Society in Colonial Spanish America (revised)
© 2001 Donald J. Mabry
Spain transferred its customs and attitudes to America.
It was extraordinarily successful at doing that. Upper class customs and attitudes were
relatively unchanged in America but lower-class customs changed since lower-class
Spaniards who went to the New World were able to raise their status. The colonial lower
class was Indian, African, mestizo, mulatto, or some other DNA mixture.
What were the differences with today? Colonial Spaniards had more
control. The father had the legal authority; he ruled the roost in the colonial period. A
wife had few legal rights. Children were kept physically under father's thumb; the family was a
very strong unit and included more than the nuclear family. Large amounts of wealth in
Spanish America but only the upper classes had it. Over time, there was a reduction of
restraints. The existence of Indians and Negroes caused a demoralization of upper classes.
Maybe 300,000 Spaniards went to all of Spanish America
over 300 years. Not many were women. Humboldt said that there were 10 times as many men as
women in New Spain. That there were so few Spaniards had enormous demographic
In 1492, there were between 30 and 50 million Indians
in what would become Spanish America. New Spain had the most population with about 25. In
the Inca area, there were 5 million people. The Spanish unknowingly introduced diseases
virulent to the New World populations, causing a demographic disaster. Whereas central
Mexico had 19 million people in 1519, it only had 1 million in 1605. The Incas declined
from to 1.5 million by 1561 and 800,00 by 1800.
The Spanish always represented a small minority in the
New World. The Spanish population, by 1570, consisted of only 150,000 people. By 1810,
there were 1.1 million whites out of 13.5 million (8.1% but these figures are only
approximate). There were 700,000 Negroes, most of whom were slaves. The rest were Indians
or castas (people of varying genetic mixtures). The total population had declined since
the Spanish had first arrived although it had begun to increase by the late colonial
CASTE AND CLASS
There was a two class system, really; there was an
upper class and everybody else. Women could be raised by marriage but men couldn't.
There were different kinds of divisions in lower class. Class or caste? Scholars quarrel. Caste is a
social condition into which one is born into and can't escape. There was some discrimination
on racial lines: laws against Negroes mounting horses, having firearms, and staying out
after dark. There was occupational and matrimonial discrimination. There were numerous lawsuits over caste
status. Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain
(London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1811-1814) said that, around 1800, color
was the exposed nerve of Venezuela. Racial tension was common.
Indians (indios) were a special social category. They
were not a single group. There were 300 different language groups in Mexico alone. All of the cacique class were the upper class, i.e. enjoyed
certain privileges and exemptions. Indians were in several conditions. In the first
decades after the conquest, many were in repartimiento (allotments for gang labor; in
Peru, it was also called mita). At one time, about half of the indios were in encomienda
(commended to the care of Spaniards in return for which they either worked for the
Spaniard or paid tribute). Some were slaves. Some were branded. Some were in tutelage to
the Crown. Eventually, many were in debt peonage.
The Laws of the Indies were full of protection for
Indians, but they were often ignored. In 1573, a special court to protect Indians, the
Juzgado de los Indios, was created. Indian villages won lawsuits against corregidores.
Work was supposed to be fixed, i.e. wages, hours, having to move. Even quite late in the
colonial period, there were Indian slaves. Caciques and Indian overseers were willing to
beat Indians. Peruvian indios were often enormously exploited having to work for Spaniards
300 days a year.
Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, A Voyage to South
America, 2 vols. (London, 1806 and later editions) noticed this on an inspection
voyage and reported on abuses. The mines were very, dangerous. Obrajes (workshops) had
terrible conditions. Clergy often had Indian slaves. Monks sometimes had Indian
mistresses. Indios were kidnapped and enslaved.
The Crown went to legislative trouble to protect Indian
women. It first tried to prohibit marriage but failed. Then it allowed licit unions because Spanish
men wanted legal heirs and because marriage aided conversions to Christianity. Thus, it legalized miscegenation. Encomienda could be inherited by women. 1539 decree that
encomienda could only be given to married men or had to get married retain encomienda
others. For others, marriage was necessary to hold office. Spanish men married Indios for
money, land, titles, and dowries. A dowry from the royal treasury for mestiza orphan girls. Caution
must be exercized in thinking the Crown was able to protect the indios. The 1540's Indian rebellion in Yucatán as much a revolt against the way their women were
treated by Spanish as anything else.
Mestizaje, the mixture of indios and Spanish, began
immediately as conquerors began fornicating with Indian women. It was not until the
mid-16th century that the Crown saw the ever-larger mestizo population as a problem and
began to restrict what mestizos could do. They were the favorite mixture in law and
practice. Mestizo also became a class designation as Indians adopted Spanish ways and
Illustrative is the development of the mestizo
population in New Spain. In 1803, Humboldt estimated that there were 41% pure Indians, 20
% whites, and 38% mixed. This process of miscegenation continued. By 1930, the absolute
number of pure Indios greater but their percentage of the population was less, falling to
(28%). The white population was less than 15% whereas the mixed almost 57%. Estimates
since emphasize the prevalence of the mestizo.
In the colonial period there were two hundred terms to
describe genetic lines. It is doubtful that these people used these terms. The way the
upper class looked at different groups varied. Indios were seen as higher than Negroes.
Certain mixtures considered worst of all, zambos (Indios and Africans) in the
Black Africans were generally slaves. It wasn't easy to
get freedom and not many did. How well were they treated? We don't know. We do know that
black slaves not treated better in Brazil than in US enough bother about. In Chile in
1767, there was a total about 10,000-20,000 blacks and mulattos, fewer than half of whom
were slaves. Chile was an exception. However, at least 20% were owned by Jesuits as
slaves. Humboldt said Spanish legislation on slaves was milder than most other nations
[that he knew about]. However, blacks were so dispersed that legislation was worthless. No
more than 10% of blacks were free.
Marriage between Spanish and Negroes not encouraged but
frequent. Marriage of Negro men and Indian women was not encouraged; but common. A zambo
child was free if the Indian was. The Crown became concerned because it was thought that the
offspring picked up the worst of two races. Spanish were just as family conscious as
Pilgrims and Puritans but, like them, tended to be self-absorbed and not be concerned with
the domestic arrangements within the lower classes.
Free labor existed in towns. It was non-European, for
there was very little free white labor. Poor Spanish immigrants avoided it because they
were trying to work their way up. There was a prejudice towards members of the master race
doing servile labor. There was a free Indian labor market. There were squatter settlements
in towns as indios left the countryside to seek better lives in urban areas.
Gremios or guilds were of medieval origin. They were
very exclusive and stood in the way of the improvement of production, for they had no
reason to innovate. They were protected by legal privilege with numerous lines defining
and guaranteeing their rights. The masters were Spanish. There was racial discrimination
inside the guilds, for Indios, blacks, and other castas were never able to rise in status.
No reason to believe that they were treated better or worse than European labor.
They were very conscious of the fact that they were a
tiny minority. They feared slave revolts, for they knew slavery was dangerous. They were very much
interested in status within own group. In the 18th century, there was growing
resentment of the Crown favoring peninsulares, Spaniards born on the Iberian peninsular.
Under the Bourbon kings of Spain, criollos (Spaniards born in the colonies) received fewer
high governmental positions. For the entire colonial period, there were only 4 criollo
viceroys, 14 criollo captains-general; and 105 of 706 bishops. Criollos clearly
discriminated against. At the end of the 17th century, there were eleven
Marquis, 11 counts, one marshal in New Spain, an increase. Titled nobility could entail
land, thus ensuring that it would pass intact to the oldest son. Helped in the creation of
large estates. Others could get entail besides being titled nobility through mayorazgo,
the system whereby the elder son inherited the titles and properties of the family. In the
late 18th century, efforts were made to get rid of mayorazgo. Church had mortmain (mano
morta), which meant that its landed estates, often donated by the wealthy pious, grew
larger and larger. The upper class controlled the church. Almost everything was heavily
affected by class and caste in the colonial period
Was there a middle class? The term probably was not
used by colonials and royal officials. In 1824, in Guatemala, there is mention of the
middle class (la clase media) but does this usage equate with what we mean by the term
today? Some might have used this term late in the colonial period. The term is ours not theirs. It's ahistorical.
Little research has been done, but a significant amount
in the last three decades of the 20th century. They are frequently difficult to
investigate. We need to know more about such things as population, caste and class
economic and social opportunity; urban and rural life and relations between the two;
living conditions; voluntary associations, crime; amusements, religion as relates to
social life; family and family life; alcoholism; and prostitution.
Thomas Gage in his The
English-American (1648), describes Guatemalan Indians:
Their ordinary clothing is a pair of linen or woollen drawers broad and open at
the knees, without shoes (though in their journeys some will put on
leathern sandals to keep the soles of their feet) or stockings, without
any doublet, a short coarse shirt, which reacheth a little below their
waist, and serves more for a doublet than for a shirt, and for a cloak a
woollen or linen mantle (called aiate)
tied with a knot over one shoulder, hanging down on the other side almost
to the ground, with a twelve penny or two shilling hat, which after one
good shower of rain like paper falls about their necks and eyes; their
bed they carry sometime about them, which is that woollen, mantle
wherewith they wrap themselves about at night, taking off their shirt and
drawers, which they lay under their head for a pillow; some will carry
with them a short, slight, and light mat to lie, but those that carry it
not with them, if they cannot borrow one of a neighbour, lie as willingly
in their mantle upon the bare ground as a gentleman in England upon a soft down bed, and thus do they soundly sleep,
and loudly snort after a day's work, or after a day's journey with a
hundred-weight upon their backs.
that are of the better sort, and richer, and who are not employed as tamemez
to carry burdens, or as labourers to work for Spaniards, but keep at home
following their own farms, or following their own mules
about the country, or
following their trades and callings in their shops, or governing the
towns, as alcaldes, or alguaziles,
officers of justice, may go a little better apparelled, but after the
same manner. For some will have their drawers with a lace at the bottom,
or wrought with some coloured silk or crewel, so likewise the mantle
about them shall have either a lace, or some work of birds on it; some
will wear a cut linen doublet, others shoes, but very few stockings or
bands about their necks; and for their beds, the best Indian Governor or
the richest, who may be worth four or five thousand ducats, will have
little more than the poor tamemez;
for they lie upon boards, or canes bound together, and raised from the
ground, whereon they lay a board and handsome mat, and at their heads for
man and wife two little stumps of wood for bolsters, whereon they lay
their shirts and mantles and other clothes for pillows, covering
themselves with a broader blanket than is their mantle, and thus hardly
would Don Bernabé de Guzman the Governor of Petapa lie, and so do all
the best of them.
The women's attire is cheap and soon put on; for most of them also go barefoot,
the richer and better sort wear shoes, with broad ribbons for
shoestrings, and for a petticoat, they tie about their waist a
woollen mantle, which in the better sort is wrought with divers colors,
but not sewed at all, pleated, or gathered in, but as they tie it with a
list about them; they wear no shift next their body, but cover their
nakedness with a kind of surplice (which they call guaipil) which hangs loose from their shoulders down a little below
their waist, with open short sleeves, which cover half their arms; this guaipil
is curiously wrought, especially in the bosom, with cotton, or feathers. The richer sort of them wear bracelets and bobs about
their waists and necks; their hair is gathered up with fillets, without
any coif or covering, except it be the better sort. When they go to
church or abroad, they put upon their heads a veil of linen, which
hangeth almost to the ground, and this is that which costs them most of
all their attire, for that commonly it is of Holland or some good linen
brought from Spain, or fine linen brought from China, which the better sort wear with a lace about. When they are at home at
work they commonly take off their guaipil,
or surplice, discovering the nakedness of their breasts and body. They
lie also in their beds as do their husbands, wrapped up only with a
mantle, or with a blanket. Their houses are but poor thatched cottages,
without any upper rooms, but commonly one or two only rooms below, in the
one they dress their meat in the middle of it, making a compass for fire,
with two or three stones, without any other chimney to convey the smoke
away, which spreading itself about the room filleth the thatch and the
rafters so with soot that all the room seemeth to be a chimney. The next
unto it is not free from smoke and blackness, where sometimes are four or
five beds according to the family. The poorer sort have but one room,
where they eat, dress their meat, and sleep. Few there are that set any
locks upon their doors, for they fear no robbing nor stealing, neither
have they in their houses much to lose, earthen pots, and pans, and
dishes, and cups to drink their chocolate being the chief commodities in
their house. There is scarce any house which hath not also in the yard a
stew, wherein they bathe themselves with hot water, which is their chief
physic when they feel themselves distempered.
themselves they are in every town divided into tribes, which have one
chief head, to whom all that belong unto that tribe do resort in any
difficult matters, who is bound to aid, protect, defend, counsel, and
appear for the rest of his tribe before the officers of justice in any
wrong that is like to be done unto them. When any is to be married, the
father of the son that is to take a wife out of another tribe goeth unto
the head of his tribe to give him warning of his son's marriage with such
a maid. Then that head meets with the head of the maid's tribe, and they
confer about it. The business commonly is in debate a quarter of a year;
all which time the parents of the youth or man are with gifts to buy the
maid; they are to be at the charges of all that is spent in eating and
drinking when the heads of the two tribes do meet with the rest of the
kindred of each side, who sometimes sit in conference a whole day, or
most part of a night. After many days and nights thus spent, and a full
trial being made of the one and other side's affection, if they chance to
disagree about the marriage, then is the tribe and parents of the maid to
restore back all that the other side hath spent and given. They give no
portions with their daughters, but when they die their goods and lands
are equally divided among their sons. If anyone want a house to live in
or will repair and thatch his house anew, notice is given to the heads of
the tribes, who warn all the town to come to help in the work, and
everyone is to bring a bundle of straw, and other materials, so that in
one day with the help of many they finish a house, without any charges
more than of chocolate, which they minister in great cups as big as will
hold above a pint, not putting in any costly materials, as do the
Spaniards, but only a little aniseed, and chilli, or Indian pepper; or
else they half fill the cup with atole,
and pour upon it as much chocolate as will fill the cup and colour it.
diet the poorer sort are limited many times to a dish of frijoles, or Turkey beans, either black or white (which are there in
very great abundance, and are kept dry for all the year) boiled with
chilli; and if they can have this, they hold themselves well satisfied;
with these beans, they make also dumplings, first boiling the bean a
little, and then mingling it with a mass of maize, as we do mingle currents in our cakes, and so boil again the frijoles
with the dumpling of maize mass, and so eat it hot, or keep it cold; but
this and all whatsoever else they eat, they either eat it with green
biting chilli, or else they dip it in water and salt, wherein is bruised
some of that chilli. But if their means will not reach to frijoles,
their ordinary fare and diet is their tortillas (so they call thin round
cakes made of the dough and mass of maize) which they eat hot from an
earthen pan, whereon they are soon baked with one turning over the fire;
and these they eat alone either with chilli and salt, and dipping them in
water and salt with a little bruised chilli. When their maize is green
and tender, they boil some of those whole stalks or clusters, whereon the
maize groweth with the leaf about, and so casting a little salt about it,
they eat it. I have often eat of this, and found it as dainty as our
young green peas, and very nourishing, but it much increaseth the blood.
Also of this green and tender maize they make a furmety, boding the maize
in some of the milk which they have first taken out of it by bruising it.
The poorest Indian never wants this diet, and is well satisfied as long
as his belly is thoroughly filled.
poorest that live in such "towns"
where flesh meat is sold will make a hard shift but that when
they come from work on Saturday night they will buy one half real, or a
real worth of fresh meat to eat on the Lord's day. Some will buy a good
deal at once and keep it long by dressing it into tasajos,
which are bundles of flesh, rolled up and tied fast, which they do when,
for example's sake, they have from a leg of beef sliced off from the bone
all the flesh with the knife, after the length, form, and thinness of a
line, or rope. Then they take the flesh and salt it (which being sliced
and thinly cut, soon takes salt) and hang it up in their yards like a
line from post to post, or from tree to tree, to the wind for a whole
week, and then they hang it in the smoke another week, and after roll it
up in small bundles, which become as hard as a stone, and so as they need
it they wash it, boil it and eat it. This is America's powdered beef,
which they call tasajo.
drinking, the Indians generally are much given unto it; and drink if they
have nothing else of their poor and simple chocolate, without sugar
or many compounds, or of atole,
until their bellies be ready to burst. But if they can get any drink that
will make them mad drunk, they will not give it over as long as a drop is
left, or a penny remains in their purse to purchase it. Among themselves
they use to make such drinks as are in operation far stronger than wine;
and these they confection in such great jars as come from Spain, wherein they put
some little quantity of water, and fill up the jar
with some molasses or juice of the sugar cane, or some honey for to
sweeten it; then for the strengthening of it, they put roots and leaves
of tobacco, with other kind of roots which grow there, and they know to be strong
in operation, and in some places I have known where they have put in a
live toad, and so closed up the jar for a fortnight, or month's space,
till all that they have put in him be thoroughly steeped and the toad
consumed, and the drink well strengthened, then they open it and call
their friends to the drinking of it (which commonly they do in the night
time, lest their priest in the town should have notice of them in the
day), which they never leave off until they be mad and raging drunk. This
drink they call chicha, which
stinketh most filthily, and certainly is the cause of many Indians'
death, especially where they use the toad's poison with it....
having spoken of apparel, houses, eating and drinking, it remains that I
say somewhat of their civility, and religion of those who lived under the
government of the Spaniards. From the Spaniards they have borrowed their
civil government, and in all "towns"
they have one, or two, alcaldes,
with more or less regidores
(who are as aldermen or jurats amongst us) and some alguaziles,
more or less, who are as constables, to execute the orders of the alcalde
(who is a mayor) with his brethren. In towns of three or four hundred
families, or upwards, there are commonly two alcaldes,
six regidores, two alguaziles
mayores, and six under, or petty, alguaziles.
And some towns are privileged with an Indian Governor, who is above the
alcaldes and all the rest of the officers. These are changed every year
by new election, and are chosen by the Indians themselves, who take their
turns by the tribes or kindreds, whereby they are divided. Their offices
begin on New Year's Day, and after that day their election is carried to
the city of Guatemala "Guatemala"
(if in that district it be made) or else to the heads of
justice, or Spanish governors of the several provinces, who confirm the new election, and take
account of the last year's expenses made by the other officers, who carry
with then their townbook of accounts; and therefore for this purpose
every town hath a clerk, or scrivener, called escribano
who commonly continueth many years in his office, by reason of the
paucity and unfitness of Indian scriveners who are able to bear such a
charge. This clerk hath many fees for his writings and informations, and
accounts, as have the Spaniards, though not so much money or bribes, but
a small matter, according to the poverty of the Indians. The Governor is
also commonly continued many years, being some chief man among the
Indians, except for his misdemeanours he be complained of, for the
Indians in general do all stomach him.
being settled in a civil way of government they may execute justice upon
all such Indians of their town as do notoriously and scandalously offend.
They may imprison, fine, whip, and banish, but hang and quarter they may
not; but must remit such cases to the Spanish governor. So likewise if a Spaniard passing by the town, or living in it, do
trouble the peace, and misdemean himself, they may lay hold on him, and
send him to the next Spanish justice, with a full information of his
offence, but fine him, or keep him about one night in prison they may
not. This order they have against Spaniards, but they dare not execute
it, for a whole town standeth in awe of one Spaniard, and though he never
so heinously offend, and be unruly, with oaths, threatenings, and drawing
of his sword, he maketh them quake and tremble, and not presume to touch
him; for they know if they do they shall have the worst, either by blows,
or by some misinformation which he will give against them....
themselves, if any complaint be made against any Indian, they dare not
meddle with him until they call all his kindred, and especially the head
of that tribe to which he belongeth; who if he and the rest together find
him to deserve imprisonment, or whipping, or any other punishment, then
the officers of justices, the alcaldes or mayors, and their brethren the
jurats inflict upon him that punishment which all shall agree upon. But
yet after judgment and sentence given, they have another, which is their
last appeal, if they please, and that is to their priest and friar, who
liveth in their town, by whom they will sometimes be judged, and undergo
what punishment he shall think fittest.
Colonial Lima was somewhat different as one can see in
the account of Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa.
Colonial society had a variety of people as this story of
Doña Catalina de Erazu illustrates; she was a swashbuckling transvestite.
You can more about this colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.
Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.