Vagrants, Idlers & Troublemakers in Philippines 1765-1861


A review of The Spanish Empire and the Pacific World: “Vagrants, Idlers and Troublemakers” in the Philippines, 1765-1861, by Eva Maria Mehl.

Eva Mehl’s dissertation makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Spanish Empire. Her meticulous survey traces the stories of nearly 2,000 colonial convicts deported across the Pacific in order to resolve the chronic shortage of military personnel in the Philippines. Mehl colorfully describes the consequences of late eighteenth-century Bourbon social politics in the colonial empire. Through her analysis of vagrancy trials and the official correspondence between Mexico, Manila, and Madrid, she uncovers the limits of Bourbon reformism, as well as the fact that in colonial daily politics “hegemony” was chosen over “resistance” and “social harmony over social conflict” (p. 21).

In an ambitious approach, Mehl integrates subaltern studies and social history and indeed accomplishes the bold task of providing new material for large-scale historical analysis of both the Atlantic and the Pacific World. The reader benefits from her thoughtful reflections on the role and accomplishments of the state, bargaining practices in colonial society and the interplay of a changing criminal justice system with an evolving urban environment. In order to find answers to the paradox of Spanish imperial ambitions — and why Mexico chose to send “bad people” while pursuing a functionary society in the Philippines — Mehl methodologically opts for a critical analysis of archival material, testing her findings against established research narratives. Her profound training as a historian is reflected in her sensitive handling of archival sources and critical interpretations. The dissertation consists of five chapters of similar length, plus an introduction and conclusion chapter of similarly coherent and cohesive structure and style. The entire work is thus an extremely pleasant reading experience.

In a refreshingly engaging way, the introductory chapter presents a rich literature review of the many fields relevant to her topic. After an enthusiastic plea for studying Philippine history from a transnational historical perspective, Mehl discusses the shortcomings of the traditional historical representation of Latin American/Philippine history together with abiding challenges for future research, especially the drawbacks of fragmented historiographies, with research carried out in largely disconnected ways. While Mexican historians, despite their acknowledged accomplishments in emphasizing the Mexican legacy in the Manila Galleon trade, rarely include such topics in large-scale approaches, Filipino historians are reluctant to address the Hispanic past of their country due to ideological, racial and nationalist reservations, and thus tend to overemphasize indigenous developments. The section on the state of the art is profound and clearly structured, highlighting both boundaries and gaps when it comes to tackling Philippine and trans-Pacific history from a global perspective. Mehl also praises Dennis O. Flynn, Arturo Giráldez and James Sobredo for their success in highlighting the centrality of the Philippines in studies on global movements and interactions that have inspired globalization studies, maritime and trans-regional approaches in recent years.

It stands to reason that a study on early modern social policies and forced migration must reckon with Michel Foucault’s ideas on coercion and social cleansing in pre-modern Europe. Eva Mehl does so in a very refreshing way: instead of forcedly adapting Foucault’s theories, she effortlessly blends them with recent trends in cultural history of studying the agency of the poor (though without overemphasizing a powerful state) and Foucault-inspired frameworks of human agency, with a clear focus on popular responses to efforts to establish social control. This approach allows her to argue that community networks often channeled the vertical and horizontal flow of power.

Chapter 1, entitled “The Intertwined History of Two Spanish Colonies: The Philippines and Mexico, 1565-1815,” tackles the connected histories of the two colonial settings from a novel angle that once again highlights the author’s familiarity with the impressive body of literature introduced earlier. In drawing a picture of how inter-colonial relations shaped both colonial societies and imperial policies, Mehl chooses not to segregate subaltern and dominant actors in her study because of the “ability of the colonial government to attain cooperation from the civil society”; she argues that the colonial state was strong in the sense that “colonials helped authorities in imposing authority” (p. 58). In what has become a matter of fierce debate across all disciplines dealing Mexico’s impact on the colonial Philippines, she eloquently argues that, while most Spanish colonial projects in Asia depended on financial, human and institutional support from New Spain, narratives overemphasizing Mexico’s role in the early modern history of the Philippines neglect other connections, as well as Filipino agency.

Without a doubt, Mexico’s role in the Philippines’ military defense was significant throughout the entire lifespan of the Manila galleon trade and increased in times of external threats due to the need to improve defense. When criminal understanding and the law began to improve in all realms of state and society, social reforms were pitched to building a stronger colonial society through policing individual morality. Despite continuous military challenges and constant shortages of supplies from Spain and Mexico, Filipinos were not recruited for the Spanish military because they were considered dangerous to national security. Instead, forced migration from Mexico seemed to be the only option for those wishing to establish social order and stratification, particularly in the years following the British Occupation of Manila (1762-1764).

In her careful study of the laws aimed at vagrants and idlers in Chapter 2 (“‘Levas de Vagos’ in Late Colonial Mexico: Social Cleansing and the Urban Poor in Bourbon New Spain”), Mehl contextualizes the policy decision to draft vagrant men in New Spain for military service in the Philippines as part of a new “enlightened” moral program targeting indecent dress, alcohol, gambling and a lack of hygiene. At the time, the definition of a vagrant was quite capacious and came to include mobile labor migrants, gamblers and thieves. Members of these groups were especially popular targets for recruiting efforts, often having been “judged with vaguely worded offences” (p. 68). Yet, campaigns against vagrancy in Mexico were not limited to the efforts of the colonial state following the instructions of 1783 and the first “delivery” of vagrants to the Philippines in 1786, but rather became a broader effort supported by members of most groups in colonial society.

Having thus presented the entanglement of vagrancy campaigns in late colonial Mexico with the military needs of the Philippines, Mehl turns in Chapter 3 (“Deportations and Late Colonial Defense in Late Eighteenth-century New Spain”) to the inefficiency of new Bourbon policies of imperial defense planning: volunteers for military service were only sought in the civil sector, and rushed levy processes and wrong judgments were commonly employed to provide a sufficient number of volunteers. Popular strategies to avoid deportation also thwarted imperial defense efforts. While a large number of authorities were unfamiliar with the legal process, Mehl also shows that exceptions existed and that the Crown regularly advised officials to judge prudently. Herein lies one of the many strengths of Mehl’s study, which always shows both sides of the medal. With ample evidence she demonstrates how irregular practices destroyed the lives of the unaware poor in particular, as well as how the complicated net of agency failed to integrate convicts socially.

The fourth chapter, “Mexican Families, Troublesome Youth and the State in Colonial Mexico,” focuses on the image of the Philippines as a space where Mexicans could dispose of criminal elements in their society. Evaluating petitions for deportation, Mehl presents a shocking picture of denunciations by family members, especially in the lower classes. While the possibility of deporting problematic populations to the Philippines helped women and indios alike to free themselves from unbearable spouses and other family members for their individual benefit, Mexican authorities were, at the same time, reluctant to comply with women’s accusations of domestic violence. In the case of better-off fathers’ educational initiatives to banish their sons to the levy squadrons, Mehl discovers signs of both enlightened pedagogy and severe punishment in child education. The Philippines represented an option of last resort for distressed parents with crushed hopes for their offspring. Such behavior was closely linked to the Bourbon state-building process and, especially, a notion of the state’s paternal function. Mehl questions the ethics of individual criminal prosecutors as well as the reasons for the injustice played out in court. Paying special attention to the personal motivations at play, she concludes that, on the whole, Mexican society at this moment was not necessarily unique in this regard.

In Chapter 5, “Mexicans in the ‘Pearl of the Orient’: Recruits and Convicts in Late Eighteenth-Century Philippines,” the focus shifts entirely to the Philippines. Mehl depicts the conditions on the ground in Manila in the 1770s-1780s in light of the new colonial agenda to improve the appearance of the city and fight poor sanitary conditions in order to rehabilitate the international reputation of the Spanish Empire. While Mexican and Spanish convicts played a vital part in the execution of these reforms, the Bourbon urban geography program had only a hollow impact on the Philippines. What is more, some Mexican soldiers, especially those former convicts who were often inadequate for the service, became another source of unrest and exacerbated existing trouble spots, at least if we are to believe contemporary Spanish accounts.

The dissertation concludes with a summary of Mehl’s numerous insights into imperial and trans-regional connections. In the ongoing debates on whether one should speak of a strong or weak state in the case of Spanish Latin American colonies, she sheds light on the confusing, often paradoxical, context of Bourbon power over colonial subjects, decentralism and absolutism and the social, political and economic consequences of the Bourbon reforms. Overall, Mehl takes a clear stance that Bourbon Spain was a strong state due to its successful cooperation with society when it came to imposing cultural values and creating legitimacy.

Birgit M. Tremml
Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia
University of Tokyo

Primary Sources

Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City
Archivo General de Indias, Seville
Archivo General de Simancas, Valladolid
Sección de Documentos Españoles del Archivo Nacional de Filipinas, CSIC, Madrid

Dissertation Information

University of California, Davis. 2011. 254 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrés Reséndez.


Image: Carte de la Mer du Sud ou Mer Pacifique Entre l’Equateur et le 39 1.2 de Latitude Septentrionale. 1748 Seale Map of the Pacific Ocean with Trade Routes from Acapulco to Manila.

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