'Damned Notions of Liberty': Slavery, Culture, and Power in Colonial Mexico, 1640-1769

By Althouse, Aaron P. | Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, August 20, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Damned Notions of Liberty': Slavery, Culture, and Power in Colonial Mexico, 1640-1769


Althouse, Aaron P., Bulletin of Hispanic Studies


FRANK T. PROCTOR III. 'Damned Notions of Liberty': Slavery, Culture, and Power in Colonial Mexico, 1640-1769. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2010. 273 pp. ISBN 978-0-8263-4966-8.

This recent work at once supplements an expanding corpus of scholarship and strikes new directions for the study of African slavery and the slave experience in colonial Mexico. In providing a series of intertwined yet capably stand-alone chapters examining slavery during portions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the standpoint of labour, marriage and community, magic, violence, resistance, and liberty, Proctor cements his position among the ranks of current scholars engaged in systematically demolishing characterizations of Mexico as lacking a significant African past.

As Proctor offers at the outset of his study, this project attempts 'to explore slavery from the perspective of slaves themselves, to reveal how the enslaved understood their own actions in the specific geographical and chronological context of New Spain in the middle colonial period' (1). In the process, Proctor skilfully uncovers - as best one can through utilizing documents penned by literate elites and/or bureaucrats - slave mentalities and value systems, most notably in terms of explaining the possible motivations behind slave actions on a variety of fronts, and how these speak to concepts of liberty as a desired and intended outcome.

The study begins with an analysis of slave labour, which proved integral to the slave experience. In evaluating several key arenas of slave labour such as sugar cultivation and processing and obraje-based woollen textile production across various Mexican regions, Proctor broadens the image of slave participation in the colonial economy. Specifically, he shows the enduring nature of slave labour in certain locations - even after the so-called 'end' of slavery in the mid-1600s - to the extent that multi-layered (contract and 'rented') slave labour proved more dominant than Indian wage labour in Mexico City/Coyoacan obrajes into the middle of the 1700s. Proctor also raises important issues regarding sugar plantation slavery, as he suggests the possibility that natural reproduction occurred on some plantations, a finding that dovetails nicely with the somewhat surprising importance of women in field labour. Finally, Proctor illuminates changes under way by the middle of the eighteenth century in the composition of plantation slave labour, at which point slave labour continued to dominate the skilled positions associated with sugar refining, while free temporary or resident workers came to represent the major portion of unskilled field labour. …

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