Risk and Uncertainty

Struggling for Freedom in Colonial Mexico

This article is part of a series on Risk and Uncertainty. Articles in this series aim to explore how ordinary people understood and coped with risk and uncertainty in times of personal crisis and in everyday life, helping to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world. You can read an introduction to the series here

Content note: This article contains descriptions of rape and violence against women. 

When scrutinizing petitions filed before Spanish colonial courts in Mexico between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, we encounter a great variety of cases that dealt with the fate of unmarried women and their children. Such petitions mainly involved appeals by women seeking alimony for themselves and their children after having been abandoned by their cohabiting male partners. Yet they also included several appeals by enslaved women for recognition of their children as hijos naturales (“natural children”) of their deceased Spanish masters, and appeals by the children themselves for legal recognition, which were aimed at obtaining child support.

I located the complex life story of María de la Candelaria, a young woman who bore two children after being subject to physical and sexual violence at the hands of her master, among other dramatic documents in the old Judicial Archives of the City of Puebla, in Eastern Mexico. Rarely visited by historians and scholars, the archive stores rich sets of the records of the fiscal del crimen (Crown or city attorney attached to criminal cases) and his corpus of constables’ records spanning the period 1570 to 1715.

We know little about María de la Candelaria as an individual. What we do know, however, is that along with her siblings, María was purchased at a young age by Antonio de los Reyes, a man who owned the local hacienda – a large landed estate, mostly seen in the colonies of the Spanish Empire. While María became the direct slave of Antonio’s wife, two of her siblings were sold to his father-in-law Martin de Carrabero, who also resided at the hacienda.

From Mestizo and Mulatta woman, Quadroon, 18th century. Single women caring for a young child. Flickr.

The records also reveal that María petitioned the Spanish colonial court as an adult when seeking justice for the abuse she had suffered at the hand of her former master Antonio. At the age of twenty-six, María told the court that she had faced constant molestations and lashings by her owner during her time in the hacienda. She told the court that Antonio had made her his mistress when she was around fourteen years of age, which resulted in her giving birth to her a daughter (who unfortunately later died). Two years later, she bore yet another child named María Josepha, who was later formally brought up by Antonio as her biological father. After the birth of her second child, María succeeded in pressuring Antonio to set free both herself and her surviving daughter upon his wife’s death (Antonio’s legal wife was on her deathbed at the time). She also convinced him to suggest to his wife that the issue of their freedom should be included in her will. However, after his wife’s death, Antonio refused to fulfil his oath and María and her young daughter remained in servitude.

By 1706 tensions had mounted at the hacienda. By this stage, Antonio had already ordered María’s three siblings to leave his household, dismissing them together with their papers to look for work at the hacienda of his godfather, Alonso de Castro (who expressed no desire to purchase them as slaves). They then departed from Alonso’s place, only to return to the hacienda. During Holy Week of 1706, the local priest, Miguel Peres, publicly admonished Antonio for his wrongdoings and moral transgressions towards María and her siblings. The priest also pressured Antonio to formally marry María.

During the seventeenth century, the church regularly pressured masters to legalize their illicit unions with enslaved women. Extra-legal channels to freedom, such as master-slave marriages, provided one source of slave freedom in colonial Mexico. Although the Crown generally disapproved of such unions, they nonetheless flourished and contributed to the rise of the ‘free’ mixed-race population. But when Antonio refused to marry María, the priest went further and removed her from the hacienda, finding a haven for her in the home of his own nephew in another village. The priest also instructed that María’s siblings should be allowed to leave the hacienda.

De español y mulata: morisca, 1763. Miguel Cabrera, México. Wikimedia Commons.

In October of that year, we find María alone in Mexico City, and in poor health. Despite her ongoing sickness, María decided to sue Antonio for damages she and her surviving daughter had incurred at his hands. The case, initially reviewed locally, was then transferred to the Real Sala del Crimen (Audiencia court which heard criminal cases) in Mexico City. Reports to the civil and church authorities about maltreatment, and both civil and criminal litigation filed by women against men who allegedly abused them, were normally channelled to the ecclesiastical court of the Archbishopric of Mexico City. This present case of appealing to the criminal court is therefore quite unusual. María’s letter of appeal to the Audiencia, which she delivered in person, began as follows:

I present myself before the royal audience of Mexico to seek justice against my master, Antonio de los Reyes, for having deflowered me and taken my virginity when I was still very young, and for having made me pregnant with my two daughters, one who died and the other who still lives; and for having kept me as his mistress for twelve whole years, and having been compelled to do so, as I was when he had taken my virginity under the pain of lashes and other maltreatments and threats, reduced me to obey his will; offering me my liberty, and thereafter also that of my daughter, and all this time he would not bring this about, and that he kept me maliciously oppressed and subject to his evil friendship….

Moreover, María asked the court to order Antonio to compensate her for her many years of service, as well as for her loss of liberty, and to remove her daughter from his care. The Spanish medieval laws of the Siete Partidas ordered that masters were prohibited from exhibiting cruel treatment, including separating family members from one another,  excessive physical punishment, starving enslaved persons, or exploiting them sexually.

On 25 October 1706, the presiding judge instructed that María and her young daughter should be placed in a formal shelter or the House of Correction (Casa de Recogimiento) in the city of Puebla until more information was presented in court. The court also temporarily prohibited Antonio from taking possession of either María or their young daughter. A week later, the Audiencia finally ruled that María and her daughter should be set free. In addition, Antonio was instructed not to accost or pursue them in future.

María’s complex life story, and the many risks she encountered when petitioning for her freedom, should prompt us to reconsider enslaved women’s ability to assert their liberty during the early to mid-colonial period in Mexico. Despite her ongoing servitude, María did not view herself as an enslaved person. This in itself challenges historiography that tends to depict enslaved peoples, especially women, as helpless victims without any capacity for agency and self-determination. Regardless of their subjugated legal status and social inferiority in a patriarchal society, enslaved women like María sought restitution of their rights, and petitioned for the status of their children to be similarly recognised. As a female petitioner, María de la Candelaria finally recognized herself as a ‘free’ woman, with her own lawful rights, in spite of her ongoing struggle for autonomy.


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