From Chains to Freedom: The evolution of slavery in the Yucatan

When discussing the transatlantic slave trade and the effects of the involuntary forced migration of Africans, places such as The United States, Jamaica, and Brazil are commonly the focal point of conversations. Interestingly, the Black enslaved experience in Spanish colonial Mexico has generally been overlooked, particularly in the Yucatan. The enslaved Afro-Yucatecan experience, similar to those across the Americas, did not remain stagnant; in fact, the experience evolved based on the time's social, political, and economic issues. This scholarship will answer the question, “How did the societal need for enslaved Afro-Yucatecans transform throughout the Spanish Colonial era?” Furthermore, the scholarship will examine the origins of slavery in Colonial Yucatan, the intermixing of the enslaved into colonial society, and the decline of slavery.

By 1520 the Spanish colonial conquest of Mexico resulted in the forced assimilation of indigenous people into colonial society, performing manual and subservient tasks. However, the conquest had other results such as, bloody conflicts, a hostile indigenous population, and epidemics that diminished the native Maya population, which the Spanish used as the colonial labor force. In response, the Spanish government turned to an alternative method to provide subservient and manual labor, African Slaves. The Spanish justified black enslavement using religious-legal principles by arguing that the empire had no territorial holdings in Africa or to African exposure to Islamic influence. Thus, the Spanish Empire used enslavement to evangelize and convert Africans to Catholicism, the mandatory acculturation of Africans to European customs, values, and standards, and the ability to deny blacks citizenship, equality, and oppression lawfully.

The African enslaved population of Yucatan was rarely brought directly from Africa. Before being enslaved in Yucatan, most enslaved people were brought from other parts of the Spanish Empire or other European colonial holdings. When enslaved people arrived at the slave ports of the Yucatan, primarily Campeche, they were sold individually or in pairs. The population of the colonial Yucatan was relatively small, and the enslaved population within the Yucatec populous was trivial. According to Matthew Restall in his book entitled The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan, “Enslaved Africans were thus brought to Yucatan in relatively small groups, and were purchased in even smaller numbers, often individually; those who migrated from other colonies, Spanish or British, also came as individuals or tiny groups…the negro population in the colony thus remained relatively small throughout the colonial period…" Unlike in other areas of the Americas, slavery in Yucatan was not the central or the primary labor force, that role went to the Maya inhabitants. Therefore, the Yucatecan government was not a slave society but a society with enslaved people.

The enslaved Africans generally worked in two capacities: laborer and servant. It was more common for men to work as laborers in the rural areas of the peninsula. Slave men’s roles included miners, cattle hands, field laborers, and managers of the estancia (Estate). Enslaved women performed domestic roles such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caretaking. In contrast, Spanish colonial life was centered on urban settlements such as Merida and Campeche. In the towns and cities of the Yucatan, the enslaved worked as servants. Enslaved men performed roles such as coachmen, caretakers, grooms, travel companions, and bodyguards, while enslaved women were tasked with domestic positions like their rural counterparts. Another commonality between urban and rural women was that some enslaved women assumed the role of their don (master’s) concubine and would have children fathered by their masters. This relationship between the black slaves and their masters would result in a new social class in the Yucatecan social structure.

The Mestizaje (Mixed Race) population grew from relationships between blacks and Spanish or indigenous populations. The mulattos populous would rapidly grow to eclipse the African population; according to Valdez in his editorial entitled The Decline of Slavery in Mexico, “American-born blacks comprised somewhat more than a third of the total number of enslaved people between the 1660s and the 1750s, but practically disappeared by the 1780s. Mulattoes increased in relative importance continuously, from about one-third of the total enslaved people sold in the 1660s to almost 90 percent by the 1780s." The rise of the Mulattos brought a shift in the Afro-Yucatecan social structure and coincided with two increasingly demographic changes in colonial Mexico. First, the rise in the indigenous population. By the mid-seventeenth century, the Native Americans (who were the traditional labor force used in the Spanish Empire) had begun to recuperate from the devastating effects of the Spanish Conquest. The increase in population coincided with the rise in wages labor. Wage labor led to a decrease in demand for slave labor; Valdez provides supports this claim by stating,

From the 1630s through the 1690s, there was a gradual drop in the prices of enslaved people. From an average of about 430 pesos, the price of young adult black males fell to about 340 pesos by the 1660s, and they remained relatively stable for the remainder of the century. The moderate drop in price by mid-century is consistent with the view that the worst of the labor shortage of the 1630s had eased by mid-century and that non-slaves were performing an increasing amount of labor.

The price of the enslaved steadily decreased with the growth of wage labor and would continue to decline into the 1700s and throughout the 1800s. Although slavery remained in Mexico until 1829, the institution's need was gradually crumbling.

The second demographic change was the emancipation of African and mulatto enslaved. Black emancipation in Mexico happened in several ways; enslaved people could buy their freedom, their master could grant them their freedom, a patron could pay for their freedom, enslaved people could gain employment to pay for freedom, or they could make an agreement with their former owner to remain as servants after freedom. Ultimately, the demand for enslaved people decreased, and the demand for wage labor increased. Simultaneously the Free black population increased; Restall supports this claim when he states, “…the steady process of miscegenation and growth of free-colored people population meant that, in terms of names, blacks slave increasingly indistinguishable from everyone else in the middle sector…” The growth of the free class of Blacks and the decline of the enslaved classes shows that free black labor was replacing enslaved labor, thus, diminishing the necessity of slavery in the Yucatan.

The Spanish government had created a colonial society that was based on social status rather than race. This does not mean that race did not matter; for example, Valdez quotes a Spaniard saying, “Mulattoes were described consistently as unruly, contentious, sneaky, disrespectful and occasionally intelligent, traits considered unbecoming of proper slaves.” The Spanish elites had their racial bias and stereotypes; however, the colonial population was so greatly intermixed that social status became more essential than race; For example, Restall states,

It was age, sex, place of residence, legitimacy or illegitimacy, civic status (whether a landowner or not), occupation; or color occupation, and wealth…purity of blood, honor, integrity, and even place of origin…one’s reputation as a whole. In other words, rank was determined by calidad, which was determined by everything that a person was…

Social status in the Yucatan was a loose concept based more upon a series of factors than racial ordinated position. The moveability of the colonial social structure allowed blacks, particularly Mulattos to advance and integrate into Yucatecan culture. Just as status varied so did racial identity; Restall argues in his book, “…in a society without such a system, and with plastic socioracial categories, the elision of portions of a person’s ancestry was more possible…” Similar to status, race was an ever-changing situation. At different times, bi-racial people choose different racial identities and categories.

By the eighteenth century, slave imports decreased to half the price they had been sixty years before, due to the indigenous and Mestizo (person of Spanish and Indigenous descent) populations replacing African slave labor. During the mid-17th and early 18th century, enslaved Africans replaced Mulattos in the sugar hacienda in Southern Mexico. Simultaneously, the exact same demographic shift occurred in the mines. The mixed race and native people wage-based labor gradually replaced enslaved labor. The cost of enslavement did not out weight the profit, especially since Mexico already had a labor force it could exploit. Slavery ended during the Mexican Revolution when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla called for the end of slavery in 1810. The Mexican government legally abolished slavery in 1829.