During the eighteenth century, hundreds of thousands of free descendants of Africans in Mexico faced a highly specific obligation to the Spanish crown, a tax based on their genealogy and status. This royal tribute symbolized imperial loyalties and social hierarchies. As the number of free people of color soared, this tax became a reliable source of revenue for the crown as well as a signal that colonial officials and ordinary people referenced to define and debate the nature of blackness.
Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain examines the experiences of Afromexicans and this tribute to explore the meanings of race, political loyalty, and legal privileges within the Spanish colonial regime. Norah L. A. Gharala focuses on both the mechanisms officials used to define the status of free people of African descent and the responses of free Afromexicans to these categories and strategies. This study spans the eighteenth century and focuses on a single institution to offer readers a closer look at the place of Afromexican individuals in Bourbon New Spain, which was the most profitable and populous colony of the Spanish Atlantic.
As taxable subjects, many Afromexicans were deeply connected to the colonial regime and ongoing debates about how taxpayers should be defined, whether in terms of reputation or physical appearance. Gharala shows the profound ambivalence, and often hostility, that free people of African descent faced as they navigated a regime that simultaneously labeled them sources of tax revenue and dangerous vagabonds. Some free Afromexicans paid tribute to affirm their belonging and community ties. Others contested what they saw as a shameful imposition that could harm their families for generations. The microhistory includes numerous anecdotes from specific cases and people, bringing their history alive, resulting in a wealth of rural and urban, gender, and family insight.
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1. Tribute and Calidad in the Spanish Empire
Chapter 2. Revitalization and Reaction: Afromexican Tribute before 1763
Chapter 3. Sons of Hidalgos or Ringleaders of the Indians? Defining Tributary Genealogies
Chapter 4. Imperial Knowledge and the Expansion of Tribute
Chapter 5. Mapping Community on the Afromexican Tribute Register
Chapter 6. Genealogy and Disputed Tributary Status
“Scholars interested in the history of race relations, freedom, taxation, and the practices and politics of black vassalage and citizenship in the Western Hemisphere will find Taxing Blackness especially insightful. In sum, Gharala has contributed an important study that redefines our understanding of eighteenth-century afrodescendientes, Mexican economic history, and the ambitions of Bourbon reformers in New Spain.”
"A seminal work of original and meticulous scholarship, Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain is enhanced for academia with the inclusion of illustrations, forty-four pages of Notes, a six page Glossary, a twenty page Bibliography, and a seven page Index."
—Midwest Book Review / Bookwatch
“An important study of the internal workings of the late eighteenth-century Spanish viceroyalties, exposing how racial specificity faded away in light of more pressing concerns regarding collecting as much tribute as possible. This book provides new perspectives on the history of race and class, demonstrating that physiognomy and phenotype did not overtake lineage.”
—Nicole von Germeten, author of Black Blood Brothers: Confraternities and Social Mobility for Afro-Mexicans and Violent Delights, Violent Ends: Sex, Race, and Honor in Colonial Cartagena de Indias
"Based on extensive primary research and an impressive array of secondary studies on the categorization of social difference in colonial Mexico, Taxing Blackness convincingly navigates through shifting official policies and responses to them in the 18th century to demonstrate how the concept of calidad rather than casta or race remained the key factor for determining the tributary status of free people of African descent. Calidad, or status, incorporated physical appearance, place of residence, gender and reproduction, public reputation in behavior and judgment, and genealogy; classification based on these attributes was in flux over time as free people of color commonly employed institutional means to negotiate or contest their social position with an increased emphasis on family genealogy. Using regional examples across New Spain, Norah Gharala addresses a contradictory literature on factors that influenced the social status of free peoples of African descent. She explains why and how the Bourbon regime sought to impose tighter control over this population in the late 18th century despite the relatively insignificant amount of revenue that accrued to the crown and the fact that Afromexicans lived in established communities with complex constellations of social ties, using genealogies to defy the persistent attempts to characterize them as vagrants. Even with the abolition of tribute after independence, the legacy of blackness persisted in new patterns of impositions and self-definition that continued to draw on concepts of calidad. Taxing Blackness is a must-read for anyone attempting to understand the debates over race, caste, and class in colonial Mexico."
—Susan M. Deeds, Northern Arizona University
“This work is a significant contribution to the historiography of Afro-Mexico in that it demonstrates another aspect of the Afro-Mexican partition and agency within the late colonial regime. Whereas previous studies employed censuses and court records, this study also utilizes tax records (in conjunction with other records) in engaging agency. The book also adds to the historiography on tribute, which tends to focus on indigenous populations, by including the Afro-Mexican populations, while also providing a space for analysis of Spanish tax structure and law in the colonial period.”
—Hispanic American Historical Review