Blacks in Colonial Spanish Texas

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Texas, United States on 2013-05-26 23:05Z by Steven

Blacks in Colonial Spanish Texas

Texas State Historical Association: A Digital Gateway to Texas History

Jesús F. de la Teja, Jerome H. and Catherine E. Supple Professor of Southwestern Studies and Regents’ Professor of History
Texas State University, San Marcos

From the initial encounters between the Old and New Worlds following Christopher Columbus’s voyages of exploration, African-descent people have been part of the story of the Americas. The African diaspora, although overwhelmingly a forced emigration carried out as part of the international slave trade, contributed to the creation of the complex multi-racial societies of Hispanic America. Hundreds of thousands of enslaved sub-Saharan Africans were sold into slavery in Spanish and Portuguese America between approximately 1550 and 1821. Hispanic legal and religious traditions allowed for considerable numbers of Africans to achieve manumission through gift or purchase, marry people of other ethnicities, produce free offspring, and in the Spanish world constitute one element of what came to be called the castas (racial/ethnic groupings). By the time of Spanish settlement in Texas in the early eighteenth century, the black Mexican population was composed overwhelming of free people of color, mostly identified as mulatto, combining European and American Indian elements…

…The complex characteristics of race and ethnicity in the broader Spanish empire were reflected in Texas’s Hispanic society. Miscegenation was widespread, and members of subordinate groups strove to “whiten” as they climbed the social ladder. In the socio-racial hierarchy of the Spanish colonial world, Spaniards stood at the top, followed by the various castas, with Indians and Africans at the bottom. Lighter skin brought with it the possibility of “passing” either for oneself or for one’s children. An analysis of extant sacramental records from San Antonio indicates that casta labels were often applied in an arbitrary and inconsistent manner. Additionally, military service tended to mask the actual phenotypical background of soldiers who were consistently listed as “Spaniard” during their active service, but whose casta might then devolve to that of a color quebrado (broken color) upon retirement. Consequently, census figures, which are available for the last decades of the colonial period, offer only an approximation of the size of the Afro-Mexican portion of the Texas population. In 1792 for instance, the civil (excluding military personnel) census summary for the province listed 415 mulattoes and 40 blacks in a reported casta population of 2,961. It also listed a total of 367 individuals in an “other” category, which reflects the ethnic ambiguity of many mixed-blood members of Hispanic Texas society. Similarly at Laredo, which was not a Texas jurisdiction until 1848, there were 155 mulattoes in a total town population of 718, making them the second largest casta group behind those categorized as Spaniards. The collapse of the mulatto population and substantial increase in the number of mestizos reported in census records from the late 1790s onward attests to greater possibilities for upward ethnic mobility on the Texas frontier….

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