African and Oriental origin in Mexico: Blacks, Mulattos and even Chinese in Colonial Acapulco


Several chronicles and documentary sources give an account of the considerable number of blacks, mulattos, and brown people who inhabited Acapulco and surrounding regions during the viceregal period. Towards the end of the 18th century, a 1790 census of the port counted 229 families, of which nine were Spanish, three were indigenous, five were Chinese, and the rest, that is, 212 were "mulattos of all castes"; a few years later, in 1802, Humboldt referred to the city as "inhabited almost exclusively by men of color".

Dedicated to various tasks at sea and on land, the blacks and mulattos of Acapulco were not a homogeneous group. Many of them had arrived as slaves, but others had acquired their freedom. They worked as porters, muleteers, domestic servants or formed part of the port militias and held important positions, such as interim lieutenants or even in charge of administering the port, during the long absences of the castellano or governor. Others were feared since they were "fleeing in the mountains"; a letter from Viceroy Luis de Velasco, Marquis of Salinas, in May 1606, preserved in the General Archive of the Indies, reads as follows:

...On the coast of the South Sea, near the port of Acapulco, there are three other ranches...of blacks who are said to number more than 300 from where they go out to rob [on the roads] of the carts that carry and come to unload the ships of the Philippines...

Throughout the viceregal period, these groups were appreciated and considered as indispensable labor for the port tasks, although they were also criticized for their "licentious" or dissolute practices due, the chronicles said, possibly to the high temperatures of the port, the absolute freedom and the disorder in which the inhabitants of Acapulco lived. These aspects, it was claimed, favored the mixture of Filipino customs and those of "mulattos and pardos of the Americas."

Notwithstanding their significant number and undeniable importance in the history of Acapulco, little has been written about their economic and social participation, as well as the cultural processes of which they formed part. Who were the blacks, mulattos, or Chinese of the port that comprised almost the entire population, and how to reconstruct and understand the cultural processes of populations coming from the Philippines, America, and Africa?

Provenance and cultural diversity

The colonization and conquest of territories in Asia, Africa, and America converted groups from different cultures into subjects belonging to the same classification. In Mexico, the Nahua, Nahuas, Nañus, or Mayas were initially called Indians indistinctly; the same happened with other Latin American cultures, in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, or Colombia. Mandingos, Wolofes, Berbers, Fangs, or Bantus, as well as people from the East and the Indian Sea with African features, were also classified as blacks and, in some cases, as Chinese. Gradually, the presence of missionaries and thinkers, concerned with the knowledge of the new lands and their inhabitants, led to the study and differentiation of the groups that made up these peoples.

In the East, the Spanish made some distinctions: the Muslims of the southern Philippines were called Moros; the Chinese were called Sangleyes, although the term "Chinese" encompassed all the inhabitants of Southeast Asia, who were often black or mulatto. The inhabitants of New Guinea, an island discovered by Saavedra in 1542 and so named years later by Villalobos because it was populated by blacks like those of Guinea in North Africa, were called negros or guineas; members of Filipino negroid groups were known as negritos, and all other ethnic groups in the Philippines were also called indios.

Nevertheless, the use of the terms "negros, mulatos, pardos" and sometimes "chinos" to refer to the population of African and Oriental origin prevailed and still prevails in historical studies; such denominations, for research purposes, hinder and ignore the belonging, origin and, in short, the uniqueness of the individuals who made up the population of the port of Acapulco and make it difficult to analyze and understand the diverse cultural phenomena that took place during that period.

The data that so far have been compiled show that the so-called "blacks of all castes" in Acapulco were not a homogeneous group, but a group of individuals, coming from diverse cultures, with similar phenotypes, that due to historical conditions acquired a single denomination.

In his pioneering studies, Aguirre Beltrán mentioned that the majority of the black population, at least in Costa Chica, came from Africa, from the slave market in Mexico City, through Veracruz. A testimony about the presence of Africans from the north in early times, who possibly arrived by this route, is offered by Rolf Widmer when he documents a complaint against a Mandingo slave named Tomás. Accused in 1584 before the Holy Office for predicting the arrival of ships to the port, a very common crime in that period, according to Widmer himself, Tomás was also denounced for supposedly having knowledge of a "marvelous" root that cured illnesses, which according to the Mandingo was well known in his land.

Aguirre Beltrán also mentions that "black slaves acquired in Acapulco, a port that saw the arrival of slave ships that violated the text of the agreements signed by the various companies in charge of introducing slaves, which required the port of Veracruz as the only way of entry". She also mentions that "Negroids from Indonesia and Melanesia and some other captives from the Orient" arrived through Acapulco, as well as Africans from the East coast of Africa called cafres or cafres de pasa, possibly from the Zulus groups, although she admits that this subject needs to be investigated further. This is also noted by Virginia Gonzalez, who affirms that the amount of slave traffic that the Iberians established by taking advantage of the political and commercial communications network of the Manila Galleon has yet to be studied.

New data and perspectives

It is known that the sale and purchase of African, Hindu and Chinese slaves by the Arabs took place in the waters of the Indian Sea long before the arrival of the Portuguese in that area. The Spanish occupation of the Philippines apparently continued with the slave trade of various cultures, as noted in a commentary by Jesuit Pedro Chirino in the early decades of the 18th century:

...From India, Malacca and Maluco come to Manila slaves and slaves, white and black, children and older; they are industrious and helpful and many good musicians; they are great seamstresses, cooks, and canners and very neat and clean service...

There are data that attest that the arrival of "blacks", slaves or free to the port of Acapulco by way of Manila began at least from early times. Father Chirino, in narrating an event of a confrontation with Dutch corsairs in 1600, describes the sinking of one of the Spanish ships with the consequent death of "109 passengers, among them Spaniards, captains and soldiers of the best of these islands and 150 Indians and blacks". Slave traffic through the Pacific, via the Philippines-Acapulco, continued in spite of the regulations. A document from the General Archive of the Indies from 1700, a century later, gives an account of the problems faced by the authorities in controlling the entry of slaves through the Manila Galleon. 

In the document, the viceroy, in response to the request of the Administrator of the Black Seats and in accordance with the laws of the Compilation of the Indies, asks that the slaves be declared for confiscation: "that the officers and passengers of the ship Nuestra Señora del Rosario have brought in their service since he considers that they have arrived by 'bad entry'". Also throughout the dossier, he laments the excessive number of slaves that still arrive by this route. This type of text also reveals the importance of smuggling in the South Sea.

Some of these slaves could have come from the Orient. Aguirre Beltrán, when referring to a group of slaves of oriental origin that inhabited the region of Coyuca, sent by General López de Legazpi to his heirs in haciendas in the 17th century, points out that these slaves later obtained their freedom and founded a neighborhood in the small port; he also mentions that they were called "indios filipinos", but that among them there were many mulattos, which makes us suppose that they were not exclusively indigenous to the archipelago, but from many other places in the East.

It should be noted that several areas of the islands near the Philippines were inhabited by populations with "negroid" features, which, according to some hypotheses, migrated from East Africa in ancient times. It is possible that the historic neighborhood of Acapulco known as Guinea owes its name to New Guinea, an island in Oceania. On the other hand, customs that survive in Acapulco such as the tuba or palm wine seem to have also come from the Philippines as attested by Father Chirino:

...the palms of which there are also many and various species and differences, are the vineyards.... of those lands. Because leaving aside other uses and benefits of this tree, from it they extract the wine and vinegar and oil that not only sustains with great abundance all that land but that is loaded and taken outside to provide other regions, especially wine to Japan, Maluco, and New Spain...

However, it is interesting to note that coconut wine is also used, then and now, in Central and North Africa, so it is difficult to pinpoint its first origin. What is certain is that the Afromestizos encouraged the production of coconut and "coyol" wines that were based on the fermentation of the juice of the fruits as described in a quote from the period, cited by Rolf Widmer:

...they cut the bunch of coconuts when they are small, and it goes through the nipple, distilling the juice or juice that had to raise the coconuts, which they collect with gourds, and every day they cut a small part of it as thin as a real of two so that its top does not harden and stop flowing...

The presence of slaves of oriental origin but with African features in Mexico was common, as attested by several documents, among others a letter of the sale in 1615. In it, a friar from Mexico City declares that he sold a "mulatto slave" "named Sebastián" for "400 pesos of common gold" to a merchant, also from the city, whom he describes as "a Creole from Manila, about 26 years old, bearded". The friar mentions that he acquired this slave from another religious friar of the Order of St. Augustine, General Provisor of the Province of the Philippines. 

The data of this letter reveal that from relatively early times slaves from the Orient arrived in New Spain, but also the description of the slave's features allow us to observe the presence of Orientals of "brown or black" skin in Mexico, many of whom could have passed in New Spain as "black, mulatto or Chinese" slaves without distinguishing their origin and culture.

Another interesting fact regarding the black and mulatto population in Acapulco is revealed in a commentary by Antonio de Morga in 1609, who points out that the Spaniards, faced with the prohibition of enslaving the native Indians, had slaves "cafres y negros", coming from West Africa and the region of present-day Mozambique, who arrived through the Portuguese through trade to Manila and surrounding regions. This data provides more precise information on the origin of the East African slaves.

On the one hand, it is known that the name "cafre" was used by the first Muslim traders to designate the animists of the eastern coasts of southern Africa and that this name was taken up by the Portuguese when they arrived in the area. Apparently, the Cafrería was a region of Southern Africa that extended along the Indian Ocean towards the tip of Southern Africa and that the name kafri was synonymous with black in Malay.

It is interesting to note the meaning of the term "cafre", of Arabic origin, in the Dictionary of Authorities of 1726: "they call thus the natives of the coast of Africa towards the Cape of Good Hope and in the same way the barbarous and cruel man is called cafre". This name, perhaps coming from the Philippines, is still used in Mexico, practically with the same meaning, although few of us know that it refers to East African groups.

On the one hand, animist Africans arrived from West Africa, among them Mandingos, from very early times in the XVI century, and also Bantu groups, at least since the beginning of the XVII century from Southern Africa. Furthermore, Aetas or Bataks and many other ethnic groups from the Philippine Islands and settlers from New Guinea, as well as from other islands of so-called Melanesia, arrived from the earliest times. Also, present in Acapulco since the end of the 16th century were blacks and mulattoes, "ladinos", Moors, mestizos who could have been of African or Oriental origin. All of them coexisted in turn with indigenous people of the region, Spaniards, New Spaniards, and Central Americans, several of them also of African origin, who arrived on the coasts of Guerrero and Oaxaca.

This is an excerpt from a longer investigation piece by María Elisa Velázquez and Ethel Correa, Source: Diario de campo via INAH