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 first known African residents of New Spain (today’s Mexico and Central America), came as part of the Spanish invasion led by Hernán Cortés in 1519. The steady stream of African slaves imported over the next few decades swelled after 1580 as the union of the Portuguese Crown to the Spanish empire allowed more ready access to Portugal’s slave network. By the time that Portugal regained its independence in 1640, over 275,000 Africans had made the Middle Passage to New Spain. After that date, as Indian populations stabilized and the cost of importing Africans outweighed their profitability, imports almost completely ceased. By 1646, in a total population of over 1.7 million, New Spain’s African population, bozales (African-born) and ladinos (American-born) outnumbered Europeans 35,089 to 13,830, and Black mestizos contributed another 116,529 persons to the total. Although the number of enslaved persons of African descent dwindled in the next 150 years, the total Black Mexican population increased to more than 624,000 in 1810, or about 9 percent of New Spain’s total population. This population growth was in large part the result of miscegenation among enslaved and free Blacks, Spaniards, Indians, and mestizos. By the late eighteenth century, Black Mexicans lived in every part of the viceroyalty and occupied positions in every sector of the economy.
The African presence in Texas is contemporaneous with the early sixteenth-century Age of Conquest and famously begins with Esteban, or Estevanico, one of four survivors of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to Florida that wrecked on the Texas coast in 1528. The slave of Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Esteban was described by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the chronicler of the survivors’ adventures in Texas and the Southwest, as a “Black Arab from Azamor,” a coastal Moroccan town that had been captured by the Portuguese in 1513. The Coronado expedition also included Black enslaved people, seven belonging to Francisco Vázquez de Coronado himself, as it crossed Texas Panhandle region in 1541. The presence of substantial numbers of Afro-Mexicans in the northeastern frontier of New Spain by the latter half of the seventeenth century means that they participated in the various expeditions into the territory of present-day Texas that began in the 1680s. At least one Afro-Mexican, Juan de la Concepción, accompanied the Domingo Ramón’s 1716 expedition (see RAMÓN EXPEDITION) that carried out the settlement of East Texas. Two years later, Governor Martín de Alarcón certainly brought Afro-Mexicans to Texas as part of the expedition that founded San Antonio. The Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, whose 1721–22 campaign completed the permanent occupation of Spanish Texas, including the founding of the presidio-mission complex at La Bahía, also included Afro-Mexicans. Consequently, people of African descent, who were part of the general Hispanic population of New Spain, were well represented in Spanish Texas from the beginning.
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.
The occupational and social characteristics of Afro-Texans reflect both more general Spanish colonial trends and local circumstances. African-descent Texans occupied every rung of the economic ladder from property-owning farmer to slave. For example, the 1779 census of households reported mulatto farmers, tailors, masons, blacksmiths, carpenters, field hands, and day laborers. One mulatto, Pedro Guízar (Huízar), was listed in the 1779 census as a sculptor. He is credited with having sculpted the Rose Window and façade of San José Mission church and went on to perform numerous surveying, construction, and administrative jobs for the government. Not surprisingly, by 1798 he was listed in census records as a Spaniard holding the honorific Don.
In Texas, as throughout New Spain, Afro-Mexican slaves made up only a small proportion of the population. Field slavery of the type common in England’s American colonies and in parts of Spanish America did not exist in Texas absent an export cash crop economy. In Texas, as in most of New Spain by the latter part of the Spanish colonial period, slave ownership was a matter of status and most slaves provided domestic services. Present from the beginning of Hispanic settlement in Texas, slavery was closely associated with governors, military officers, and a few prosperous individuals. Only in Nacogdoches, at the turn of the nineteenth century, was there a substantial increase in the number of slaves, although the number of households reporting slave ownership remained small, a majority of them having French and English surnames, thus indicating recent arrival in the area. The fact that most slaves were female except in late colonial Nacogdoches, where by 1806 male slaves outnumbered females thirty-nine to thirty-six, points to more diversified economic roles for the enslaved Afro-Texan population in the Louisiana border region.
At least in Texas, and despite the arbitrary practices that arose from the acceptance of the casta system, the law ideally respected the individual rights of slaves, including the right to gain their freedom. Slaves could seek redress for abuses and crimes committed against their persons and property. Slaves also had the right to seek their freedom through purchase or to seek a new master on demonstrating good cause. Also as in other parts of the Spanish empire, in Texas manumission at death was a common practice. Juan Flores de Abrego freed his female slave at his death in 1779 but required his male slave to remain in the service of his wife until her death and then to return to the corpus of his estate. In Texas as in Florida, another important aspect of Spanish slave law was the right of asylum for foreign slaves seeking refuge within the jurisdiction of the Spanish crown. The surviving correspondence on Texas cases indicates that local and superior officials took seriously both the legal rights of the owners and the individual rights of the runaways.
Spanish law divided colonial society into the República de Españoles (Commonwealth of Spaniards) and the República de Indios (Commonwealth of Indians), each with its own code of law. People of African descent, including pure-blooded Africans, mulattoes, and other castas with African blood, were part of the República de Españoles, and, although included in the same legal jurisdiction as Spaniards, were subject to discriminatory ordinances. Most local laws did not distinguish between Afro-Mexicans and other castas, but some did. The 1751 regulation of cattle slaughters punished Spaniards breaking the rules with a substantial fine of twenty-five pesos, but imposed a penalty of 200 lashes on castas. Governor Manuel Muñoz’s ordinance restricting contacts with Apaches imposed a fine on Spaniards and added a jail sentence for castas. Although there is no evidence of it being collected in Texas, Afro-Mexicans were subject to the same per capita tax paid by Indians, the tribute, which was not imposed on Spaniards or mestizos.
The restrictive and discriminatory aspects of the Spanish legal system mirrored social attitudes that made African descent tantamount to an insult. Being called a mulatto or, sometimes, “mulatto dog” was grounds for legal action and sometimes violence. When Governor Domingo Cabello y Robles felt offended by the prominent Menchaca family, whose patriarch Luis Antonio Menchaca had been presidio commander at San Antonio in the 1760s, Cabello commented to his superior officer that the Menchacas were “no more than poor mulattoes.” Ironically, some years later Luis Antonio’s son insulted a fellow soldier by calling him a “mulatto dog.” Even more illustrative of the precarious social position faced by mulattoes on the Texas frontier is a case involving an attempt by a mission Indian to marry the sister and niece of soldiers originally from Los Adaes but stationed in San Antonio. In protesting their relative’s impending marriage the soldiers claimed that the family would be dishonored by the family’s mixing of its blood with that of an Indian. The prospective groom countered that the dishonor was feigned because the soldiers were themselves mulattoes. “And, being mulattoes, although they are soldiers, neither are they Spaniards nor of better status, or of better or purer blood than that of an Indian; carrying within themselves the tarnished honor that their origins give them and that they shall take to the grave.” Such challenges proved additional inducements to “passing” into the ranks of the mestizo and Spaniard categories.
In 1813 the rebel congress that met at Chilpancingo under the leadership of Father José María Morelos, himself of Afro-mestizo origins, declared an end to slavery and to the casta system in New Spain. It is not known if word of the work of the Congress of Chilpancingo ever reached Texas. When Mexico achieved independence in 1821 there were still about 3,000 slaves in the country and a few in Texas. In the summer of 1822, the constituent congress that met in Mexico City to establish a constitutional government for the nation, quickly worked to promote the ideals of Chilpancingo and on September 17 issued a law abolishing racial categorization in official documents. Even before the law was enacted, Father Refugio de la Garza, a native Texan who represented the province at the congress, wrote to the city council of San Antonio referring to the hierarchical social and political relations of the Spanish regime: “all that is over. We are all equal, and without this equality, our rights would not be inviolate and sacred.” Consequently, post-1822 Texas census reports omit casta data, indicating an acceptance of the new race-free society Mexico’s leaders envisioned as the ideal; yet the problem of slavery persisted and race relations took a new and difficult turn for the Hispanic Texan population as a whole with the arrival of Anglo-American settlers in the course of the 1820s.