Most people are not very aware of the presence of African slaves in colonial Mexico. In fact, some people believe that the influence of the African to Mexican culture is negligible at best. But the African laborer actually played an important and very indispensable role in the economic success of colonial Mexico. And, in some parts of Mexico, the African made cultural contributions.
It helps for us to remember that the Spaniards brought slaves to every corner of their American empire, and Mexico is no exception to this fact. One of the most detailed works about slavery in Mexico is the noted historian Colin A. Palmer’s Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650, which is quoted extensively in this article.
“The introduction of African slaves into Mexico,” explains Dr. Palmer, “was in part a response to the labor shortage stemming from the decline of the indigenous population during the sixteenth century. Spanish mistreatment of the Indians and a number of disastrous epidemics contributed to this demographic catastrophe.”
The Decimation of the Indigenous People
Several factors contributed to the dramatic decline of the indigenous people of Mexico. The scholars Sherburne Cook and Woodrow Borah, calculated that the Indian population of Central Mexico was 27,650,000 in 1519. This figure had fallen to 16,800,000 by 1532. There was an even more dramatic fall by 1,900,000 by 1580. And, by 1605, a mere 1,075,000 Indians survived. It is important to note, however, that there is general disagreement on these numbers among historians. Some historians have claimed that the indigenous population of Mexico in 1519 was as little as 10 million. There is, however, unanimous agreement that disease and overwork decimated a large portion of the indigenous population during the Sixteenth Century.
Causes of the Decline
Why was the decline of the indigenous population so dramatic? Historians believe that disease played the central role in the depopulation of Mexico’s native population. The physical isolation of the Indians in the Americas is the primary reason for which disease caused such havoc with the native population. The physical isolation resulted in a biological isolation and a natural quarantine from the rest of the planet and from a wide assortment of communicable diseases. When smallpox first ravaged through Mexico in 1520, no Indian had immunity to the disease.
19 Major Epidemics (1520-1596)
During the first century of the conquest, the Mexican Indians suffered through 19 major epidemics, the most serious of which occurred in 1520, 1548, 1576-1579, and in 1595-1596. They were exposed to smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps,influenza,and cocoliztli (a hemorrhagic disease). Although this devastation made the conquest an easier task, it also caused a labor shortage that would lead to the introduction of African slaves.
The Encomienda System
Another major factor in the decline of the indigenous people was the Spanish encomienda (royal grant) system. Through the encomienda, the Crown or its delegate granted to an individual worthy of reward the right to exact tribute and labor from a specified number of royal tributaries (i.e. Indians). In return the grantee, or encomendero, undertook to care for the material and spiritual well-being of his charges. Unfortunately, this system was prone to corruption and frequently led to exploitation of the Indian charges.
The decline heightened Indian suffering as the encomenderos competed for increasingly scarce labor power. The whip, imprisonment, torture, rape, and killing played a role in the decline. Although the Indians were exempted from taxes and tithes, they were required to pay a yearly head-tax. Both men and women were herded into mines and obrajes (textile workshops) to labor for long hours.
Initiation of the African Slave Trade
Sickened by the plight of the aboriginal population in the West Indies, Bishop Bartolome de las Casas, an apostle to the Indians in the Spanish New World, campaigned against the slavery of the indigenous people. In 1517, de las Casas proposed to King Charles V of Spain the slavery of the more durable Africans as a substitute. Charles agreed to this arrangement and granted the right to ship 4,000 Africans a year to Hispaniola, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. This arrangement marked the beginning of the Spanish participation in the slave trade of Africans.
The first shipment of 4,000 slaves was sent to Hispaniola in 1517 and re-distributed to Cuba and Puerto Rico. From this modest beginning, millions of Africans would be brought in bondage to the Spanish colonies, to the Caribbean islands, and to North America. For four centuries, the European Slave Trade fueled the western economies and turned Africa into a continent of spent energies. It is believed that at least a hundred small ethnic groups in Africa may have disappeared as a result of the slave trading economy.
The Need for an Adequate and Dependable Labor Force
As the indigenous population of Mexico declined, the colonial economy became more complex. The first silver mines were opened as early as 1534 and the cultivation of sugar cane started to take root in Mexico around the same time. Soon textile workshops, cattle ranches and haciendas would be established.
“All of these enterprises,” notes Dr. Palmer, “required an adequate and dependable labor force for their sustenance. For the Spanish proprietors involved, an unpaid servile labor force was the most desirable.” Faced with labor-intensive businesses and a demographic vacuum, the Spanish authorities convinced themselves that the importation of African slaves in large numbers was their only solution.
In 1542, King Carlos V promulgated the New Laws of the Indies, essentially abolishing Indian slavery in Mexico and the rest of the Americas. This event gave Spanish businessmen a stronger impetus to bring more Africans to the shores of North America.
Dr. Palmer explains that “as a group, African slaves performed the most strenuous tasks on the plantation. The belief that, as workers, Africans were superior to Indians was shared by the Spaniards in New Spain and in the other colonies.” In the Sixteenth Century, many Spaniards held the popular belief that one Black slave could equal the labor output of four Indians.
In the period from 1521 to 1594, government estimates indicate that 36,500 slaves were brought to Mexican shores. Then, from 1595 to 1622, 322 slaving ships delivered 50,525 slaves to Mexican ports. These slaves represented almost half of the total number of slaves brought to the Spanish West Indies. For the period 1622 to 1639, another 23,500 slaves were brought to Mexico (as tallied by the Archivo General de Indias). With these figures in mind, one can say that an estimated 110,525 slaves were legally shipped to Mexico from 1521 to 1639.
In the early decades of the slave trade, many of the slaves came from Guinea-Bissau and Sene-Gambia. According to Dr. Palmer, slaves from this area “enjoyed a favorable reputation in the Indies for their alleged docility and trustworthiness.” In the Seventeenth Century, the majority of the slaves brought to Mexican shores came principally from Angola and the Congo.
The Marriages of Slaves
The majority of slaves brought to the shores of Mexico were male. With a lack of female Africans, most of these men eventually chose Indian or mestizo women as spouses. The long-established Siete Partidas laws of Spain granted slaves the right to select their spouses. Slave masters were thus forbidden from intervening in this decision.
Professor Martha Menchaca, the author of Recovering History, Reconstructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans, observed that “this legislation was of monumental importance because it became the gateway for the children of slaves to gain their freedom. Due to the lobbying efforts of the Catholic Church the children of Black male slaves and Indian women were declared free and given the right to live with their mother.” With laws that granted freedom to the children of a slave who married into other racial classifications, it is very obvious to see the motivation of this class to seek outside partners.
Recording the Lives of Mexican Slaves
The Spanish practice of classifying people by race was utilized in the Catholic Church records of Colonial Mexico. While doing extensive genealogical research into Colonial Mexican church records from the 1600s and 1700s, this author has spent a great deal of time exploring the marriages of slaves in various parts of Mexico. In areas such as San Luis Potosí, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Guanajuato, I have frequently seen church records that documented the marriages of male slaves to mestizas, Indians, and mulatas. It is likely that the offspring of these marriages would have been free individuals.
It is a well-known fact that the marriages of slaves in the United States are hard to locate because – in most cases – they simply were not recorded by either church, plantation, or government bureaus. This was not the case in Mexico, where countless marriages of slaves can be found in the church records alongside the unions of Spanish, mestizo and Indian people.
While exploring Mexican colonial census and church records, this researcher has been given a better understanding of the genetic and economic influence of the African in Mexico. In various cities throughout Mexico, epidemics would wipe out large numbers of Indians. At times like these, the percentage of the Black population would increase significantly. The smaller pool of workers thus contained a greater number of Africans, who moved into fill the labor vacancies created by the loss of the Indians.
As one example of a strong African presence, the City of Zacatecas in 1803 had the following population numbers: 11,000 Spaniards and mestizos; 9,500 Indians; and 12,500 Negroes and mulattoes. Figures such as these are a testament to the value of the African in providing essential services (through labor) to the Mexican colonial economy.
The Caste System in Mexico
While the Spaniards and Europeans living in Mexico “enjoyed the highest social prestige and were accorded the most extensive legal and economic privileges,” those persons classified as Indians, mestizos and mulatos brought up the other end of the social spectrum.
The social classification of Afromestizos – persons of mixed Indian, African and Caucasian blood – was allocated a position in the lowest rungs of Mexican society. “Because they were of partially African descent,” states Professor Menchaca, “…they were stigmatized and considered socially inferior to Indians and mestizos… Afromestizos were subjected to racist laws designed to distinguish them from mestizos and to impose financial and social penalties upon them.”
Eventually, the Wars of Liberation during the first three decades of the Nineteenth Century brought an end to Spanish slavery of Africans in Mexico. Dr. Palmer has estimated that the total number of African-born slaves brought to Mexico from the earliest years of the Sixteenth Century to the day that the institution was abolished (1827) numbered about 200,000.
Although 200,000 individuals seems to be a large number, in comparison to Mexico’s overall population through the colonial period, it is quite small and statistics indicate that the African and Black population of Mexico never reached more than two percent of the total population at any given time. Since the 1820s, most of the African culture of colonial Mexico has been assimilated into the general population. But in some portions of eastern Mexico, it is evident that the African presence has left a cultural influence. Patrick James Carroll, in Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: Race, Ethnicity, and Regional Development, is one of the few authors who has discussed the African influence in this context.
Mexico’s 2015 Intercensal Survey
In 2016, the Mexican government agency, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), published the 2015 Intercensal Survey, which upgraded Mexico’s socio-demographic information to the midpoint between the 2010 census and the census to be carried out in 2020. With a sample size of over 6 million homes, this survey provides information on the national, state and municipio level, as of March 15th, 2015.
The Afro-Mexicans in 2015
One of the 2015 survey questions read “De acuerdo con su cultura, historia y tradiciones, se considera negra (o), es decir, afromexicana (o) o afrodescendiente?” Essentially, each Mexican resident was asked if, according to their culture, history and traditions, did they consider themselves to be black (i.e., an Afromexican or an Afro-descendant). Survey respondents had four possible responses:
- Sí (Yes)
- Sí, en parte (Yes, in part)
- No sabe (Do not know)
According to the results of
the 2015 Intercensal, there were 119 530 753 people living in Mexico. Of these,
1 381 853 were recognized as Afro-descendants and represented 1.2% of the total
population of the country. The seven states with the largest population of
Afro-descendants are shown in the table on the following page:
Of the almost 1.4 million Afro-Descendants, the largest number — 304 274 — resided in the State of Mexico. However, the southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca had the largest percentage of Afro-Descendants: 6.5% and 4.9%, respectively.
Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzalo. La Población Negra de México, 1519-1810. Mexico, 1972: 2nd edition.
Bennett, Herman L. Africans in Colonial Mexico: Absolutism, Christianity, and the Afro-Creole Consciousness, 1570-1640 (Blacks in the Diaspora). Indiana University Press, 2005.
Carroll, Patrick James. Blacks in Colonial Veracruz: Race, Ethnicity, and Regional Development. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Harring, Clarence H. The Spanish Empire in America. New York: Harbinger, 1963.
Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI), Perfil Sociodemográfico de la Población Afrodescendiente en México. Aguascalientes, Mexico: 2017. Online:
Menchaca, Martha. Reconstructing History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
Mörner, Magnus. Race Mixture in the History of Latin America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967.
Palmer, Colin A. Slaves of the White God: Blacks in Mexico, 1570-1650. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976.