The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatán (review)
Enterprise & Society
Volume 13, Number 4, December 2012
Jeremy Baskes, Professor of History
Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio
Visitors to modern day Yucatán encounter a region rich in indigenous culture; guidebooks extol the grandeur of ancient Maya kingdoms whose ruins still dot the countryside; local populations converse in Maya dialects, proof of Maya cultural survival, despite the centuries of conflict that began with the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors. As Matthew Restall shows in his book, however, these images entirely overlook the tremendous role played by people of African descent, who participated in the initial conquest and settlement of the peninsula and then represented a sizeable percentage of its population throughout the colonial era. Indeed, the number of Afro-Yucatecans equaled the combined total of Spaniards and mestizos throughout the centuries, and by 1700 represented about 10 percent of Yucatan’s total population.
Involuntary African migrants arrived to Yucatán from the colony’s beginning, but the region’s poverty precluded the use of wide-scale African slavery. As a result, slaves were few in number and greatly exceeded by free Afro-Yucatecáns. Furthermore, Mayas did the unskilled labor, often managed by the Afro-Yucatecán populations, both free and slave, one example of the “middle” role played by the colony’s “blacks.”
One of Restall’s central theses is that Yucatán was not a slave society but was a society with slaves, an all-important factor distinguishing the lives of Afro-Yucatecáns from, for example, the lives of blacks in the slave society of the American south. Restall goes to great lengths to argue that there existed no coherent ideology of racism in Yucatán, rather slaves were viewed as individuals, known by their names, welcomed into Catholic society, integrated into urban occupations, and allowed to marry and have children. Indeed, Restall shows that the line between slave and free was a narrow one, as slaveowners largely treated slaves no differently than they did free people of color, viewing them more as status symbols than labor to exploit. Emancipation in 1829 was not particularly controversial in Yucatán; slaves had long enjoyed high rates of manumission and were anyway greatly outnumbered by free Afro-Yucatecáns.
Afro-Yucatecáns were stationed solidly in the “middle” of the society, working for Spaniards as managers in rural and urban enterprises, and even becoming owners of middling level businesses, such as silversmiths, barbers, tailors, and shoemakers, often times after having first served as apprentices to Spaniards. Moving from apprentice to owner demonstrates Afro-Yucatecán social mobility, a process also often achieved in Yucatán by service in the Pardo militia. Afro-Yucatecán companies defended the colony from pirates and enemy naval attacks, earning prestige and income at the same time. In many ways, Restall shows that blacks were in the middle between Spaniards and Mayas.
Yucatecáns of African descent also lived in rural areas, especially in the “dome” of Yucatán, northwest of Campeche, a region Restall calls “the colored crescent.” In the countryside, Afro-Yucatecáns never formed their own segregated communities, but lived among the Mayas, growing corn and beans on milpas (small plots), becoming fully integrated into village life, marrying Maya spouses, and raising Maya-speaking, Afro-Maya children.
Miscegenation was constant and prevalent throughout the colony; mulattoes far out-numbered blacks, for example. Restall examines extensively the perception in Yucatán of mixed-race “castas,” concluding that casta categorization was largely ambiguous. An individual classified as mulatto at baptism might later be referred to as mestizo. In any event, such classifications were not too important since “calidad” (meaning, roughly, status) was determined by a host of traits with race being only one. Prejudice existed, Restall admits, but tended to be directed at individuals whose behavior was deemed dishonorable rather than at any ethnic group as a whole.
A fascinating section, albeit one less well integrated into the book, examines witchcraft, especially healing and love magic. Interestingly, Restall finds that Afro-Yucatecáns were no more likely to be accused of black magic than Spaniards. This revelation is important for several…