widespread among free women during this period, Wheat argues, African-descended women seemed to demonstrate a politics in their slave- owning practices, specifically avoiding the purchase of people from their same “ethnolinguistic background.”Footnote 23 In her examination of Cap Français, Saint-Domingue, Susan Socolow notes that free women tended to prefer purchasing African-born slaves but adds that this was likely because they were the “most numerous and the cheapest.”Footnote 24 In Karen Graubart's examination of free women slave owners in Lima, she argues that these women understood how precarious their economic lives were in early colonial Peru, which manifested in few manumissions.Footnote 25 Freeing slaves meant losing future income and exposing oneself and one's family to financial ruin, especially given the prevalence of illness that could inhibit the productivity of a critical wage-earning member of a family.Footnote 26
With the exception of Wheat, who identified some barriers that African-descended women seemingly did not cross, most of the literature establishes that people of African descent held very similar ideas about slave owning and slave-owning practices. The scholarship has relied heavily on notarial sources, specifically wills and bills of sale and purchase, as does this study. However, this article examines the rarely documented phenomenon of the gendered concerns of intraracial familial ownership, among rarely examined historical figures, that is, free African-descended women in colonial Mexico.Footnote 27 The particularity of female slave ownership may help us better understand the vulnerabilities of gendered freedom and the strategies of quotidian survival among free populations in slave societies.Footnote 28 For this, we return to the life of the protagonist of this endeavor, Polonia de Ribas.
Polonia de Ribas was born in San Antonio Huatusco, Veracruz (now in the municipality of Huatusco).Footnote 29 It is unclear when she moved to Xalapa, but in every instance for which she appears before the notary public she is designated in the records as a vecina (an acknowledged householder).Footnote 30 While her date of birth is unknown, Polonia was likely in her fifties when she submitted her last will and testament in 1679.Footnote 31 The documents do not reveal how long she lived in San Antonio Huatusco, but by at least 1655, Polonia was a resident of Coatepec in the jurisdiction of Xalapa.Footnote 32 Polonia's will later identified her as living in Xalapa proper. The notarial entries offer a few clues about Polonia's heritage. Her mother, Clara Lópes, was cited as a negra born in “Guinea.”Footnote 33 Clara had been a slave for some unspecified amount of time at Tenampa, a sugar hacienda owned by a man named Pedro de Yrala.Footnote 34 On November 17, 1643, Pedro's nephew, don Joseph Ceballos de Burgos, granted a woman of about 60, named “Clara López,” a carta de libertad.Footnote 35 Clara López was not a particularly unique name, but she was noted as a negra from “Berbesi,” designating her as a bozal (someone born in Africa).Footnote 36 There is a possibility that this manumitted Clara López of 1643 was Polonia's mother, as the record describes her as a “negra bozal from Guinea,” and given that it was Pedro de Yrala's nephew who freed her. It is uncertain when she passed away, but Polonia's 1679 will and testament noted that Clara was already deceased.
Her mother's history offers two important insights into slavery in colonial Mexico. First, Clara López's enslavement situates Polonia de Ribas one generation from bondage, establishing a significant trajectory for a woman who would establish herself as a prominent and trusted member of Xalapa's elite. Second, Clara López's notarial life marks an important watershed in the history of slavery in New Spain. She and those who survived the Middle Passage with her represented one of the last generations of enslaved Africans brought to New Spain en masse.Footnote 37 With the dissolution of the Iberian Union in 1640, Spain experienced its final wave of high importation of African slaves to colonial Mexico.Footnote 38 Never again would thousands of enslaved Africans be forcibly displaced to the shores of New Spain each year, as had occurred when the Spanish crown benefited from the advantageous contracts most often brokered by Portuguese traders. Polonia de Ribas, the only documented living daughter of Clara López, would soon entangle her life with the institution that had fundamentally disrupted her mother's story as a West African-born woman and changed the trajectories and life chances of all of her family members.
Unfortunately, there are no records that elaborate on the life of Clara López. Perhaps she quietly passed her days as a free woman by Polonia's side helping with her daughter's growing family. By the time Polonia registered her last will and testament in 1679, she had four daughters, Sebastiana, Josefa, Micaela, and Melchora de Yrala, and one son, Juan de Ribas. Her notarial footprint also demonstrates that Polonia de Ribas was a fairly wealthy woman. When Melchora married Diego de Villar, a Spaniard originally from Xalapa who had relocated to Veracruz Port, Polonia provided her daughter with a substantial dowry that included 3,000 pesos worth of slaves, jewelry, oxen, cash, clothing, and other items of value. Not only a mechanism to provide economic security for women, the dowry also served as a status marker.Footnote 39 As Asunción Lavrin has emphasized, “Women in good social standing were expected to provide a dowry for marriage,” adding that wealthy women in Mexico City could offer 10,000 pesos, and some noble families could offer hundreds of thousands.Footnote 40 While not a quantitative study, María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez offers late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century examples of African-descended women from the middling economic sectors in Mexico City with dowries around 1,500 pesos in value. On the higher end of the examples, the African-descended daughter of a famed African-descended painter received a dowry of 2,206 pesos.Footnote 41
Lavrin estimates that families in more provincial towns could likely offer from “one to several thousand pesos.”Footnote 42 Xalapa fell closer to these regional ranges, with a few remarkable outliers. In a survey of 100 years of dowries of women from all backgrounds in Xalapa, only three times did families offer exorbitant dowries for their daughters—two of which were valued at 20,000 pesos each.Footnote 43 In 1669, when doña Juana Josefa Orduña Loyando y Sousa of Xalapa married don Juan Velázquez de la Cadena from Mexico City, her family offered a dowry of 30,000 pesos in cash, slaves, and other goods, perhaps feeling the pressure to compete economically with elite families of the capital.Footnote 44
For the second half of the seventeenth century, when Polonia de Ribas likely transferred the gift to her daughter's new estate, it is challenging to establish an average dowry price.Footnote 45 One 1645 dowry clearly states its value at 2,876 pesos, broken down as 1,000 pesos in cash and the rest in clothing, jewels, and other domestic items.Footnote 46 A 1642 entry does not state an estimate but notes that the dowry comprised one half of the family's sugar mill, San Sebastián Maxtlatlan. The mill featured tracts of land, boilers, plumbing, living quarters, a number of storage rooms, various tools and packaging for transporting cane, 15 mules, 11 mares, four horses, 50 oxen, 40 cows and steers, 17 bulls, 25 other pack animals of various conditions and ages, 13 enslaved men, three enslaved women, and 90 pesos in back annuities from a convent in Puebla.Footnote 47 The line items are impressive, but Gilberto Bermúdez Gorrochotegui finds that San Sebastián Maxtlatlan was actually in decline by the 1630s and 1640s due to fire damage, the death of slaves, and “other impairments.”Footnote 48 How promising was the actual value of the dowry, given its deterioration from a once profitable estate?Footnote 49 Dowries could be misleading.
Of the 36 dowries examined, the values for two are ambiguous: the aforementioned dowry of one-half of the ingenio and another dowry that consisted of unvalued houses.Footnote 50 Of the dowries with discernible values registered in the mid 1600s, many (14) were valued at under 1,000 pesos.Footnote 51 However, these lesser cash value dowries were actually quite substantial. Five of the 14 included eight slaves, highlighting the importance of slavery in Xalapa and how “value” could be underrepresented in dowry prices.Footnote 52 Two of the 14 entries referenced funds to dower orphaned girls, which were valued between 150 and 200 pesos per dowry.Footnote 53 Excluding these seven dowries, only seven women received less than 1,000 pesos during this time period.Footnote 54 Seven women also received dowries between 1,000 and 2,000 pesos.Footnote 55 Three women had dowries valued between 2,000 and 3,000 pesos.Footnote 56 Only two women had dowries valued between 3,000 and 5,000 pesos.Footnote 57 Five dowries were valued between 5,000 and 7,000 pesos.Footnote 58 One woman received a generous dowry of 8,000 pesos.Footnote 59 Two dowries broke the mold with extravagant valuations of 20,000 and 30,000 pesos, demonstrating that a few families in this relatively provincial town had the resources to attract the most well-heeled marriage partners for their daughters.Footnote 60 Given this sample, Polonia de Riba's dowry stands up to those of most of the Spanish residents of Xalapa, offering a dowry larger than those of 24 other families. The historiography clearly demonstrates that dowries made for serious considerations for elite families but so too were they for at least one woman of African descent in colonial Xalapa who attempted to secure the best possible marriage prospect for her daughter.
Religiosity and Status
In addition to the 3,000-peso dowry for her daughter, Polonia's de Riba's sense of belonging in Xalapa's spiritual economy may also signal her concerns about status. In her last will and testament, Polonia dutifully (and formulaically) noted that she “entrusts her soul to God, Our Father . . . [and] as such, dying under this disposition, I want to be buried in the church of Señor San Francisco of this town, shrouded in the habit and chord of his sacred religion.”Footnote 61 The monastery of San Francisco, founded by Franciscan friars between 1531 and 1534, was Xalapa's oldest Catholic institution.Footnote 62 Polonia's belief that she should be buried in the church of San Francisco, where Xalapa's Spanish elites rested, speaks to her self-assurance that she had a place not only in the town's social milieu but also in its spiritual community.
Polonia also requested that the executors of her estate pay for a mass to be celebrated during her vigil as she lay in wake. She asked also that 20 masses be offered for her soul after her interment, with alms for the services to be paid for by her estate funds. Elite Spaniards in colonial Spanish America often commissioned masses for their souls, but so too did more middling members of society, often through membership in a cofradía (confraternity, or lay Church organization).Footnote 63
The women and men of cofradías participated in public and private religious celebrations, contributed to charitable efforts, and organized secular social events. Members represented the economic spectrum and all racial groups were encouraged to join.Footnote 64 The scholarship on cofradías has established that some African-descended people mobilized their memberships for social advancement.Footnote 65 So while cofradías often did assist in the burial costs of their more humble members, Polonia de Ribas, a member of two cofradías in Xalapa, did not require such services. Polonia belonged to the cofradía Santo Nombre de Jesús and the cofradía Ánimas de Purgatorio. She noted in her will that she was behind in her dues for the year and that her executors should pay each cofradía three pesos to settle her accounts. Polonia added that the officers of both cofradías should ensure that masses be offered for burial, “as they are said for all [members].” There is no specific mention of Polonia's responsibilities in either, but the cofradía Ánimas was one of the oldest in Xalapa, dating back to at least the early 1600s. It once had been granted the honor to adorn the pulpit of the main chapel in the San Francisco convent.Footnote 66 She may not have needed more than the customary bestowal of masses from her cofradías, but Polonia's membership demonstrated her range of religious commitments and the expanding scope of her social capital.
While business, familial, and confraternal connections denote a broad range of relationships, the archives revealed little about other interpersonal relationships. For example, given the demographic breakdown of Xalapa, it is curious that Polonia had no documented interactions with indigenous people.Footnote 67 Also, Polonia may have served as a godmother, as was common among elite women in colonial Spanish America, but she was not named in any of the surviving baptismal or confirmation records from Xalapa's parish.Footnote 68 Nor did any of her daughters take on the responsibility of god-parentage. Her son Juan de Ribas served as the godfather to a two-day-old mulata named Josefa Gregoria.Footnote 69 However, Juan does not appear in the parish records; his role as godfather was recorded in the notarial archive when he paid for the infant girl's freedom.Footnote 70 His sister Melchora also registered business with the notary public. She and her Spanish husband Diego del Villar notarized the sale of their female slave María to a man living in La Antigua, Veracruz.Footnote 71 Polonia's children, it appears, also had wide economic networks and disparate relationships with the institution of slavery.
Polonia's final notarial entry asserts her financial literacy. The first-person narrative reads, in a formulaic statement for wills, “I declare that I do not owe anything to anyone . . . my conscience is free and clear.” As a single mother of five children who knew how to manage her finances, Polonia de Ribas proved to be a fiscally responsible woman.Footnote 72 Her impressive complex of associates, extending to include prominent religious communities, business and familial connections in Veracruz Port, and distinguished residents of Xalapa, may help to explain how and why she came to spend most of her life as a slave owner.
Polonia, The Slave Owner
From at least the mid 1640s until her death in 1679, Polonia de Ribas was a slave owner, during a time when slave owning was not a venture accessible to all. She owned two of her brothers, Gerónimo de Yrala and Juan de Yrala, an unrelated slave named Diego de Yrala, two unnamed slaves, and an untold number of slaves referred to in her daughter's dowry. Slave owning marked an exclusive economic undertaking, and it cost a considerable amount of money. On average in Xalapa, slaves cost between 300 and 400 pesos.Footnote 73 As a point of comparison, a horse cost 15 pesos and a small urban house cost 200 pesos.Footnote 74 For less wealthy slave owners, the purchase of slaves was their largest financial investment. Even for large landowners, slaves were very costly. As Patrick Carroll establishes, “Slaves represented the most expensive single item on the inventories of many of the province's seventeenth-century estates, plantations such as Mazatlán, Almolonga, Santísima Trinidad, Concepción, and Rosario. They cost more than the land, the equipment, and the buildings.”Footnote 75 Being known as a slave owner could establish or reaffirm one's social capital. For an elite set of free women, being a slave owner offered relative financial security, entry into wider community networks, and, in turn, greater social status. Only people with financial backers, profitable family ties, or particularly well-honed pecuniary skills could engage in slave ownership during Xalapa's economically unstable seventeenth century.
So how did a free mulata with at least one enslaved parent gain such valuable assets?
To begin, on February 25, 1655, don Joseph Ceballos de Burgos “donated” two slaves to Polonia. The two slaves were her half-brothers, Juan and Gerónimo de Yrala.Footnote 76 However, what is described as a “donation” in the 1655 document turns out to be not a gift at all but rather a business transaction. In Gerónimo's 1679 manumission order, Polonia registered his racial designation as negro criollo, and his age, then added that Gerónimo and his brother Juan were “exchanged for two other negros bozales, which I gave to the mill that produces sugar called Tenampa.”Footnote 77 At the time of the trade, Juan and Gerónimo were 25 and 20 years old, respectively, and both were identified as negros criollos, indicating that they were born in the colonies. Juan and Gerónimo had been slaves on the Tenampa hacienda, the same place where their mother had been as an enslaved laborer. The owner of the Tenampa hacienda was Pedro de Yrala, the wealthy uncle of don Joseph Ceballos de Burgos. Pedro de Yrala was a man of distinction in Xalapa. By 1637, he was a resident at a sugar mill in Xalapa and served as a priest holding the honorific title of bachiller.Footnote 78 As the years passed, Pedro increased his visibility and his titles. In 1643, he functioned as the cura beneficiado (or head priest) of Xalapa.Footnote 79 By that time, he also had access to greater income, having inherited the considerable Tenampa hacienda from his mother, and owned a number of slaves.Footnote 80 Known as the hacendero of Tenampa and for other business he conducted in the region, Pedro de Yrala boosted his prestige further in 1660, when he found a seat as an ecclesiastical judge, a common ascension of duties for curas beneficiados.Footnote 81
Don Joseph Ceballos de Burgos, Pedro de Yrala's nephew, came from one of the oldest and wealthiest families in the jurisdiction of Xalapa. He inherited the large, multi-industry estate of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción and administered and later purchased Tenampa from his uncle Pedro. He also owned another mill, called El Molino del Río Frío, and a cattle ranch called La Palmilla, both located in the jurisdiction of La Antigua, Veracruz.Footnote 82 Don Joseph regularly conducted business in Veracruz Port and Mexico City. By 1655, he was identified as the justicia mayor of Xalapa, a chief magistrate appointed by the viceroy.Footnote 83 It is no wonder that in the first half of the seventeenth century, don Joseph's ventures generated more than 60 entries in public records by the notary public. Beyond the business transaction in which she acquired her brothers, Polonia's notarial life documents further interactions with the Yrala and Ceballos de Burgos family, which demonstrates that her network of associates included wealthy and politically powerful men who held her in esteem.
In 1664, Pedro de Yrala bestowed upon Polonia de Ribas the legal right to represent him.Footnote 84 Specifically, Pedro wanted Polonia to collect on a sizeable debt, 257 pesos, from an inn owner named Joseph Cogollos y Zarate. Pedro de Yrala could have chosen a Spanish man from his network of associates, including the affluent ones in his own family, but he did not. He entrusted a free mulata to do the job for him, to collect a large sum of money from a prominent Spaniard. She was certainly not the only person available, nor did he reluctantly choose her as a substitute legal agent. Nor was it the case that Pedro de Yrala sent Polonia de Ribas on a casual errand to pick up a parcel full of notes from Joseph de Cogollos y Zarate's home. Sometimes legal proxies were unsuccessful at collecting fully on debts, which could lead to costly and lengthy processes of choosing new agents and dispatching them again. Pedro de Yrala either knew with confidence that Polonia de Ribas had some influence over Joseph de Cogollos y Zarate or that she was a resolute mediator and shrewd negotiator who would ensure that the matter would be resolved in one visit. What we can deduce from this case is that Polonia de Ribas, a free mulata, held the regard and trust of one member of Xalapa's elite, marking her as a member of Pedro de Yrala's inner circle.
While we know that Pedro de Yrala trusted Polonia to serve as his legal agent, the archive yields little about her relationship with don Joseph Ceballos de Burgos, with whom she also conducted business. Perhaps she was involved romantically with him. Perhaps the relationship between Polonia and don Joseph was affective but not romantic. For Mexico City, María Elisa Velázquez Gutiérrez cites the late seventeenth-century case of free African-descended Pascuala Santoyo, wife to Juan Correa, medical surgeon of the Inquisition, and later mother of famed painter Juan Correa.Footnote 85 In 1630, the wealthy treasurer of the Order of Santiago, Alonso de Santoyo, gifted to Pascuala, her siblings, and her children the revenues of a 6,000-peso mortgage.Footnote 86 Velázquez Gutiérrez posits that Alonso was perhaps the slave owner of Pascuala's parents, or that Alonso had an intimate or affective relationship with Pascuala's mother.Footnote 87
It is also noted that when Pascuala married the surgeon Juan Correa, she brought a dowry of 500 pesos—not the amount seen among the most elite women in Mexico City—but given that some brides had no dowry at all, an indicator that she had access to some means, either through her own industry or a willing benefactor.Footnote 88 Much as in the case of Polonia, the notarial documents rarely offer enough personal inferences to attest to the nature of these financially entangled relationships. What can be discerned from the documents is a realm of possibilities that may communicate Polonia's ingenuity and her ability to secure relative social and financial status in this town of business-centric colonial subjects.
Polonia owned her two brothers for more than two decades, but she also owned at least one unrelated slave for a considerable amount of time. When Polonia later manumitted her slave Diego de Yrala in 1676, she noted that he was a 30-year-old man who had been “born and raised” in her home, which situates her earliest experiences of slave owning to no later than 1646, nearly a decade before she owned her brothers.Footnote 89 She also owned the two negros bozales whom she exchanged for her brothers in 1655. The dowry Polonia offered her daughter does not specify the quantity of slaves it included, but their value undoubtedly comprised a significant portion of the 3,000 pesos. It is likely that Polonia previously owned the slaves included in the bridal gift or bought them for that purpose, making her either a more significant slave owner than was recorded or far wealthier than her last will and testament suggests.
How did a single mother of five just one generation removed from slavery have the capital to maintain so many slaves while sustaining herself, likely her aging mother, and any unmarried daughters? Polonia's notarial life provides no explicit record of an income-generating business outside of hiring out her own slaves, but there are a few clues as to how she continued to grow side businesses to support the many people in her life and give at least one daughter a respectable dowry. The first hint is found in the dowry, which included the prized gift of oxen. Xalapa was a business nexus and a way station between the economic centers of Mexico City, Puebla, and Veracruz Port, and its residents took part in commerce, entering into businesses such as venta (owning an inn) and recua (conducting pack trains).Footnote 90 Free women of African descent were among those who worked at, and sometimes owned, these profitable businesses. For example, a free African-descended woman owned Xalapa's Venta del Rio while another managed the Venta de la Rinconada.Footnote 91 In addition to revenue from the businesses catering to the various demands of the transportation industry and a transient community flowing in and out of town, Xalapa had long received crown support to foster its agricultural potential. Between 1560 and 1600, Spanish settlers received land grants from New Spain's viceroys to develop pastures for maintenance of both large and small ranch animals, most importantly mules and oxen.Footnote 92
For much of the seventeenth century, Xalapa served as a refueling station for the many muleteers transporting cargo and people from Mexico City, Puebla, Orizaba, and Veracruz Port along the Camino Real.Footnote 93 Perhaps Polonia rented out her oxen to one of the many sugar plantations or sugar mills, or even to a pack-train business owner. She would certainly not be the only woman of African descent in the transportation business. In 1712, free mulatto Miguel Jiménez Carralero registered his last will and testament. In it, he recognized his lawful marriage to a free mulata, Mariana Rodríguez, and stated that when the couple married neither had any wealth but that they had grown a business together, netting a “fortune totaling eleven thousand pesos, more or less,” mostly through their pack-train business, with a reserve of more than 200 mules.Footnote 94 In 1704, a widow and free mulata named Ana de la Cruz declared that in addition to owning several houses, she owned seven oxen, four cows, four calves, eight mares, a sorrel horse, “an old mule,” and seven pieces of unspecified cattle.Footnote 95 Ana likely owned a farm, and she may have rented out her livestock to supplement the agricultural or transportation needs of the town.
In addition to these options, Polonia de Ribas could have also benefited from the constant supply of cash-strapped colonials in need of patrons who could lend them money. Subjects of colonial Spanish America notoriously found themselves cash-deficient, allowing for the proliferation of loan agreements and debt settlements in notarial record books. And here we return to Polonia's proclamation that her conscience was “free and clear” because she carried no debt. While she had done well not to burden her estate with the possibility of dissolution by eager creditors, Polonia also wanted to remind her estate managers that at least two wealthy Spanish men in Xalapa owed her money. One of the debtors was none other than don Joseph Ceballos de Burgos. The other was Capitán don Antonio Orduña Loyando, owner of the sugar mill San Pedro Buenavista, which at one point had more then 100 slaves on site.Footnote 96 While Polonia did not enumerate the amounts owed, she assured the notary that she had papers to document the debt and claimed that all could be corroborated in the personal papers and wills of those involved.Footnote 97 Perhaps believing that she was a family friend, Polonia likely trusted that don Joseph would honor the repayment without having it notarized. It is curious though, given that there are no documents that speak to her ties to don Antonio, that Polonia would be confident that he would repay her heirs. Perhaps her reputation as a shrewd businesswoman and debt collector preceded her.
Loaning money to neighbors, friends, and family members remained an in-demand business across Spanish America for the whole of the colonial period. Larger investors and diversified prospectors looked both to other elites and to the Catholic Church, as monasteries and convents became the colonies' de facto financial centers.Footnote 98 By the early 1600s, Xalapa's largest land and business owners began to explore financing options that might be offered by elites in Veracruz Port, Puebla, and Mexico City. As the century marched on, credit remained in high demand.Footnote 99 Smaller loans were handled locally and between social equals, and also through less equitable patronage systems.Footnote 100 Polonia likely charged interest (although it is not specified in the will) or informally agreed to collect other good or services from these two elite clients. She certainly did not consider these monies owed as favors or gifts: she was mindful to make note of them as she lay sick in bed while having her last will and testament drawn up. Her ability to loan money to landowning (but perhaps cash-poor) Spanish men and to serve as the financial proxy for at least one prominent Xalapa power broker speaks to her impeccable fiscal reputation and further establishes her place in late seventeenth-century Xalapa.Footnote 101
In many ways, Polonia de Ribas was a typical urban slave owner in the region. She owned a few slaves, loaned money to some of her peers, and made business deals with others. And like many slave owners in the Americas, she was open to the idea of manumission.Footnote 102 Polonia legally freed at least three of her slaves. In 1675, she freed her half-brother Juan de Yrala after he had labored for 20 years as her slave.Footnote 103 In 1676, she freed the unrelated Diego de Yrala, a negro criollo.Footnote 104 The documents state that Polonia's love for Juan and his loyal service moved her to free him; this rhetoric is found throughout manumission records. However, it was not until she was on her deathbed in 1679 that Polonia freed her other half-brother, Gerónimo de Yrala. At that point Gerónimo was in his mid-forties, married with children, and living and working at a sugar mill in Xalapa as Polonia's hired-out slave. Although Polonia acknowledged Gerónimo de Yrala as her brother, she declared him as her slave among other goods and property.
The paragraph relating to Gerónimo reads like most other clauses offering freedom to slaves in wills: “I declare that among my belongings is Gerónimo de Yrala, negro criollo, my slave, who is the son of Clara López, my deceased mother, for whose respect and for other causes, it is my will, given that he provides 40 pesos as he has promised, that when the time comes . . . my executors provide him with a carta de libertad.”Footnote 105 Even in the notarized carta de libertad that Polonia filed a few days after her will, the language remains tepid.Footnote 106 She asked that her executors grant a liberty card to Gerónimo de Yrala, noted that he was her brother, and reiterated the 40-peso agreement. Noticeably, it is devoid of sentimental language.
The instruction to free Diego de Yrala, no relation to Polonia, offers language that might be more likely found in the manumission of Gerónimo. Diego's official manumission document reads, “I grant [a liberty card] to my slave Diego de Yrala, who is a negro criollo and approximately 30 years of age; he is the son of my slave Catalina, a negra from Guinea. [Diego] was born in and still lives in my house, and has served me with so much purpose and loyalty.”Footnote 107 The will offers even more sentimental language: I declare that to Diego de Yrala, my negro slave, I have given and granted liberty before the present notary . . . and I declare that he has always aided and supported me with much love and by his own will from [Veracruz Port], where he is presently and has been working to assist me.”Footnote 108
While “love” and “free will” were common rhetorical devices in manumission cases in Xalapa, Polonia reserved them for her slave Diego, who lived in Veracruz Port, and withheld from her brother Gerónimo, who lived in the same town as she did. Rather than an expression of affection or intimacy, this notarial “love” seems to express a sense of loyalty on the part of the slave, as experienced by the slave owner.Footnote 109 If Polonia believed that Diego had fulfilled his obligation with “much love,” his manumission was her expression of the recognition of such loyalty. His manumission entry notes that Diego was “born and raised” in Polonia's house.Footnote 110 The distinctions between the declaration of the manumission in her will and in Diego's carta de libertad allude to Polonia de Ribas's understanding of herself as both a generous and grateful slave owner and as a person who owned her family members with noted indifference. The distant tone she uses to refer to her half-brother may also reflect his status as a hired-out slave who did not live with her and thus was not bonded by the intimacy experienced between slave owners and slaves living in closer proximity, those slaves having been “born and raised” in the slave owner's home.Footnote 111
That Polonia hired out her slaves is also telling. At least two of her slaves, Gerónimo de Yrala and Diego de Yrala, worked in Xalapa and Veracruz Port, respectively, as Polonia's “hired-out” labor. Both men lived at their work sites and were married with children. James Lockhart describes the particularity of hired-out slaves in colonial Peru: “Many or most of these blacks [in the agricultural zones] were without any direct Spanish supervision.”Footnote 112 Scholarship outside of the Spanish American context argues that hired-out slaves freed slave-owning women from the burden of supervising their slaves' activities, but others assert that women managed their slaves as others did.Footnote 113 While it unclear what type of work Gerónimo and Diego performed, or what they thought about their owner, Polonia de Ribas managed to keep them relatively productive for decades without demonstrating differential treatment.
Polonia's case suggests that slave owners of African descent in colonial Mexico likely represented a mixture of slave-owning possibilities—purchasing slaves, keeping the children of their female slaves until adulthood, hiring slaves out, manumitting slaves when they wanted to— but many questions still remain. Did the practice of hiring out slaves allow free African-descended women to enjoy economic and social advantages while simultaneously shielding them from the reality of perpetuating a system that inflicted incalculable atrocities on other people of African descent? Did African-descended women who owned slaves prefer the distance offered by hiring out their slaves to meting out corporal punishment to slaves who lived and worked near them? The practice of slave-owner absenteeism, including hired-out slaves living “nearly free,” was commonplace in many slave societies in the Americas.Footnote 114 Perhaps this was the case for Diego de Yrala and his family: they may have enjoyed relative freedom while Polonia enjoyed the benefits of absentee slave owning. Where Polonia de Ribas' story complicates the historiography is in the fact of owning family members as slaves.
Many scholars agree that free people of African descent who owned slaves understood the endeavor as a profitable one. However, this historiographical discussion drastically changes in the case of owning family members.Footnote 115 What could have motivated Polonia de Ribas to keep her brothers as slaves for more than 20 years before finally freeing one in 1675 and the other as she lay dying in 1679? Was it possible that Polonia de Ribas understood Juan and Gerónimo as chattel, even though they are cited as her brothers in every single document in which their names appear together? Could status-based considerations undermine acknowledged blood ties? Few scholars have examined this seemingly rare practice in the Spanish dominion. Kimberly Hanger cites a case of a free pardo man in Spanish New Orleans who purchased his enslaved son but did not manumit him for another 20 years.Footnote 116 Unfortunately, Hanger does not offer any conjectures as to why this father did not provide his son with a freedom card that would have enabled him to enjoy the legal status of a free man. In a later piece, Hanger briefly addresses the topic of African-descended people owning family members and argues, “As long as slave prices remained low, free people of color who could afford bondspersons used them. In addition, free blacks often could afford to purchase their slave relatives and free them with few constraints, and thus they did not need to hold them as slaves.”Footnote 117 So why did Polonia not free her siblings?
As the historiography of African-descended slave owners has developed, historians working on other American colonies have begun to challenge what might be called the “benevolence” theory. US historian Calvin D. Wilson warns against drawing the conclusion that those who owned their own family members as slaves did so for altruistic reasons, for example, keeping families together when anti-manumission laws spread in the southern United States. While the benevolence theory may apply to their initial purchase of family members, it seems that owners of family members in the US South also understood the value of leverage that slave ownership offered them in familial disputes. Wilson cites a particularly interesting case of an African American woman named Dilsey Pope, from Georgia, who owned her husband. Her husband had offended her and in retaliation, Pope sold him to another slave owner.Footnote 118 In Kentucky, Fanny Canady merely threatened the worst to resolve problems with her husband, as Wilson narrates:
Aunt Fanny Canady was a colored woman of Louisville, Ky., who bought herself and several members of her family. She also owned her husband, named Jim, a little drunken cobbler. One day Fanny went into her husband's shop with fire in her eyes and finger pointed at her husband. She said, “Jim, if you don't 'have yourself, I'm gwine sell you down river.” Jim sat mute and trembling, as to send down the river meant to sell to a negro trader and to be taken to the cotton fields of the far south.Footnote 119
Generational gaps also did not appear to impede the powerful positions occupied by slave owners. In North Carolina, a young free man named Jacob worked with his mother to pull together enough resources to purchase his father, also named Jacob. As punishment for having criticized his son, young Jacob sold his own father to a slave trader, with this farewell: “The old man had gone to the corn fields about New Orleans where they might learn him some manners.”Footnote 120 This type of exploitative power play may explain how Polonia was able to maintain two adult male siblings as her slaves for approximately 20 years. If they feared that their sister might sell them or their families to a traveling negrero (slave merchant), Polonia would have accomplished the slave owner's perennial goal of balancing the threat of retribution for disobedience with the goal of continued productivity. As at least one of her brothers had a wife and children, the cost of being separated from them due to insubordination to his sister-owner likely motivated him to continue what became a long tenure.
Although Polonia de Ribas hired out one of her brothers in a way that allowed him to live with his family, there is no suggestion that she owned his wife or children. However, she did the same for a slave who was no relation to her, Diego de Yrala. This decision implies that economic considerations or other practical reasons, rather than a familial connection, motivated Polonia's actions. Although some scholars do not allow for the possibility that “exploitative” slavery was possible among slave owners who possessed family, Polonia de Ribas' case indicates that for at least one woman of African descent in seventeenth-century Xalapa, there was no intrinsic conflict. It is challenging to determine if Polonia's familial connection to two of her slaves “meant” anything to her other than what she documented. She did “free” them from the Tenampa hacienda, but when Gerónimo was finally manumitted in 1679, he continued to labor on a sugar hacienda.
With no further qualitative evidence to describe the condition of her brothers' enslavement, the documents beg the question: did being a slave owner reconstitute familial considerations in a way that aligned Polonia de Ribas so closely to Spanish elites in Xalapa that not even her own family members “mattered” anymore? Even if she never physically abused Juan and Gerónimo de Yrala, they were nevertheless her slaves for more than two decades. If there were no abuses, did she merely keep them as slaves to secure her place among Xalapa's elites? Did slave owning serve as a social buffer for an upwardly mobile African-descended woman who was herself just one generation removed from slavery? The historiography of colonial Latin America, more broadly, establishes that a constellation of artifacts and artifices was mobilized by the upwardly mobile and more tenuously elite members of society to garner distinction. Herman Bennett asserts, “In Mexico City, [slaves] represented both labor and symbols of the status of their owners.”Footnote 121 Of the colonial Peruvian context, James Lockhart wrotes, “No encomendero felt happy until he owned a large house, land, livestock, and—most to the point here—black servants. Most Spaniards could not hope to achieve this goal in its entirety, but they aimed at least for two essentials, a house (which could be rented) and blacks.”Footnote 122
Turning to Brazil, Júnia Ferreira Furtado has found that free African-descended women established much of their wealth through slave owning. Not only that, she argues, but their ownership of slaves also generated a type of “social affirmation.”Footnote 123 Mariana L. R. Dantas agrees, adding, “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.”Footnote 124 Susan Socolow, from the context of Saint-Domingue, echoes their assessments, “To free people of color of Cap Français, as to whites, ownership of slaves was a mark of prosperity and social distinction.”Footnote 125 Again from the colonial Brazilian milieu, Kathleen Higgins reiterates the specific gendered concerns highlighted by Ferreira Furtado. Higgins writes, “The best proof to others that one was no longer a slave or enslaveable was surely to become a master.”Footnote 126 Higgins and Ferreira Furtado's foregrounding of the particular vulnerability experienced by women of African descent sheds light on the possibility that Polonia and other women like her perhaps saw slave owning as one of many strategies to reorient society's perception of them.
We return to Polonia's story. Polonia, a mulata born in the agricultural periphery of central Veracruz to an enslaved African-born mother, perhaps desired status, but she may have actually needed the status as slave owner to safeguard against a certain degree of discrimination and even challenges to her own freedom—including the freedom to live and make choices as the matriarch of a free-born family. If Polonia felt that these freedoms were fragile, perhaps she kept her brothers as a way to claim legitimacy as a public and economic actor. If asserting and maintaining one's position as slave owner offered the possibility for greater social currency and economic stability, it is not surprising then that Polonia de Ribas, as a mulata and the single mother of five children, held fast to her status and refused to relinquish her slaves, even family members, until she lay sick on her deathbed.
The documents do not reveal definitively whether Polonia was a benevolent slave owner or one who had chosen slave owning as a strategy for engaging in the theater of respectability, or whether she saw beyond race and blood ties and primarily understood herself as a slave owner among many others who owned slaves in colonial Xalapa.Footnote 127 What the documents do allow us to know is that she was a single woman with a large family to support. Being marked as a mulata did not seem to inhibit her ability to provide for her children and see them to adulthood and eventually to marriage. Polonia existed in a circle of elites who owned slaves and made business transactions with others in the region. She served as the legal proxy for a wealthy member of Xalapa's elite. At the time of her will, at least two Spanish men owed her money. In many regards, she behaved as they did. There is no indication in the available documents that Polonia was ever raised with her siblings: she was a free woman, and they were slaves on a sugar mill until they were about 20 years old. Thus, she may have never identified with them in a familial sense and could have treated them as she did her other slaves.
What can be gleaned from these highly mediated sources is Polonia's relationship to the notarial archive, her role in notarial truth making.Footnote 128 The notarial truth that is fashioned by or for Polonia is quite remarkable. According to her notarial history, Polonia de Ribas came from humble beginnings as the daughter of an enslaved African woman. She was a “mulata libre y soltera,” an unwed free woman with five “natural” children.Footnote 129 Her position as a woman of means was aided by her ownership of slaves, including her enslaved siblings. In fact, Polonia appears to have owned slaves during most of her life. At some point, she also became a homeowner. The oxen she gifted her daughter through the generous dowry indicates the possibility that Polonia was involved in Xalapa's active pack-train business. And finally, as she lay on her deathbed, she offered a concluding act as an archetypal “benevolent” slave owner, freeing one of her brothers.
Polonia's notarial life was exceptional, whether personally constructed or influenced by the interests of the notarial offices. Much of her narrative follows the same narrative as other slave owners in Xalapa, a correspondence she likely leveraged to establish greater opportunities for herself and her family.Footnote 130 While this study focuses on the life of Polonia de Ribas and her family and social network, slave owning accorded free women of African descent in Xalapa, more generally, the opportunity to access a greater cross section of society. As they bought and sold slaves, they interacted with slave traders from the Veracruz Port, sugar mill owners in the agricultural peripheries of the jurisdiction, and elite and more modest slave owners in Xalapa. Some women were first-generation slave owners, while others benefited from multigenerational involvement in the slave market. Owning slaves formed part of a broader repertoire of privileged activities in which free women engaged, including owning extensive properties, managing their businesses, and demonstrating elite sensibilities, such as offering dowries to their daughters.Footnote 131 Being a woman of African descent and being a slave owner in the seventeenth century were not mutually exclusive identities, and the silence from colonial authorities regarding free women who owned slaves suggests that this phenomenon posed little or no threat to accepted normative behavior. Xalapa was home to free women of African descent who had owned slaves since the turn of the seventeenth century. This long history, along with their limited numbers, created an environment in which free women enjoyed significant opportunities in trade, business, and property ownership that enriched their economic standing and social status.
We have not yet established the prevalence of African-descended female slave owners in New Spain. A barrier to such an assessment is that not everyone who held slaves was a lifelong slave owner, and therefore, last and will testaments obscure potentially rich histories.Footnote 132 Finally, although many people sought the protection of notarized exchanges of goods, property, and rights, no one was legally bound to document his or her status as a slave owner. As we saw with Polonia de Ribas and the more informal notes she kept regarding debts owed to her, people brokered deals outside of the notarial offices. But even if future research finds that free African-descended women accounted for only a miniscule percentage of slave owners in seventeenth-century New Spain, the exploration of their negotiations and social status during the colonial period enriches our understanding of quotidian choices and life chances, and offers new realms of possibilities and considerations about economic survival, family, status, and even notions of legacy.
Free women who owned slaves made sense of their own unlikely position of power in seventeenth-century Xalapa. They exercised the ability to be self-determining through slave ownership in ways that most subjects could not because of their lack of economic resources and exclusion from certain professions and trades. They also experienced as slave owners the power to determine the life chances of other people. The case of the central protagonist, Polonia de Ribas, brings this to the fore. As a woman of African descent who had neither husband nor legitimate family ties to claim, Polonia may have found social legitimacy through slave owning.
The activities she conducted in the notarial offices highlight questions of status perceived to be the domain of the Spanish elite, such as documenting her concerns and intentions in regard to finances, family, and her own reputation. More than just a financial consideration, slave owning allowed free African-descendants, by virtue of their participation in the institution to position themselves as loyal subjects of the crown, an opportunity that might explain why Polonia de Ribas engaged in slave owning practices rarely documented in colonial Spanish America. While her conscience was “free and clear,” her notarial life challenges us to reconsider familial slave ownership and other strategies of social acceptance and economic survival employed by free African-descended women in the mid-colonial period.