Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Maria De Terranova: A West African Woman and the Quest for Freedom in Colonial Mexico

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Maria De Terranova: A West African Woman and the Quest for Freedom in Colonial Mexico

Article excerpt


In the summer of 1627, a West African woman living in the city of Puebla de los Angeles, the second-largest city in colonial Mexico, fought for her right to a better life. Armed with little more than a remarkable reputation as an expert fish vendor, Maria, "the woman from Terranova", fought her former owner's claims that her freedom papers should be revoked. Her disregard for the restrictions that freed people constantly had to endure, even as independent and self-sufficient individuals, speaks to the xenophobic climate that Africans and their descendants experienced in the urban centers of Spanish America during the early and mid-seventeenth century. In an urban society largely controlled by European men, Maria exposed some of the tactics that African women could employ against a colonial order that attempted to regulate all aspects of the lives of the enslaved and the formerly enslaved. Ultimately, Maria's legal battle against her former owner highlights the entrepreneurial prowess and social networks that could lead the enslaved to freedom, but in the process, it also betrays the often-unfulfilled promises of colonial manumission.

This article will make use of a combination of judicial, notarial and parochial sources to inform our understanding of the difficult transition from slavery to freedom in seventeenth-century Puebla. The particularities of Maria's lengthy legal case are found in the Archivo Historico Judicial de Puebla (AHJP). (1) In addition, contextual information on urban slavery in colonial Mexico has been culled from the Archivo General de Notarias de Puebla (AGNP), the Archivo Municipal de Puebla and a variety of parochial repositories. (2) This reliance on underutilized local archives is an attempt to demonstrate how Mexican scholars can rescue the history of the African Diaspora from quotidian records on the colonial period. As this case study will demonstrate, it is of paramount importance to consider the lived experiences of Africans as central participants in the forging of colonial Mexico. In the same vein, unearthing the history of specific African ethnic groups (such as the Terranova) in Latin American documentation may provide valuable information on early seventeenth-century ethnic, social, cultural and political identities in Africa.

A West African Mother Amidst Angolan Men

During the early colonial period, Mexico, then known as the viceroyalty of New Spain, became a lucrative center for Trans-Atlantic enslavement. No less than 110,000 enslaved African men and women entered the viceroyalty between 1521 and 1639, an unfortunate reaction by part of Spanish colonists who attempted to substitute the epidemic-stricken indigenous populations of Central Mexico with enslaved Black people. Colin Palmer suggests that perhaps another 50,000 Africans entered Mexico in contraband operations to avoid paying license fees and royal taxes. (3) As a result, Africans and their descendants soon constituted a considerable proportion of Mexico's non-indigenous population. (4) In fact, by 1640, Mexico's African-born and African-descended population was only second to Brazil in the Western Hemisphere. (5) Yet in contrast to its South American counterpart, slavery would not persist in colonial Mexico, particularly in the cities of the central highlands. By the mid-eighteenth century, references to the enslaved or slaveholding become quite rare for the city of Puebla. Thus, people of African descent must have initiated a complex, large-scale, and daily struggle for their liberation since the mid-seventeenth century, if not earlier. Maria provides us with one such example in her legal battle against Julian Bautista de Cabrera.

In 1627, a rapidly growing, free community of people of African descent was already eroding the very foundations that underpinned chattel slavery in Mexico, and that enslavement in the city of Puebla only peaked in the 1630s, did not matter. …

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