“Slavery in Early Mexico: A Dataset Identifying the Enslaved Persons on the Estates of Hernando Cortés”

A public humanities project co-directed by Norah Gharala and Guillermo de los Reyes and co-authored with Celso Mendoza, Tara Georgeson, and Jaden Urdiales, and featuring a commission by muralist Ignacio Sanchez.

Among the countless Nahua people enslaved by Hernando Cortés and other conquistadors were young men, “in the prime of life,” and “beautiful women.” Book 12 of the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex detailed the capture of Indigenous women and men in Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) as it fell to Spanish control in the summer of 1521. Spanish men “took, picked out the beautiful women, with yellow bodies. And how some women got loose was that they covered their faces with mud and put on ragged blouses and skirts, clothing themselves all in rags. And some men were picked out, those who were strong and in the prime of life, and those who were barely youths, to run errands for them and be their errand boys, called their tlamacazque [priests, acolytes]. Then they burned some of them on the mouth [branded them]; some they branded on the cheeks, some on the mouth.” This description was written in Nahuatl, a language of central Mexico, and Castilian, and then translated by scholar James Lockhart. What became of those adults and children after 1521? How might we remember them five centuries later?

Taking Nahua captives described in the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex on Folio 82v. Image credit: Early Nahuatl Library from University of Oregon and World Digital Library

This project, “Slavery in Early Mexico: A Dataset Identifying the Enslaved Persons on the Estates of Hernando Cortés,” consists of a dataset of personal names and descriptions of African and Indigenous people who were enslaved on the estates of Hernando Cortés. Drs. N. L. A. Gharala and Guillermo de los Reyes conceived of this project in 2020 with this support of a Grant to Enhance Research on Racism at the University of Houston. Following the quincentenary of the end of the Spanish war on the Aztecs (or the Conquest of Mexico), our research group has published a list of brief archival mentions of people who lived through this period of violence and turmoil. Using the spreadsheet and accompanying codebook in the Texas Data Repository, anyone can download this information and learn more about enslaved people recorded by scribes in the 1540s. Their labor enriched the conquistador Hernando Cortés, and thus their names are preserved in some of the foundational documents of Mexican history.

Number 99 on this list of human beings reads, “Another enslaved Indian woman who said she was called Ysabel Ychimalma from Tepeaca and forty years of age.” From Image 313 of FamilySearch film number 7988381 from the Mexican National Archive’s Hospital de Jesús section, legajo 28.
The origins of Indigenous women’s names are a central focus of Celso Mendoza’s work on this project. Folio 1 of Codex Boturini, housed in the Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, showing the legendary Chimalma. Credit: Wikipedia

The project combines printed and manuscript primary sources into a spreadsheet covering the 1540s. We set up the initial dataset to be flexible enough to expand to cover more decades as we add names to the project. According to historian Lolita Gutiérrez Brockington and archival evidence from the Mexican National Archive, enslaved people remained an important part of the operations of these estates throughout the sixteenth century.

Enslaved Indigenous people working for the benefit of the Cortés fortune in the mines of Sultepec. From image 377 on FamilySearch Film number 7987973, which is a digitization of Hospital de Jesús legajo 257 (box 1) exp. 12, f. 16. This list was also explored on page 97 of Brígida von Mentz’s work published in Spanish in 1999, Trabajo, sujeción y libertad en el centro de la Nueva España: esclavos, aprendices, campesinos y operarios manufactureros, siglos XVI a XVIII.
Selection from the main printed source for the project. Lists of people from Documentos inéditos relativos a Hernán Cortes y su familia (1935) were extracted and edited for the spreadsheet.

The major contributions of this project include:

a) publicly available, sortable and searchable data;

b) essays placing the data in context for students and scholars;

c) translations and interpretations of Indigenous names;

d) and approximations of historical geography.

Historical place names are an important component of this dataset and often connect to other digitized projects like Biblioteca Digital Mexicana (Mexican Digital Library). Inset of “Teguantepec” on Mystequilla y Tegoantepec. Oaxaca, 1573. AGN, Tierras, vol. 3343, exp. 4, ff. 43v. y 44.

Place names and personal names are the main sources of identification for enslaved people in this dataset. Celso Mendoza (PhD Candidate at Rutgers) provided translations and interpretations using his skill as a present-day nahuatlato (or interpreter of classical Nahuatl) and specialist in sixteenth-century history. People associated with African places or ethnicities made up much of this dataset. Though their names and origins provide less detail than some of the Indigenous entries, our project seeks to orient the reader to what names like Andrés Mozambique, Francisco Zape, or Lucía Berbesi might have meant to the people who used them in sixteenth-century Mexico. Through these records, we know that Margarita de Biafara gave birth to her daughter María sometime in 1548. Other women whom people called “Biafara” (or Biafada) also had children on the same estate where Margarita was forced to live and work. We can imagine how Margarita’s origins in West Africa might have influenced how she raised her child in the brutal reality of early colonial slavery.

People in this dataset became associated with places in Africa through second names like “Mozambique” or “Manicongo,” both of which were European approximations of large swaths of African territory. Black people also used these terms to identify themselves with polities like the Kingdom of Kongo. Section of “Presbiteri Iohannis, sive, Abissinorum Imperii descriptio,” part of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum by Abraham Ortelius. Image credit: Wikipedia

Users of this dataset can download the spreadsheet of names and analyze them or visualize them using other programs. A world cloud shows the frequency of words in the spreadsheet. Among the most common names were baptismal names like Juan and Catalina, but also African origin names like Bran and Nahua names like Xochitl. A data visualization like this one could be a useful exercise in a high school or beginning undergraduate class. I hope that providing the spreadsheet for a public audience will spark student interest in early colonial Mexico, Indigenous histories, and histories of African diasporas and Afro-Indigeneity.

Frequency of baptismal and second names among enslaved people in the dataset visualized using Voyant. While nearly all the people in the dataset took Christian names at baptism, many retained Indigenous American names or identified with African regions.

Historians Brígida Von Mentz (1999) and Matthew Restall (2018), as well as the seventeenth-century Nahua scholar known as Chimalpahin, noted the possibility that some of the enslaved people on these properties were captives of war. Subsequent histories of the Spanish war against the Aztecs included the diplomatic “gift” (“regalo”) of women as slaves in Amecameca, now in Mexico State. By cross-referencing these sources, we can begin to restore the names of some of these women to our study of Mexican history.

Index page referencing Indigenous women “gifted” to the conquistador. Digitized page of Special Collections of the University of Houston Libraries copy of Historia de Nueva España, escrita por su Esclarecido Conquistador Hernán Cortés (Mexico City: Joseph Antonio de Hogal, 1770).

Citation: Gharala, Norah L. A.; De Los Reyes Heredia, Jose Guillermo; Mendoza, Celso Armando; Georgeson, Tara; Urdiales, Jaden, 2022, “Slavery in Early Mexico: A Dataset Identifying the Enslaved Persons on the Estates of Hernando Cortés”,, Texas Data Repository, V1.

The Special Collections of the University of Houston Libraries contains a copy of Historia de Nueva-España, published in Mexico City in 1770. The legacies of Cortés, including his properties and legal entanglements, have been explored in Mexican texts for hundreds of years.

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