Articulating Space: The Free-Colored Military Establishment in Colonial Mexico from the Conquest to Independence

Articulating Space: The Free-Colored Military Establishment in Colonial Mexico from the Conquest to Independence

Volume 27, Number 1 (Winter 2004)
pages 150-171
DOI: 10.1353/cal.2004.0052

Ben Vinson, III, Vice Dean for Centers, Interdepartmental Programs, and Graduate Programs
Johns Hopkins University

Introduction: Questioning the Question of Non-White Military Service in Colonial Mexico

At the close of the seventeenth century, even with Spain feeling the heat of war and with streams of pirate raids still punishing the coastlines of the crown’s New World holdings, Spanish bureaucrats cringed when considering the prospect of using black troops to defend their possessions. Francisco de Seijas y Lobera, the former alcalde mayor (district governor) of Tacuba, a distinguished member of the Spanish gentry, a scientist, merchant, and a traveler, seemed to capture the spirit of the times in his fourteen-volume history of the Spanish kingdom. Written between 1702–1704 as a counseling guide for the new monarch, Philip V, Seijas dedicated an entire tome exclusively to Mexican affairs. Within, he described in detail the existing military landscape, the scope of enemy threats, the parameters of existing defenses, and most importantly, he offered a series of recommendations for improving the mechanisms for protecting the crown’s borders. During times of emergency, Seijas suggested that Mexico could probably count upon the military services of 200,000 coastal and frontier defenders. His estimates tallied that a full 175,000 of these would be drawn from the negro, mulatto, pardo, Indian, and mestizo racial classes.

But in his enthusiasm for advocating the expansion of the military to include nonwhites, Seijas also revealed certain prejudices that seemed characteristic of his times. Sure, negros and mulattos (i.e. free-coloreds) could be called upon to serve; however, the terms of their service had to be constricted:

With respect to the formation of the two companies, considering (as one should) that the said negros and mulatos cannot be allowed to use swords and daggers, sharp weapons, or firearms of any type… it is not convenient or safe for the service of the king that the tremendous number of negro and mulatto rabble that exist (sic) in the Indies use such weapons. This is because they could use these arms to revolt. Moreover, there is no just or political reason why these people, who are of the same species as slaves (being their offspring), should enjoy the same privileges (preeminencias) as Spaniards. For these reasons, and because [negros and mulattos] have already been involved in many uprisings and tumults in the Indies, it is best for the crown that free negros and mulattos not be permitted to use offensive or defensive weapons.

Seijas proceeded to state that only salaried, full-time free-colored soldiers should be allowed to carry such armament. By contrast, the bulk of his proposed negro and mulatto militia forces, including mounted lancers, were to wield long spears and machetes, weapons that were light, easy to handle, and that could inflict harm on the enemy while minimizing the threat to the colony itself. Junior and senior officers within these militia units might be permitted to carry daggers, swords, and pistols, but mainly to demarcate differences in rank and to inspire their loyalty to the Spanish crown.

I provide Seijas’ comments here because they are emblematic of larger trends that permeated the colonial world. They reveal, in stark terms, the predicament of partial citizenship experienced by colonials of color. On the one hand, from as early as the 16th century, mulattos, negros, and pardos were processed in the colonial social framework as gente de razón (rational people). They were distinguishable from Indians in this respect and placed on par with Spaniards in that they were considered “responsible” for their own actions in ways that could be upheld in colonial courts. In other words, whites, mestizos, and free-coloreds participated in the same colonial legal sphere, one that was, in many ways, distinct from Indians. But on the other hand, the shadow of slavery followed the mulatto and negro population into freedom. Their heritage caused them to be described simultaneously as gente de razón and gente vil (base folk), which referenced a supposedly innate set of vices that were inextricably linked to their African bloodlines. Miscegenation with white colonists theoretically extended the possibility of “improving” these “malicious” traits by blending them with the benefits of Spanish “whiteness.” However, more often than not, racial mixture was believed to accentuate the worst racial qualities. Hence, under the rubric of the caste system that gradually evolved over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, free-coloreds were routinely described as haughty, cruel, shiftless, prone to licentiousness, and malevolent. Partly in an effort to contain these vices and to prevent them from “contaminating” the indigenous population, restrictive legislation was decreed, resulting in a deeper, formal articulation of the Spanish colonial caste system.

As the differences between black and white, free-colored, and mestizo began to  sediment, at the same time the distinctions between them began to blur. The phenomenon of partial citizenship rested on the ambiguity produced by questions over the proper station of peoples of color. The military was one arena where the seemingly contradictory elements of caste clarity and caste doubt played themselves out. Beginning in medieval times and extending into the sixteenth century, military service, particularly mounted duty, was construed as a marker of nobility. On a more abstract level, bearing arms in the name of the king was one of the greatest tangible expressions of Spanishness that one could project. Implicit in the act of dressing for combat was expressing interest in defending the colonial order. That meant upholding the principles of conquest, supporting the caste framework of racial dominance with its inherent favoring of white privilege, and sanctioning colonial modes of exploitative labor (including slavery). Yet at the same time, the act of having nonwhites participating in the military establishment threw these issues into question. To what extent were free-colored actions reflective of their commitment to the colonial regime, and to what extent were they not? Did their fragmented, partial citizenship produce fragmented and partial loyalties? How did their participation in the military alter its mission and objectives? How did their participation affect and shape the policies of the colonial state? What were the types of interactions that existed between the state and free-colored military actors?

This article takes these concerns as a point of departure for examining the way free-coloreds became integrated into the colonial Mexican military establishment. But it is important to point out that the focus here is on militia duty, not regular army service. This is a significant distinction. Militias represented localized, provincial expressions of a broader military apparatus. In other words, some of the objectives of imperial service that existed within the regular army, and that often went unquestioned by regular soldiers, became re-worked, filtered, and re-articulated at the local level. Militiamen brought to the military specific understandings of the functioning of the state that emanated from their provincial experiences. As militiamen, they projected their local worlds unto imperial affairs. Regular troops, arguably, represented more concrete instruments of imperial control. As a consequence, the militia probably wielded more social power. Through its chain of command, the militiamen held the attention of high officials such as the viceroy, the auditor de guerra (senior military justice official), and top administrators in the treasury department. Militiamen, even those at the lowest levels, could utilize both the symbolic and material support they acquired from senior crown bureaucrats to frontally contest the policies of local and regional officials. They could also use their political capital to fortify patron-client relationships, to secure privileges for their townships (such as fishing and land rights), to cement racial and regional identities, and even to undermine the structures of racial privilege by challenging the meaning of caste legislation. For instance, matters such as tribute policy could be re-examined in context of the services that free-coloreds rendered in uniform. In more dramatic instances (as occurred in seventeenth and eighteenth century Cuba), militia service could transform the meaning of slavery itself, providing access for people in bondage to become office-holding vecinos (landed citizens or residents) and therefore, eligible for participation in the political life of colonial affairs.  The history offered below provides some flashpoints of duty, tracing a number of the key moments in the evolution of the colonial Mexican free-colored militia institution, while examining some of its concrete effects on the colony’s pardos, mulattos, and negros. At various points throughout the article, the interplay between the militiamen’s local (sometimes racialized) understanding of service and the broader imperial perspective of duty will be highlighted…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , ,