Maria de Terranova: a West African woman and the quest for freedom in colonial Mexico.

Author:Silva, Pablo Miguel Sierra


In the summer of 1627, a West African woman living in the city of Puebla de los Angeles, the second-largest city in colonial Mexico, fought for her right to a better life. Armed with little more than a remarkable reputation as an expert fish vendor, Maria, "the woman from Terranova", fought her former owner's claims that her freedom papers should be revoked. Her disregard for the restrictions that freed people constantly had to endure, even as independent and self-sufficient individuals, speaks to the xenophobic climate that Africans and their descendants experienced in the urban centers of Spanish America during the early and mid-seventeenth century. In an urban society largely controlled by European men, Maria exposed some of the tactics that African women could employ against a colonial order that attempted to regulate all aspects of the lives of the enslaved and the formerly enslaved. Ultimately, Maria's legal battle against her former owner highlights the entrepreneurial prowess and social networks that could lead the enslaved to freedom, but in the process, it also betrays the often-unfulfilled promises of colonial manumission.

This article will make use of a combination of judicial, notarial and parochial sources to inform our understanding of the difficult transition from slavery to freedom in seventeenth-century Puebla. The particularities of Maria's lengthy legal case are found in the Archivo Historico Judicial de Puebla (AHJP). (1) In addition, contextual information on urban slavery in colonial Mexico has been culled from the Archivo General de Notarias de Puebla (AGNP), the Archivo Municipal de Puebla and a variety of parochial repositories. (2) This reliance on underutilized local archives is an attempt to demonstrate how Mexican scholars can rescue the history of the African Diaspora from quotidian records on the colonial period. As this case study will demonstrate, it is of paramount importance to consider the lived experiences of Africans as central participants in the forging of colonial Mexico. In the same vein, unearthing the history of specific African ethnic groups (such as the Terranova) in Latin American documentation may provide valuable information on early seventeenth-century ethnic, social, cultural and political identities in Africa.

A West African Mother Amidst Angolan Men

During the early colonial period, Mexico, then known as the viceroyalty of New Spain, became a lucrative center for Trans-Atlantic enslavement. No less than 110,000 enslaved African men and women entered the viceroyalty between 1521 and 1639, an unfortunate reaction by part of Spanish colonists who attempted to substitute the epidemic-stricken indigenous populations of Central Mexico with enslaved Black people. Colin Palmer suggests that perhaps another 50,000 Africans entered Mexico in contraband operations to avoid paying license fees and royal taxes. (3) As a result, Africans and their descendants soon constituted a considerable proportion of Mexico's non-indigenous population. (4) In fact, by 1640, Mexico's African-born and African-descended population was only second to Brazil in the Western Hemisphere. (5) Yet in contrast to its South American counterpart, slavery would not persist in colonial Mexico, particularly in the cities of the central highlands. By the mid-eighteenth century, references to the enslaved or slaveholding become quite rare for the city of Puebla. Thus, people of African descent must have initiated a complex, large-scale, and daily struggle for their liberation since the mid-seventeenth century, if not earlier. Maria provides us with one such example in her legal battle against Julian Bautista de Cabrera.

In 1627, a rapidly growing, free community of people of African descent was already eroding the very foundations that underpinned chattel slavery in Mexico, and that enslavement in the city of Puebla only peaked in the 1630s, did not matter. In this regard, the actions of Maria, "the black woman from Terranova," exemplify how even enslaved African women, arguably the most disadvantaged of all groups in colonial society, could legally contest Spanish hegemony. Through her elaboration of a complex socio-commercial network that included Spanish lawyers, merchants, fish vendors and self-sufficient freed persons, our protagonist defended her right to liberty under the allegation that a manumitted enslaved person could not be restricted when freed by her own financial resources. The history we are about to unveil is thus one of manumission, "self-rescue", and freedman agency.

Maria's story is exceptional for any number of reasons: as a skilled fish vendor, as an enslaved mother, and eventually as a free African woman. Neither of these three categories of personhood were particularly prominent in colonial Puebla. Maria sustained herself as a fish vendor in a landlocked city deep into the central highlands of Mexico. Poblanos, residents of Puebla, have been historically celebrated for their consumption of pork, but never of seafood. (6) The development of a porcine-consuming culture was intimately tied to Puebla's reliance on a growing urban textile workforce, thus Maria's occupation would have placed her on the periphery of the city's commercial and economic interests. Moreover, as human property and as individuals devoid of any juridical right, enslaved Black women in colonial Mexico sustained notoriously low fertility rates. (7) Finally, Maria also distinguished herself as one of the very few Africans living in Puebla to attain freedom during the colonial period, although their creole and mulatto descendants often did. (8)

Yet perhaps the most curious aspect of Maria's life stems from her defiant claims to a distinct African ethnicity as a West African woman. Throughout the judicial case that took her all the way to the Secretary of the King's Chamber, she identified, time and again, as "Maria, the black woman from Terranova". (9) Minutiae of this nature could seem irrelevant, but this repeated act of self-identification speaks volumes of our protagonist's character and of her singular experience as a West African woman living in Mexico. We do not properly know when Maria first arrived in the viceroyalty of New Spain or if she lived in other cities before becoming a resident of Puebla. However, we do know that she formed part of the enslavement galleons that typically reached the (now-Colombian) port of Cartagena de Indias, before disembarking at San Juan de Ulua, the port-fortress facing the city of Veracruz.

Based on her reported age in her pronounced legal battle, Maria had been born circa 1592, placing her entry to New Spain somewhere around the fateful year of 1612. That year, an alleged conspiracy among the enslaved resulted in the brutal execution of thirty-five Black men and women in Mexico City in what has been described as the moment of greatest racial tension in the history of New Spain. (10) This was the Mexico that Maria would have first experienced. During her defense, an acquaintance noted that she had been economically-active in Puebla's central market as a fish vendor since 1613. In other words, her owners began to profit from enslaved labor almost immediately after she was involuntarily brought to New Spain. (11) On a more personal level, by the mid-1610s, she would had endured and survived the difficult period of "seasoning", during which she survived the Middle Passage and became acclimatized to their new social, cultural and biological environment in the Americas. (12) We know relatively little about her life between her arrival in New Spain and the 1627 lawsuit, except for the fact that during those fourteen years, she became a mother.

In November 1626, Maria was sold to Julian Bautista de Cabrera, a Puebla citizen, along with her two creole (American-born) daughters, Gertrudis and Teresa, and a sick enslaved woman named Lucrecia for the exorbitant price of 2000 pesos. In her bill of sale, Maria had been labeled as an "Angolan woman from the land of San Tome", in reference to the sugar-producing island in the Gulf of Guinea. (13) However, during her legal battle, Maria time-and-again opted for the Terranova toponym, self-identifying as "Maria, the black woman from Terranova". What exactly did this mean? Was Maria merely rejecting any association with Angola and Sao Tome? Or did she intend to refashion herself as a member of a specific ethnic group? In this respect, Gwendlyn Midlo Hall has suggested the following:

While Spanish and Portuguese colonists and officials grouped Africans under large regional or coastal denominations, Africans in these Iberian colonies in the Americas made finer distinctions among themselves, which sometimes emerge in the documents, especially records of court testimony in which Africans identified their specific identities. (14)

Thus, in redefining herself as woman from Terranova, Maria was challenging the accuracy of the notarized document that dehumanized her as a piece of property. In addition, Maria actively challenged the idea that she was Angolan or from Sao Tome. However, her decision to identify as "Terranova" is fascinating because the term itself does not reference a specific African ethnic group.

After all, the ethnonym Terranova, literally-meaning "New Land", was a Portuguese imposition for an undefined stretch of West African coast and an ancient one at that. (15) Maria's parents and siblings, still living in their West African community, would have certainly not claimed such an ethnic or geographic label.

Yet for Maria, the concept of "Terranova" had clearly come to mean something during her years in Mexico. In fact, a small Terranova community, consisting of a few dozen enslaved men and women, had implanted itself throughout the city of Puebla during the early seventeenth century. (16) They carried out the typical occupations assigned to Africans living in Spanish American urban centers as domestic laborers, wet...

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