Urban Slavery in Colonial Puebla (Mexico)


A review of Urban Slavery in Colonial Puebla de los Ángeles, 1536-1708, by Pablo Sierra.

This dissertation is an excellent study of an interior Mexican city inextricably linked to the early modern Atlantic World. The work presents this urban environment as “a blueprint for how secondary mainland cities that were neither ports nor capitals came to develop sizeable slave populations in colonial Latin America” (p. 18). To do this, the author marshals archival evidence, in particular notarial sources, that explores a formative period for New Spain’s slave trade and growing population of African descent. The author draws meaningful connections between the pre-Columbian and early colonial contexts of Puebla, as well as the experiences of free Blacks and slaves throughout the early modern Iberian world.

Pablo Sierra’s dissertation places New Spain’s second city within literature on Latin America, the Atlantic World, gender history, and African and Pacific diasporas. The work is, at once, a solid contribution to Mexicanist scholarship and an invitation to Atlanticists of all varieties. Yet, Sierra does not sacrifice the specificities of the Poblano context in favor of an overarching “Atlantic” or “global” history. Turning to local sources to understand colonial and Atlantic processes, the author proposes to shift our views on slavery and freedom, particularly with regard to relationships between Indigenous and African or African-descended people (p. 13). For instance, Sierra argues that between 1585 and 1615, “just prior to a massive West Central African slave influx, American-born Blacks and mulattos either discriminated against, or were shunned by, women born on the African continent” (p. 78). These conclusions, and others throughout the work, rely on a large corpus of ecclesiastical records and notarial documents. In this way, the dissertation rests on a solid foundation of social history and makes every effort to include plebeian voices as well as those of bureaucrats and local elites.

The first chapter of the dissertation uses municipal ordinances and correspondence to describe early slavery in Puebla in the mid-sixteenth century. Using Actas de Cabildo, the records of the Caja de Negros, and a contemporary demographic account, the author is able to place the size of the enslaved population in Puebla at 300 or more people less than three decades after the fall of Tenochtitlán. This information is important because the origins of the city were predicated on a kind of divine project embodied in a Spanish colonizing population (p. 22). In fact, the city was home to people of many races owing to the need for Indigenous and African labor. Over time, this indispensable labor force evolved from those who built the city to enslaved Africans who sustained the city’s long-time industry: textiles (p. 45). This chapter—through its nuanced portrayal of labor markets, Spanish perceptions of African-Indigenous relationships, and the development of slavery as an underlying institution—provides a solid foundation for Sierra’s claim that documenting slavery in Puebla is crucial to understanding early colonial society in New Spain.

Moving chronologically, Chapter 2 positions slaves and slavery as central to daily life in Puebla by the early seventeenth century. The chapter charts the forced migrations of thousands of Angolans who arrived in Puebla to be bought and sold. The author does not rely exclusively on Inquisitional sources, but uses them in conjunction with travel accounts, Náhuatl sources, and municipal records. Naming individual officials, slaves, traders, travelers, and other observers, the dissertation brings to life the slave markets and ships with rich qualitative material. The narrative deftly leads the reader through the process of Atlantic slavery as it played out in early seventeenth-century Puebla, complete with its opportunities for local officials and favorable credit for creole buyers. These conditions, coupled with growing fears of Africans and their descendants as leaders of revolts and conspiracies, created distinct living conditions for slaves depending on where they lived, whom they knew, and at what time they arrived in Puebla. A growing number of ordinances would restrict access to freedom and movement for enslaved people in the first half of the seventeenth century.

The third chapter arrives at intriguing findings on the basis of thousands of bills of slave purchase in the seventeenth century. Demonstrating a commitment to the interconnected histories of slavery, race, and gender, the author explores the reasons behind the demand for female slaves and children. Most curious for scholars of Mexico, perhaps, is the conclusion that the textile mills or obrajes were not the most frequent slave buyers, who were more likely to be local officials, clergy, widows, or merchants (p. 89). In this way, the slave market did not depend on any single industry or type of purchaser. Sierra shows that, in contrast to a supposed drop in slave labor following the end of the Iberian Union, “Poblano demand for slaves did not disappear after 1640. Instead, the Puebla slave market appeared reinvigorated by the 1660s and continued to expand until the beginning of the eighteenth century” (p. 82).

The fourth chapter delves further into the continuum between slavery and freedom by treating manumission, apprenticeship, domestic servitude, and debt. Sierra argues that “freedom for people of African and Asian descent was overwhelmingly characterized by endemic debt, economic exploitation and a continued dependence on Spanish patrons” (p. 122). Noting that manumission was a rare exception in Puebla, the chapter asserts that the free Afro-Poblano population grew outside this institutional framework. (The subsequent chapter shows the growth of the free population depended on marriage and sexual unions between enslaved men and free women.) The author finds only about one hundred letters of manumission for the seventeenth century; furthermore, he asserts that these documents did not guarantee freedom (p. 123). Afro-Poblanos who did secure freedom were overwhelmingly American-born (p. 126). In this chapter, the author is able to provide not only a wide range of demographic data on the slave population but to pinpoint characteristics (caste, family ties, and birthplace) that limited access to freedom.

Chapter 5 examines marriage patterns using ecclesiastical documents and arrives at multivalent conclusions concerning the choices and alliances of the enslaved. The chapter shows that “slaves married far more consistently and at a much higher degree than has been previously accepted” (p. 158); yet, this pattern does not always constitute slave agency for Sierra. Rather, marriage could become another tool for slave owners to increase their property and avoid open conflict with the Catholic Church. Baroque Puebla was “an atypically powerful religious center in which slave owners’ traditional authority could be checked” (p. 160). Sierra also posits that certain sectors of the economy were insulated from slave sales because “slave matrimony and concubinage became a key instrument not only in securing slave labor, but also in the actual procreation of obraje slaves” (p. 172). Finally, Sierra’s take on marriage endogamy is thoroughly theorized and considered from many angles, including urban geography, chronology, ethnicity, color, and legal status. Though slave agency is not absent from the discussion, the possibilities for choice in marriage are treated with caution and in the context of multiple historical factors. In the long term, however, “slave agency, combined with the spatial dynamics of the Spanish American city, the availability of a large, non-Spanish, free population, the disproportionate power of the Catholic Church all combined to erode slavery in seventeenth-century Puebla” (p. 207).

This dissertation, once published, will open doors to readers outside Latin American history and provide a thoroughly engaging piece of scholarship for those invested in the field. Using notarial records allows the author to join debates about the number of slaves brought to Mexico, which have previously relied on slaving licenses. Another notable contribution to the historiography will be Sierra’s foregrounding of the encomendero de negros as a key player in credit and slave markets of the seventeenth century. This local official had the power to fundamentally alter the demography of the city, sometimes by favoring the importation of African male slaves (p. 90). Chapter 3 will further illuminate the meanings of gender and age for traders and buyers in the Atlantic markets connected to Puebla, with implications for scholars of slavery in the early modern world. Chapters 4 and 5 stake bold claims that will make this book both provocative and enlightening. The work is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature demonstrating the role of gender as the “single most significant factor in determining the nature of racial relations” in colonial Latin America (p. 8).

Norah Linda Andrews, Ph.D.
Visiting Assistant Professor in Latin American History
Northern Arizona University

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación (México)
Archivo General de Notarías del Estado de Puebla
Archivo Histórico Judicial de Puebla
Archivo Histórico de la Parroquia del Santo Angel Custodio de Analco
Archivo Municipal de Puebla
Archivo Parroquial del Señor San José, Puebla
Archivo del Sagrario Metropolitano de Puebla

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 239 pp. Primary Advisor: Kevin Terraciano.

Image: Puebla Palace. Photo by Author.


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