In the introduction to Slaves of the White God, Colin A. Palmer noted that his research on blacks in colonial Mexico was inspired by the protests of the Black Consciousness movement of the late 1960s, which demanded the inclusion of the black experience in academic work, and in this case, in Latin American history. Palmer’s work was the first book to be published in English on blacks in colonial Mexico, however he was not the first scholar to engage this topic, that distinction belonging to Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, who published among other works, La poblicion negra de Mexico, 1519-1810 (1946). While in the popular sense, the discussion of slavery has been heavily influenced by the history of the nineteenth century United States South, there are marked differences in systems of enslavement in particular contexts. The story of Africans in colonial Mexico does serve as a prime example of the idiosyncratic nature of African enslavement in various locales throughout the globe, but also demonstrates the consistence of brutality and injustice which was characteristic of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and European presence in the New World.
During the 16th century, the Spaniards became the first of the colonial masters to introduce African slaves into the New World. From its origin in Hispaniola, African slavery spread throughout the rest of Latin America including Cuba, Peru, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. By the 16th and 17th centuries, Mexico and Peru had become the largest importers of slaves in Latin America. However, that dubious distinction is not indicative of a massive volume of slaves, since large-scale plantation labor was still in development. In actuality the estimated population of slaves in Mexico during the colonial period was approximately 100,000. The significance, of course, was not in the quantity but in the eventual evolution of slavery in the New World.
Historiographically, the study of blacks in Mexico is plagued with a glaring lack of contemporaneous documentation. One of the deficiencies of Palmer’s work is that the perspective of the enslaved Africans is largely absent. The practical reason is that the literature simply does not exist. There were neither slave narratives, nor extensive observatory accounts to articulate the experience of Africans in colonial Mexico. Palmer did, however, find a significant resource in the records of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, which was established in Mexico in 1571. Items such as charges of mistreatment against masters, and indictments of slaves for practicing witchcraft and sorcery provide a window into the social milieu of colonial Mexico, and suggests the retention of traditional African culture, the abuses of colonial slaveholders, and the resistance of African slaves.
Some of the more distinctive aspects of slavery in Mexico include the extensive role of highly skilled work in the urban setting and the hiring out of slave labor as a common practice. In fact, the coexistence of wage labor and African slave labor in the urban workplace was a strikingly unique element of this period. Also quite interesting was the fact that slave conversions were actually encouraged by Spanish emperor Charles V who claimed that, “all negroes are by nature capable of becoming Christians.”
Despite these idiosyncrasies, Palmer, himself, cautioned against deeming the African experience in colonial Mexico an entirely distinct anomaly. The justifications of enslavement, use of force to control, and resistance of the enslaved was similar to that in other parts of the New World, though documentation of such is a bit less abundant in this instance. Overall, Palmer’s book was an important contribution to what has now blossomed into an entire body of work, and even a field of study focused on the historical experiences of Africans throughout the Diaspora.