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Urban Slavery in Colonial Puebla de los �ngeles, 1536-1708


This study addresses the emergence, rapid development and gradual decline of chattel slavery in the city of Puebla de los �ngeles during the early and mid-colonial period. The presence and exploitation of African slaves in Puebla has been ignored in the historiography of colonial Mexico (New Spain), Latin America, and the greater African Diaspora. By crossreferencing extant municipal, notarial, parochial and judicial records with Spanish- and Nahuatl-language colonial chronicles, I reconstruct the history of African slaves and their descendants in Puebla from 1536 to 1708. My notarial investigation focuses on bills of slave purchase, letters of manumission, apprentice contracts and loans produced between 1600 and 1700. I find that during the seventeenth century, 20,000 slaves were bought in notarized transactions in the Puebla slave market. The city's large and wealthy Spanish population demanded large retinues of skilled and unskilled slaves to labor as domestics, water carriers, wet nurses, textile workers, etc. The owners of sugar plantations (ingenios) in nearby Iz�car, Cuautla, and the Cuernavaca basin also required large numbers of enslaved workers in the context of extreme Indigenous depopulation.

By the 1620s, a series of epidemics, combined with exploitative labor practices, reduced the Indigenous population of Central Mexico and the greater Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley to 10% of its pre-Hispanic levels. In response, the Spanish Crown authorized the implementation of a sophisticated slave trading system, led by Angola-based Portuguese merchants, to operate in Puebla de los �ngeles. These Lusophone networks relied on the encomendero de negros, a locally-based merchant to regulate the entry and sale of all new African arrivals to the city between 1616 and 1639. Yet African slaves had already begun to erode the foundations of chattel slavery well before these dates. Although theoretically reduced to human property under Spanish law, Afro-Poblano slaves actively resisted their bondage by exercising their religious rights as practicing Catholics. In particular, male slaves established numerous formal unions with free women (of all races) through the sacrament of matrimony. In turn, children born of these unions were legally free, leading to numerous generations of free Afro-Poblanos by the end of the seventeenth century.

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