While several indigenous languages from the Americas have been alphabetized and written, no Native American language has such an extensive corpus of historical texts as Nahuatl, the language of the Nahuas or Aztecs of central Mexico. Writing in Nahuatl but using Latin letters, colonial Nahua scribes or tlahcuilohqueh produced an unparalleled outpouring of texts throughout the colonial period. Prior to the Conquest, the Nahuas recorded information in codices, which consisted of pictographic glyphs painted on sheets of bark paper, analogous to European books. They thus readily perceived the parallels between their pictographic codices and European alphabetic texts and quickly saw the utility and potential of the new technology. All that was needed was an introduction to European writing techniques. For the most part, this came in the form of friars, some of whom established schools for elite Nahuas, such as the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in the latter part of the 1530s. Some Nahuas likely also learned writing from professional Spanish scribes as well. These students of the friars and lay Spaniards would soon teach other Nahuas to write, such that only a few years after the opening of the Colegio, Nahua scribes, working entirely on their own, were producing written texts. These scribes then taught others, and by the 1550s Nahuatl alphabetic writing became a self-sustaining, independent tradition that touched nearly every corner of the Nahua world. Alphabetic writing overtook indigenous glyphs, and by the 17th century most Nahuatl texts were entirely alphabetic. Last wills and testaments made up the bulk of scribal output, along with other “mundane” Nahuatl documents of financial, legal, or governmental matters, which have proven highly illuminating to historians. There were also annals; local histories stretching back to preconquest times; and plays, songs, and speeches (huehuehtlahtolli). Nahua scribal culture thrived until the 19th century, when opposition to it from both the Spanish Crown and, later, the independent Mexican nation made Nahuatl texts obsolete and superfluous.
Richard Lee Turits
In the past, scholars of Latin America often assumed that Spanish colonists abandoned the Caribbean for the bullion riches of Mexico and Peru almost immediately after their conquest, while many Caribbeanists have imagined that Barbados, colonized by the British in the mid-1600s, was the “first black slave society.” Yet, in fact, more than a century earlier in the colony of Santo Domingo (then officially known as la Isla Española or simply la Española), European colonists built the first major American plantation economy and society made up mostly of enslaved people. Those held in chains on the island reached into the tens of thousands by the mid-1500s, and Santo Domingo became a pivotal crossroads in the early modern Atlantic. At first the enslaved population included thousands of people the Spanish called “Indians,” taken from other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas, and even an occasional enslaved person of European (Orthodox Christian or Muslim) descent. But after the mid-1500s slavery in Santo Domingo became isolated to people of African descent. This contrasted with the preexisting demography of slavery in southern Europe, where the enslaved were of more diverse geographic origins. Santo Domingo thus initiated a trajectory of racial and plantation slavery whose contours would shape the course of history in the Americas overall. Santo Domingo’s slave-based economy would also, though, be the first to collapse, at the end of the 16th century, partly because of sustained resistance by the enslaved—their continual escape and rebellion—that was costly for planters. The enslaved had composed most of society in the prior century. Now the majority were escaped and, to a lesser extent, freed slaves, living with substantial autonomy as independent peasants dispersed across the countryside. These themes are illuminated through an exploration of one of the earliest freedom suits in the Americas. This suit was won on appeal in Santo Domingo in 1531 through remarkable transatlantic collaboration by family members and sailors as well as through the evident power of notarized documents in the Spanish Empire.
Mexico had an exceptionally diverse population during the 16th and 17th centuries, including Indigenous peoples of different ethnicities (in the majority), Iberians, and forced migrants from Africa and Asia, who related to one another in complex ways. Society—a group of people living in a community—was configured differently in each place, based on geographical location, local customs, property distribution, and a myriad of other factors. Faced with such different contexts, historians have tended to generalize about social organization (the way people interacted) from the perspective of the men who produced the most sources. Colonial statutes and official correspondence convey the attempts of Hapsburg officials to maintain a hierarchical social order, but property records reveal a more fluid reality. The acquisition of wealth and achievement of social status by non-Spaniards frustrated colonial ideals for a stratified society that correlated to ethnicity. The success of imperial governance, to the degree it was achieved, depended on its flexibility and how it allowed people to benefit from the colonial economy and to achieve social mobility.
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition of Mexico City was in between 1569 and 1820. Its task was to regulate the moral life of the society of New Spain and it was authorized to punish offenders. The crimes that were usually persecuted were acts against the Catholic faith (heresy, blasphemy, sorcery, and idolatry) or against accepted morality (indecency, bigamy, sexual harassment, homosexuality, and sedition).
The Court placed limited attention to the sones de la tierra (sounds of the land) from 1766 to 1819. The sones were sung dances that were eventually considered unsuitable and were denounced for various reasons: the lyrics of the songs contained vulgar words or heretical or blasphemous concepts, the steps of dances were indecent, the choreography implied actions that parodied known acts of the Christian liturgy, or by some combination of these factors.
The archive of the Inquisition of Mexico is practically the only source of information on music and street poetry in the cities and towns of the colony.
The sones de la tierra are the origin of the current cultural music genre called son mexicano, the most significant part of the traditional music and poetry of the country.
The sones de la tierra of the Baroque period and the current Mexican sones have three basic elements: music, poetry, and choreography. The music is based on recurrent rhythmic-harmonic patterns (ostinato) on which instrumental or vocal improvisations are made. Each determined pattern generates a son with a specific name. Thus, it is possible to speak of sones typical of the Baroque period (chacona, zarabanda, chuchumbé, and saraguandingo) or in present-day Mexico (bamba, maracumbé, petenera, and oaxacado). Some can be documented both in the 18th century and in the 21st century (matachines, fandango, panaderos, and zacamandú).
The poetry of the sones is based on the active principle of the copla, a poetic form based on the octosyllabic quatrain in various modalities (seguidilla and décima). The current Mexican variants are directly related to the Spanish poetry of the Golden Age.
The dance of the sones is performed mainly in couples who dance without having physical contact, using different steps whose main characteristic is the zapateado.
The archive of the Inquisition of Mexico mentions some sixty sones. The complaints and interrogations of the Court provide information about the sung lyrics, the ways of dancing, the people who practiced them, their geographical distribution, and some social attitudes regarding their use. This information shows that the sones de la tierra were common throughout the territory of New Spain and were practiced by people of almost all social classes.
The study of the sones de la tierra allows us to understand the existence and behavior of the different variants of the Mexican sones of today, which represent one of the fundamental elements of Mexican culture.
Spain entered the Age of Atlantic Revolutions (1775–1825) motivated by a desire to re-establish its traditional status as a major European power, a position that its Habsburg monarchs gradually had relinquished over the course of the 17th century and that was lost in dramatic fashion during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1713). Over the first six decades of the 18th century, the newly installed Bourbon dynasty launched a series of administrative, military, clerical, and economic reforms designed to spark and then protect an imperial revival. As a regular participant in the colonial wars of the period, the Spanish crown relied heavily on military strength to signify its renewed standing vis-à-vis its international adversaries. Any gains won by force of arms also needed to be confirmed by treaty and reinforced by positive peacetime relationships with these same rivals. As a result, an assertive diplomacy played an important role in promoting Spanish interests during a tumultuous era that began with great hopes for the restoration of Spain’s historic preeminence in the Atlantic World but ended with the collapse of its American empire.
The Swedish colony of Saint Barthélemy was not large enough to be able to support a plantation economy but managed to gain significant income through neutral trade during the turn of the 19th century. As merchants and mariners migrated to the island from across the Atlantic World and slaves were brought to the colony to work as manual laborers and household servants, Sweden introduced legal and political concepts from other European empires to manage their new colonial venture. The nationality of naturalized Swedish merchants was questioned, especially by the British, who frequently captured ships from St. Barthélemy. Still, St. Barthélemy periodically saw immense amounts of trade, especially in the period following the War of 1812. Yet as war between major Atlantic powers ceased after 1815, the economy of the island dwindled and it was returned to France in 1878. Research on this aspect of Swedish colonialism has been infrequent, yet new access to French colonial archives breathes new life into this seldom-discussed part of Caribbean history.
“Technology” is the practical expression of accumulated knowledge and expertise focused on how to mediate and manipulate the world. Scholars and contemporary observers of Mexico have long characterized production methods there as unchanging and lagging well behind the standard in the Atlantic world, but there are few systematic studies of technology in Mexican history, and especially for the critical 19th-century era of early modernization.
Mexico’s first half century of independence (c. 1820–1870) saw relatively little technological change. In spite of a number of sustained efforts to introduce the technologies—such as railroads, steam power, and iron manufacturing—that were transforming economic life and production in Great Britain and the United States, production methods in Mexico remained small scale and artisanal. Textile manufactures were a partial exception, as there were several dozen large-scale factories, powered by water turbines and occasionally by steam, that spun and wove thread. But the substantial obstacles to innovation discouraged or undermined most attempts.
The next forty or so years, however, could not have been more different (c. 1870s–1920). As political stability slowly settled over most of the country, investment in economic activities picked up, slowly at first, then more rapidly into the 1880s and beyond. Initially focused on railroad transport and mining, new investments from both Mexican and foreign entrepreneurs diversified into a wide range of manufacturing enterprises, commercial agriculture, and urban infrastructure and commerce. Tightly linked to the concurrent dramatic expansion of the Atlantic economy—the so-called second industrial revolution—this expansion pushed demand for new technologies of production and swept across the country, transforming production, productivity, and the working and consuming lives of Mexicans at nearly all levels of society. The result was substantial modernization, manifest as economic growth as well as social dislocation.
Individuals and firms proved able to adopt and commercialize a wide range of new production technologies during this period. This success was not matched, however, by substantial local assimilation of new technological knowledge and expertise, that is, by a process of technological learning. Until the 1870s, Mexican engineers, mechanics, and workers had scant opportunities to work with and learn from production technologies appearing in the Atlantic world. When new machines, tools, and processes swept across Mexico thereafter, adopting firms typically hired technical experts and skilled workers from abroad, given the scarcity of expertise at home. This became a self-reinforcing cycle, perpetuating dependence on imported machines and imported know-how well into the 20th century.
The Portuguese occupied the northern region of South America in the early 17th century. It constituted a separate province of the Portuguese possessions in South America. This province comprised several landscapes, including the vast Amazonian forest in the west and plains in the east. It bordered the other administrative province in Portuguese America, the State of Brazil and also the Dutch, French, and Spanish colonies in the Amazon region. For most of the colonial period, the region became heavily dependent on Indian labor force for agriculture and especially for the exploitation of forest products gathered in the vast Amazonian backlands (the sertão). The role played by Indian laborers (both free and slave), by forest products (known as drogas do sertão), and by the expansion of agriculture and grazing in the eastern plains shaped a centrifugal society and economy. Moreover, the fact that the region bordered Dutch, Spanish, and French colonies transformed the frontier into a central issue of Portuguese policies towards the region.
In December 1801, First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte sent a massive expedition to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today: Haiti). His goal was to restore direct French rule and overthrow Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who, as governor general of Saint-Domingue, had been suspected of plotting independence. Bonaparte’s secondary goal may have been to reinstate slavery, which France had abolished in 1793–1794.
Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, General Victoire Leclerc, headed the expedition. After landing in Saint-Domingue in February 1802 with 20,000 troops, he managed, with great difficulty, to defeat Louverture’s army. He then deported Louverture to France, where he died in exile. In August 1802, however, resistance intensified as plantation laborers became convinced that the French intended to restore slavery. Leclerc, who lost much of his army to yellow fever, embraced increasingly murderous tactics against the black population until he died in November 1802.
For one year, Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien de Rochambeau, battled Louverture’s successor, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in a brutal conflict with genocidal overtones. The bravery of Dessalines’s troops, lack of support from France, epidemic disease, and the renewal of Britain’s war with France eventually doomed the French effort. After the departure of the last remnants of the Leclerc expedition, Dessalines declared the independence of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, on January 1, 1804, and then put to death most of the remaining French planters.
Color and race are important references for assessing the privileges and barriers that sustained or impeded the social ascension of New Christians, Africans, Indians, and mestiços in the Portuguese world. Questions of race and color had profound links with the Catholic faith and with social exclusion, especially of Afro-descendants. The ideas of race and racism are not static, but were forged over time. Initially, they were strongly influenced by Catholicism and later were incorporated into the scientific knowledge of the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore, the terms “race” and “racism,” based on 19th-century biological determinism, are not suitable for discussing social relations in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Chad M. Gasta
Opera was performed in the Spanish-speaking New World colonies almost a century before what later would become the United States. The first operas staged in the Spanish colonies were wildly elaborate projects funded by the viceroys—Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco’s La púrpura de la rosa, in Lima, Peru, in 1701, and Manuel Zumaya’s Parténope, in Mexico City in 1711. These were followed by two operas written to convey religious didactic messages in the remote Jesuit Missions of South America: Domenico Zipoli’s San Ignacio (ca. 1720) and the anonymous San Xavier (ca. 1730), the latter of which was composed in the indigenous Bolivian Chiquitano language with a parallel Spanish libretto. All derived from the Italian opera tradition but were decisively shaped by Spanish musical theater, and they were indebted to the first operas in Madrid, which predated them: Félix Lope de Vega y Carpio’s fully sung La selva sin amor, from 1627, performed by the Florentine delegation, and a pair of operas from 1659 and 1660 by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La púrpura de la rosa (whose libretto served as the basis for Torrejón’s 1701 version) and Celos aun del aire matan. These early Spanish operas were part of a process of political and ideological posturing since they were funded and produced either by nobility intent on displaying their wealth, prestige, and power, or by leaders of the Church who were seeking to impart a particular religious message to embolden its influence. These grand spectacles did not usher in a stunning opera tradition in Spain, any more than their progeny in the New World would. For a variety of financial, political, and cultural reasons, a sustained or successful opera tradition would not occur until the second half of the 19th century in Spain or the New World. Perhaps importantly, these productions reflected the movement of goods and people from the Old World to the New, and opera played an exceptional role in shaping political and social events in the metropolitan centers and in minority peripheries in both Spain and the New World.
Urbanization and environmental change have worked in tandem over the course of Mexican history. Hinterland production, the establishment of market economies, and the intensive transformation of nature have fueled urban growth. The concentration of capital and expertise in cities has, in turn, enabled urban elites to rework the urban environment by creating industrial centers, executing technical-heavy infrastructure, building new subdivisions, and regulating hygiene. From the beaches of Cancún and the air and water pollution of Tijuana’s industrial parks to the prolific silver mines of Zacatecas and the henequen monoculture surrounding Mérida, Yucatán, rapid urban growth and profound changes to the environment within and outside cities have depended on and intersected with each other.
Carole A. Myscofski
Women in colonial Brazil (1500–1822) were affected by the presence of the Portuguese Roman Catholic Church in nearly every dimension of their lives. The Catholic Church dominated the colonial religious and social world and, with the imperial government of Portugal, set and transmitted gender expectations for girls and women, regulated marriage and sexuality, and directed appropriate education and work lives. Even with the harshest restrictions, women were able to develop an independent sense of self and religious expression both within the Catholic Church and outside its reach.
Native Brazilian women felt the impact of the new faith from the earliest days of conquest, when their opportunities for religious influence expanded among the early colonists and missionaries. After the 1550s, however, new rules for belief and behavior gradually replaced indigenous culture. Offering the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman, the Church expected that indigenous women convert to Catholicism, work for the colonists, and marry according to traditional canon law. Portuguese immigrant women also faced the constraints of the early modern gender roles, with chastity, modesty, and submission deemed essential to their feminine nature, and marriage, domestic labor, and childcare their fate. Enslaved African women were compelled to accept Catholic teachings alongside the expectations of servile work and marginalization in colonial society. For each segment of colonial society, religious rules barely acknowledged the real abuses that afflicted women through the personal and sexual domination of colonial men, and women found little consolation in the ideals set for elite women.
Religion itself presented women with opportunities for personal development, and women found spiritual expression through votive prayers, cloistered convents, membership in religious brotherhoods, and covert religious and magical practices. European women used magical rites in defiance of Catholic teachings, while indigenous women preserved elements of their own healing traditions, and African women and their descendants created charms and celebrations that secured their separate religious identity.