Society for the History of Discoveries

Herrera, Robinson A.  Natives, Europeans, and Africans in Sixteenth-Century Santiago de Guatemala.  Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2003.  x, 261 p.  Maps, tables, bibliography, index.  ISBN 0292705336 (hbk).  $50.00

     This is a solid piece of work on a previously unexplored topic; a secondary Spanish American city which contributed significantly to the growth of Madrid’s Central American empire.   Santiago de Guatemala was a dominant urban area in Mesoamerica throughout the colonial era.  Although it depended upon its links to Mexico City, Santiago de Guatemala emerged as a vigorous regional trading center.

     Herrera, an assistant professor of history at Florida State University, provides a meaty historiographical introduction before delving into the economic foundation of this study in terms of  merchants, peddlers, farmers, and muleteers.  The role of credit is well defined, particularly the author’s discovery that most of the economically active members of this society accumulated small debts.  Herrera also found that indigenous as well as African artisans received quick training as craftsmen.

     Women are not overlooked in this study;  Herrera notes that females were often active as bakers.  Particularly interesting is the chapter on African slaves.  As was the case elsewhere in the Spanish empire, black and mulatto slaves served as intermediaries between Hispanic and indigenous peoples, particularly as overseers.  In sixteenth-century Guatemala, African slaves functioned primarily as servants in urban households.  Of the “substantial portion” (p. 115) that obtained freedom, free blacks as well as slaves attempted to purchase land, usually in small plots in nearby valleys. Moreover, slave parents occasionally apprenticed their free-born mulatto children with mulatto artisans. Blacks, however, did not get along with the indigenous population.

     There is also an excellent discussion of the indigenous municipalities, which highlights their amazing resilience, as in Mexico.  Indigenous slaves, however, suffered as much as their African counterparts.  The indigenous slaves all suffered the cruel practice of branding even though they were not as valuable as  African slaves.  Despite royal legislation ending the enslavement of the indigenous population, indigenous wage earners were numerically fewer than forced laborers.  The Spanish system of working with village municipalities to provide laborers  enabled local caciques to endure for centuries.

     Although this is a very technical study, Herrera furnishes interesting personal portraits of various individuals.  The Archivo General de Centro America furnished the bulk of the materials for this engaging study in addition to items from the Archivo Historico Provincial de Sevilla.  Excellent maps are placed appropriately in the narrative.  There are, however, some problem areas.  There is very little discussion of the pre-Hispanic period and little more concerning the Spanish invasion.  Despite much work in archival sources, the author provides little flavor concerning what Santiago de Guatemala must have been like.  Some humor and color would have been helpful.  Certainly there will be scholars who will take issue with Herrera’s assertion that Africans enjoyed higher status than the indigenous population.  At times, there is a need for more empirical data as well as tables in order to buttress the author’s various conclusions.  For instance, he asserts that African slaves “often” (p.123) married indigenous women or even mulatta females.  In another case, the free black population is referred to simply as “a sizable portion of the population” (p. 126).  Moreover, the conclusion is basically a rehash of the previous chapters until the last two pages. These are offered as constructive criticism because this study breaks new ground for a century of Guatemalan history that has not been studied carefully until now.

Douglas W. Richmond
The University of Texas at Arlington

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