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Society in Colonial Spanish America (revised)

©    2001 Donald J. Mabry



    Spain transferred its customs and attitudes to America. It was extraordinarily successful at doing that. Upper class customs and attitudes were relatively unchanged in America but lower-class customs changed since lower-class Spaniards who went to the New World were able to raise their status. The colonial lower class was Indian, African, mestizo, mulatto, or some other DNA mixture.

    What were the differences with today? Colonial Spaniards had more control. The father had the legal authority; he ruled the roost in the colonial period. A wife had few legal rights. Children were kept physically under father's thumb; the family was a very strong unit and included more than the nuclear family. Large amounts of wealth in Spanish America but only the upper classes had it. Over time, there was a reduction of restraints. The existence of Indians and Negroes caused a demoralization of upper classes.

    Maybe 300,000 Spaniards went to all of Spanish America over 300 years. Not many were women. Humboldt said that there were 10 times as many men as women in New Spain. That there were so few Spaniards had enormous demographic consequences.


    In 1492, there were between 30 and 50 million Indians in what would become Spanish America. New Spain had the most population with about 25. In the Inca area, there were 5 million people. The Spanish unknowingly introduced diseases virulent to the New World populations, causing a demographic disaster. Whereas central Mexico had 19 million people in 1519, it only had 1 million in 1605. The Incas declined from to 1.5 million by 1561 and 800,00 by 1800.

    The Spanish always represented a small minority in the New World. The Spanish population, by 1570, consisted of only 150,000 people. By 1810, there were 1.1 million whites out of 13.5 million (8.1% but these figures are only approximate). There were 700,000 Negroes, most of whom were slaves. The rest were Indians or castas (people of varying genetic mixtures). The total population had declined since the Spanish had first arrived although it had begun to increase by the late colonial period.


    There was a two class system, really; there was an upper class and everybody else. Women could be raised by marriage but men couldn't. There were different kinds of divisions in lower class. Class or caste? Scholars quarrel. Caste is a social condition into which one is born into and can't escape. There was some discrimination on racial lines: laws against Negroes mounting horses, having firearms, and staying out after dark. There was occupational and matrimonial discrimination. There were numerous lawsuits over caste status. Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1811-1814) said that, around 1800, color was the exposed nerve of Venezuela. Racial tension was common.

    Indians (indios) were a special social category. They were not a single group. There were 300 different language groups in Mexico alone. All of the cacique class were the upper class, i.e. enjoyed certain privileges and exemptions. Indians were in several conditions. In the first decades after the conquest, many were in repartimiento (allotments for gang labor; in Peru, it was also called mita). At one time, about half of the indios were in encomienda (commended to the care of Spaniards in return for which they either worked for the Spaniard or paid tribute). Some were slaves. Some were branded. Some were in tutelage to the Crown. Eventually, many were in debt peonage.

    The Laws of the Indies were full of protection for Indians, but they were often ignored. In 1573, a special court to protect Indians, the Juzgado de los Indios, was created. Indian villages won lawsuits against corregidores. Work was supposed to be fixed, i.e. wages, hours, having to move. Even quite late in the colonial period, there were Indian slaves. Caciques and Indian overseers were willing to beat Indians. Peruvian indios were often enormously exploited having to work for Spaniards 300 days a year.

    Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, A Voyage to South America, 2 vols. (London, 1806 and later editions) noticed this on an inspection voyage and reported on abuses. The mines were very, dangerous. Obrajes (workshops) had terrible conditions. Clergy often had Indian slaves. Monks sometimes had Indian mistresses. Indios were kidnapped and enslaved.

    The Crown went to legislative trouble to protect Indian women. It first tried to prohibit marriage but failed. Then it allowed licit unions because Spanish men wanted legal heirs and because marriage aided conversions to Christianity. Thus, it legalized miscegenation. Encomienda could be inherited by women. 1539 decree that encomienda could only be given to married men or had to get married retain encomienda others. For others, marriage was necessary to hold office. Spanish men married Indios for money, land, titles, and dowries. A dowry from the royal treasury for mestiza orphan girls. Caution must be exercized in thinking the Crown was able to protect the indios. The 1540's Indian rebellion in Yucatán as much a revolt against the way their women were treated by Spanish as anything else.

    Mestizaje, the mixture of indios and Spanish, began immediately as conquerors began fornicating with Indian women. It was not until the mid-16th century that the Crown saw the ever-larger mestizo population as a problem and began to restrict what mestizos could do. They were the favorite mixture in law and practice. Mestizo also became a class designation as Indians adopted Spanish ways and became mestizos.

    Illustrative is the development of the mestizo population in New Spain. In 1803, Humboldt estimated that there were 41% pure Indians, 20 % whites, and 38% mixed. This process of miscegenation continued. By 1930, the absolute number of pure Indios greater but their percentage of the population was less, falling to (28%). The white population was less than 15% whereas the mixed almost 57%. Estimates since emphasize the prevalence of the mestizo.

    In the colonial period there were two hundred terms to describe genetic lines. It is doubtful that these people used these terms. The way the upper class looked at different groups varied. Indios were seen as higher than Negroes. Certain mixtures considered worst of all, zambos (Indios and Africans) in the Circum-Caribbean region.

    Black Africans were generally slaves. It wasn't easy to get freedom and not many did. How well were they treated? We don't know. We do know that black slaves not treated better in Brazil than in US enough bother about. In Chile in 1767, there was a total about 10,000-20,000 blacks and mulattos, fewer than half of whom were slaves. Chile was an exception. However, at least 20% were owned by Jesuits as slaves. Humboldt said Spanish legislation on slaves was milder than most other nations [that he knew about]. However, blacks were so dispersed that legislation was worthless. No more than 10% of blacks were free.

    Marriage between Spanish and Negroes not encouraged but frequent. Marriage of Negro men and Indian women was not encouraged; but common. A zambo child was free if the Indian was. The Crown became concerned because it was thought that the offspring picked up the worst of two races. Spanish were just as family conscious as Pilgrims and Puritans but, like them, tended to be self-absorbed and not be concerned with the domestic arrangements within the lower classes.


    Free labor existed in towns. It was non-European, for there was very little free white labor. Poor Spanish immigrants avoided it because they were trying to work their way up. There was a prejudice towards members of the master race doing servile labor. There was a free Indian labor market. There were squatter settlements in towns as indios left the countryside to seek better lives in urban areas.


    Gremios or guilds were of medieval origin. They were very exclusive and stood in the way of the improvement of production, for they had no reason to innovate. They were protected by legal privilege with numerous lines defining and guaranteeing their rights. The masters were Spanish. There was racial discrimination inside the guilds, for Indios, blacks, and other castas were never able to rise in status. No reason to believe that they were treated better or worse than European labor.


    They were very conscious of the fact that they were a tiny minority. They feared slave revolts, for they knew slavery was dangerous. They were very much interested in status within own group. In the 18th century, there was growing resentment of the Crown favoring peninsulares, Spaniards born on the Iberian peninsular. Under the Bourbon kings of Spain, criollos (Spaniards born in the colonies) received fewer high governmental positions. For the entire colonial period, there were only 4 criollo viceroys, 14 criollo captains-general; and 105 of 706 bishops. Criollos clearly discriminated against. At the end of the 17th century, there were eleven Marquis, 11 counts, one marshal in New Spain, an increase. Titled nobility could entail land, thus ensuring that it would pass intact to the oldest son. Helped in the creation of large estates. Others could get entail besides being titled nobility through mayorazgo, the system whereby the elder son inherited the titles and properties of the family. In the late 18th century, efforts were made to get rid of mayorazgo. Church had mortmain (mano morta), which meant that its landed estates, often donated by the wealthy pious, grew larger and larger. The upper class controlled the church. Almost everything was heavily affected by class and caste in the colonial period

    Was there a middle class? The term probably was not used by colonials and royal officials. In 1824, in Guatemala, there is mention of the middle class (la clase media) but does this usage equate with what we mean by the term today? Some might have used this term late in the colonial period. The term is ours not theirs. It's ahistorical.


    Little research has been done, but a significant amount in the last three decades of the 20th century. They are frequently difficult to investigate. We need to know more about such things as population, caste and class economic and social opportunity; urban and rural life and relations between the two; living conditions; voluntary associations, crime; amusements, religion as relates to social life; family and family life; alcoholism; and prostitution.

Thomas Gage in his The English-American (1648), describes Guatemalan Indians:

Their ordinary clothing is a pair of linen or woollen drawers broad and open at the knees, without shoes (though in their journeys some will put on leathern sandals to keep the soles of their feet) or stockings, without any doublet, a short coarse shirt, which reacheth a little below their waist, and serves more for a doublet than for a shirt, and for a cloak a woollen or linen mantle (called aiate) tied with a knot over one shoulder, hanging down on the other side almost to the ground, with a twelve penny or two shilling hat, which after one good shower of rain like paper falls about their necks and eyes; their bed they carry sometime about them, which is that woollen, mantle wherewith they wrap themselves about at night, taking off their shirt and drawers, which they lay under their head for a pillow; some will carry with them a short, slight, and light mat to lie, but those that carry it not with them, if they cannot borrow one of a neighbour, lie as willingly in their mantle upon the bare ground as a gentleman in England upon a soft down bed, and thus do they soundly sleep, and loudly snort after a day's work, or after a day's journey with a hundred-weight upon their backs. 

Those that are of the better sort, and richer, and who are not employed as tamemez to carry burdens, or as labourers to work for Spaniards, but keep at home following their own farms, or following their own mules  about the country, or following their trades and callings in their shops, or governing the towns, as alcaldes, or alguaziles, officers of justice, may go a little better apparelled, but after the same manner. For some will have their drawers with a lace at the bottom, or wrought with some coloured silk or crewel, so likewise the mantle about them shall have either a lace, or some work of birds on it; some will wear a cut linen doublet, others shoes, but very few stockings or bands about their necks; and for their beds, the best Indian Governor or the richest, who may be worth four or five thousand ducats, will have little more than the poor tamemez; for they lie upon boards, or canes bound together, and raised from the ground, whereon they lay a board and handsome mat, and at their heads for man and wife two little stumps of wood for bolsters, whereon they lay their shirts and mantles and other clothes for pillows, covering themselves with a broader blanket than is their mantle, and thus hardly would Don Bernabé de Guzman the Governor of Petapa lie, and so do all the best of them.

     The women's attire is cheap and soon put on; for most of them also go barefoot, the richer and better sort wear shoes, with broad ribbons for shoestrings, and for a petticoat, they tie about their waist a woollen mantle, which in the better sort is wrought with divers colors, but not sewed at all, pleated, or gathered in, but as they tie it with a list about them; they wear no shift next their body, but cover their nakedness with a kind of surplice (which they call guaipil) which hangs loose from their shoulders down a little below their waist, with open short sleeves, which cover half their arms; this guaipil is curiously wrought, especially in the bosom, with cotton, or feathers. The richer sort of them wear bracelets and bobs about their waists and necks; their hair is gathered up with fillets, without any coif or covering, except it be the better sort. When they go to church or abroad, they put upon their heads a veil of linen, which hangeth almost to the ground, and this is that which costs them most of all their attire, for that commonly it is of Holland or some good linen brought from Spain, or fine linen brought from China, which the better sort wear with a lace about. When they are at home at work they commonly take off their guaipil, or surplice, discovering the nakedness of their breasts and body. They lie also in their beds as do their husbands, wrapped up only with a mantle, or with a blanket. Their houses are but poor thatched cottages, without any upper rooms, but commonly one or two only rooms below, in the one they dress their meat in the middle of it, making a compass for fire, with two or three stones, without any other chimney to convey the smoke away, which spreading itself about the room filleth the thatch and the rafters so with soot that all the room seemeth to be a chimney. The next unto it is not free from smoke and blackness, where sometimes are four or five beds according to the family. The poorer sort have but one room, where they eat, dress their meat, and sleep. Few there are that set any locks upon their doors, for they fear no robbing nor stealing, neither have they in their houses much to lose, earthen pots, and pans, and dishes, and cups to drink their chocolate being the chief commodities in their house. There is scarce any house which hath not also in the yard a stew, wherein they bathe themselves with hot water, which is their chief physic when they feel themselves distempered.

     Among themselves they are in every town divided into tribes, which have one chief head, to whom all that belong unto that tribe do resort in any difficult matters, who is bound to aid, protect, defend, counsel, and appear for the rest of his tribe before the officers of justice in any wrong that is like to be done unto them. When any is to be married, the father of the son that is to take a wife out of another tribe goeth unto the head of his tribe to give him warning of his son's marriage with such a maid. Then that head meets with the head of the maid's tribe, and they confer about it. The business commonly is in debate a quarter of a year; all which time the parents of the youth or man are with gifts to buy the maid; they are to be at the charges of all that is spent in eating and drinking when the heads of the two tribes do meet with the rest of the kindred of each side, who sometimes sit in conference a whole day, or most part of a night. After many days and nights thus spent, and a full trial being made of the one and other side's affection, if they chance to disagree about the marriage, then is the tribe and parents of the maid to restore back all that the other side hath spent and given. They give no portions with their daughters, but when they die their goods and lands are equally divided among their sons. If anyone want a house to live in or will repair and thatch his house anew, notice is given to the heads of the tribes, who warn all the town to come to help in the work, and everyone is to bring a bundle of straw, and other materials, so that in one day with the help of many they finish a house, without any charges more than of chocolate, which they minister in great cups as big as will hold above a pint, not putting in any costly materials, as do the Spaniards, but only a little aniseed, and chilli, or Indian pepper; or else they half fill the cup with atole, and pour upon it as much chocolate as will fill the cup and colour it.

     In their diet the poorer sort are limited many times to a dish of frijoles, or Turkey beans, either black or white (which are there in very great abundance, and are kept dry for all the year) boiled with chilli; and if they can have this, they hold themselves well satisfied; with these beans, they make also dumplings, first boiling the bean a little, and then mingling it with a mass of maize, as we do mingle currents in our cakes, and so boil again the frijoles with the dumpling of maize mass, and so eat it hot, or keep it cold; but this and all whatsoever else they eat, they either eat it with green biting chilli, or else they dip it in water and salt, wherein is bruised some of that chilli. But if their means will not reach to frijoles, their ordinary fare and diet is their tortillas (so they call thin round cakes made of the dough and mass of maize) which they eat hot from an earthen pan, whereon they are soon baked with one turning over the fire; and these they eat alone either with chilli and salt, and dipping them in water and salt with a little bruised chilli. When their maize is green and tender, they boil some of those whole stalks or clusters, whereon the maize groweth with the leaf about, and so casting a little salt about it, they eat it. I have often eat of this, and found it as dainty as our young green peas, and very nourishing, but it much increaseth the blood. Also of this green and tender maize they make a furmety, boding the maize in some of the milk which they have first taken out of it by bruising it. The poorest Indian never wants this diet, and is well satisfied as long as his belly is thoroughly filled.

     But the poorest that live in such  "towns"  where flesh meat is sold will make a hard shift but that when they come from work on Saturday night they will buy one half real, or a real worth of fresh meat to eat on the Lord's day. Some will buy a good deal at once and keep it long by dressing it into tasajos, which are bundles of flesh, rolled up and tied fast, which they do when, for example's sake, they have from a leg of beef sliced off from the bone all the flesh with the knife, after the length, form, and thinness of a line, or rope. Then they take the flesh and salt it (which being sliced and thinly cut, soon takes salt) and hang it up in their yards like a line from post to post, or from tree to tree, to the wind for a whole week, and then they hang it in the smoke another week, and after roll it up in small bundles, which become as hard as a stone, and so as they need it they wash it, boil it and eat it. This is America's powdered beef, which they call tasajo.     

As for drinking, the Indians generally are much given unto it; and drink if they have nothing else of their poor and simple chocolate, without sugar  "sugar"  or many compounds, or of atole, until their bellies be ready to burst. But if they can get any drink that will make them mad drunk, they will not give it over as long as a drop is left, or a penny remains in their purse to purchase it. Among themselves they use to make such drinks as are in operation far stronger than wine; and these they confection in such great jars as come from Spain, wherein they put some little quantity of water, and fill up the jar with some molasses or juice of the sugar cane, or some honey for to sweeten it; then for the strengthening of it, they put roots and leaves of tobacco, with other kind of roots which grow there, and they know to be strong in operation, and in some places I have known where they have put in a live toad, and so closed up the jar for a fortnight, or month's space, till all that they have put in him be thoroughly steeped and the toad consumed, and the drink well strengthened, then they open it and call their friends to the drinking of it (which commonly they do in the night time, lest their priest in the town should have notice of them in the day), which they never leave off until they be mad and raging drunk. This drink they call chicha, which stinketh most filthily, and certainly is the cause of many Indians' death, especially where they use the toad's poison with it....     

And thus having spoken of apparel, houses, eating and drinking, it remains that I say somewhat of their civility, and religion of those who lived under the government of the Spaniards. From the Spaniards they have borrowed their civil government, and in all  "towns"  they have one, or two, alcaldes, with more or less regidores (who are as aldermen or jurats amongst us) and some alguaziles, more or less, who are as constables, to execute the orders of the alcalde (who is a mayor) with his brethren. In towns of three or four hundred families, or upwards, there are commonly two alcaldes, six regidores, two alguaziles mayores, and six under, or petty, alguaziles. And some towns are privileged with an Indian Governor, who is above the alcaldes and all the rest of the officers. These are changed every year by new election, and are chosen by the Indians themselves, who take their turns by the tribes or kindreds, whereby they are divided. Their offices begin on New Year's Day, and after that day their election is carried to the city of Guatemala  "Guatemala"  (if in that district it be made) or else to the heads of justice, or Spanish governors of the several provinces, who confirm the new election, and take account of the last year's expenses made by the other officers, who carry with then their townbook of accounts; and therefore for this purpose every town hath a clerk, or scrivener, called escribano who commonly continueth many years in his office, by reason of the paucity and unfitness of Indian scriveners who are able to bear such a charge. This clerk hath many fees for his writings and informations, and accounts, as have the Spaniards, though not so much money or bribes, but a small matter, according to the poverty of the Indians. The Governor is also commonly continued many years, being some chief man among the Indians, except for his misdemeanours he be complained of, for the Indians in general do all stomach him.     

Thus they being settled in a civil way of government they may execute justice upon all such Indians of their town as do notoriously and scandalously offend. They may imprison, fine, whip, and banish, but hang and quarter they may not; but must remit such cases to the Spanish governor. So likewise if a Spaniard passing by the town, or living in it, do trouble the peace, and misdemean himself, they may lay hold on him, and send him to the next Spanish justice, with a full information of his offence, but fine him, or keep him about one night in prison they may not. This order they have against Spaniards, but they dare not execute it, for a whole town standeth in awe of one Spaniard, and though he never so heinously offend, and be unruly, with oaths, threatenings, and drawing of his sword, he maketh them quake and tremble, and not presume to touch him; for they know if they do they shall have the worst, either by blows, or by some misinformation which he will give against them....     

Amongst themselves, if any complaint be made against any Indian, they dare not meddle with him until they call all his kindred, and especially the head of that tribe to which he belongeth; who if he and the rest together find him to deserve imprisonment, or whipping, or any other punishment, then the officers of justices, the alcaldes or mayors, and their brethren the jurats inflict upon him that punishment which all shall agree upon. But yet after judgment and sentence given, they have another, which is their last appeal, if they please, and that is to their priest and friar, who liveth in their town, by whom they will sometimes be judged, and undergo what punishment he shall think fittest.

Colonial Lima was somewhat different as one can see in the account of Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa.

Colonial society had a variety of people as this story of Doña Catalina de Erazu  illustrates; she was a swashbuckling transvestite.

You can more about this colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.