“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”, https://doi.org/10.18738/T8/IX2GEO, Texas Data Repository, V1.