The Family Tree Is Not Cut: Marriage Among Slaves in Eighteenth Century Puerto Rico

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The Family Tree Is Not Cut:

Marriage Among Slaves in Eighteenth Century Puerto Rico

A people without the knowledge

of their past history, origin and

culture is like a tree without


Marcus Garvey

The frequency and nature of slave marriages in Puerto Rico has long been a subject of controversy. Scholars including Luis Díaz Soler (1953:174) affirm that marriages were not only common but, more importantly, that owners, along with religious and civil authorities, encouraged marriage and family life among slaves throughout the colonial period. This served as a means of increasing the number of enslaved laborers on the island without having to rely on the introduction of African slaves. Using nineteenth-century census records and other archival sources’, James L. Dietz (1986:39), Pedro San Miguel (1988:86), and James Wessman (1980:288) have refuted notions that civil and religious authorities alike sought to promote slave marriages. These same scholars have also cast doubt on the actual number of formal unions that occurred. Since then, the assumption has been that marriage among slaves in this Caribbean island was not common and that slaves were unable to establish links of association or ties of kinship within the structure of the dominant society or outside of it. Unlike other areas of Latin America, many documents in Puerto Rico relating to the first centuries of Spanish colonization have disappeared (Silvestrini and de Castro Arroyo 1981:157), making it difficult to assess these dimensions of slave life.1 Because of the scarcity of primary sources from the colonial period, slaves have often been perceived as a people without a reconstructable past.

Utilization of a methodology known as family reconstitution supplies the key to filling this gap in our understanding of colonial Puerto Rico. Family reconstitution, which is mostly based on parish registers, consists of two stages (Knodel 1988:3). The first involves linking together births (baptisms), marriages, and deaths (burials) to form family groups consisting of a married couple and their children. The second stage entails computing measures of demographic behavior, such as birth and death rates. However, the family reconstitution I have used is limited to the first stage and is not the classic form developed by Louis Henry, et al.2 I utilize parish baptismal, marriage, and death registers surviving from the agriculturally and geographically diverse island communities of Arecibo (1708-1757), Caguas (1731-1804), Coamo (1755-1800), and Yauco (1751-1790) to reconstruct the vital statistics of individual slaves, their families, and their owners over several generations. In order to follow slaves, their families, and their owners who may have moved to communities adjacent to ones selected for this study, whenever possible I consulted surviving parish registers from bordering communities.3 I was able to document 237 marriages in which one or both spouses is a slave. With this information, I will study the frequency of slave marriage in the eighteenth-century communities to see whether it was higher than in the nineteenth-century communities examined by Wessman and San Miguel, or by Dietz. The data set that I compiled also enabled me to ascertain whom, at what age, and at what times of year slaves most frequently married. These data enable me to demonstrate that marriage among slaves was not uncommon and that they had a family history much like the rest of society.

This article is divided into several parts. My strategy is to provide first a historical framework for understanding economic conditions that shaped the island slavery, then to examine slavery within the context of the work regimens and material conditions of life associated with Puerto Rico’s eighteenth-century agricultural economy. I continue with a brief overview of the religious context and social implications of marriage among slaves. Then, I will look at the examples of Pedro and Francisca and Lázaro and Agustina--two slave couples married in the southern coastal community of Coamo on December 29, 1793--in order to provide greater insight into spousal selection patterns as well as the impact of the liturgical and the agricultural calendars upon the seasonality of slave marriage.4 Finally, I will explore the ways in which slaves pursued marital strategies, allowing them to manipulate material conditions of life within the constraints of slavery. As we shall see, many slaves in Puerto Rico during the eighteenth century not only asserted their humanity by marrying but also created viable patterns of family life that we can reconstruct.
The Agricultural Economy in Puerto Rico, 1508-1800

The institution of slavery in the Caribbean was shaped by unique cultural and economic forces. Some Spanish colonies including Puerto Rico experienced an initial cycle of sugar and slavery that began in the 1540s. The Spanish Crown encouraged the rise of sugar cultivation through grants and loans, and the production of this commodity was initially quite lucrative. However, sugar production in Puerto Rico declined following an attack on San Juan and its brief occupation by an English fleet under the command of the experienced seaman George Clifford, third Earl of Cumberland, in the summer of 1598, in which all the ginger, hides, and sugar in the city and the surrounding countryside were seized as booty. Cumberland made off with 2,000 slaves and 200,000 pounds of sugar. Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy never recovered. The Spanish Crown in the year 1600 ordered that monies be distributed among the island’s sugar mill owners and that 200 African slaves be introduced into the island as compensation for losses sustained (Moscoso 1999:75). However, these concessions were not immediately implemented. This, along with restrictive trade policies associated with mercantilism, such as those requiring all Spanish colonies to trade exclusively with Seville using Spanish ships and merchants, limited opportunities for legal trade and spelled disaster for the island’s sugar industry.

Spanish mercantilist policies fostered an increase in smuggling by British, Dutch, and French traders and, even more harmful for Spanish trade, in piracy. This occurred precisely when production of sugar began in the non-Hispanic Caribbean during the 1630s and 1640s. The focus of Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy was gradually transformed from one based on the produce of sugar plantations to one based on cattle ranching and production of foodstuffs. For nearly a century beginning around 1675, these pursuits combined with the export of hides, dye and hardwoods, along with the cultivation of tobacco and cotton to become the island’s principal economic activities (Moscoso 1999:98-100).

If we look at the geography of the Caribbean economy from 1675 to 1765, two distinct zones emerge. The first consists of the plantation zones or sugar islands of the non-Hispanic Caribbean; the second comprises the provider colonies of the Spanish Caribbean including Puerto Rico. The latter supplied draft animals and foodstuffs for slaves needed to support sugar production elsewhere as described by Picó (1986:94), González Vales (1990:120), and Giusti Cordero (1993:6 and 22). With few legal outlets for their goods, planters and ranchers throughout the island were increasingly drawn into the complex web of intra-Caribbean contraband trade. In effect, there were two Puerto Rican economies: legal and illegal. Legal trade with Spain or Spanish colonies was practically non-existent, a fact that has led some scholars such as López Cantos (1975:93 and 127) and more recently Padilla (1985:108) to conclude that the island’s economic development reached its nadir at this time. Notwithstanding, an illegal trade thrived. Livestock, dyewoods and timber, and foodstuffs were exchanged with adjacent islands in the non-Hispanic Caribbean for clothing, iron tools, and slaves.

After 1765, Puerto Rican agriculture entered into a period of rapid expansion. This resulted from the easing of trade restrictions, the liberalization of the slave trade, and the influx of monies earmarked for the construction of military fortifications in San Juan (Bergad 1983:4-12). These factors were instrumental in laying the foundations for the subsequent rise of labor-intensive export agriculture, especially sugar. Up through the dawn of the nineteenth century, Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy had required few slaves. Such circumstances relegated sugar planters and slavery to a largely peripheral role in the island’s predominantly rural economy. Sugar production came to dominate the agricultural landscape especially during its golden age between 1820 and 1845. Under sugar the institution of slavery on the island was again transformed as the production of this sweet commodity came to (re)occupy a prominent role in the agricultural economy.

Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Puerto Rico

Scholars including Higman (1984:362, 374, and 396) and Bush (1990:37) have demonstrated that slaves’ chances of survival were better when and where sugar production was not the principal economic activity. Thus, healthier demographic regimes and more stable family structures than those of the nineteenth century probably prevailed among slave populations in Puerto Rico for nearly a century, beginning around 1675. In these years, the island entered into a period of minimal economic stress providing greater opportunity for slaves to marry and establish family lives of their own. Access to garden plots as well as the right to market any surplus for other goods or specie may have promoted marriage not only among slaves, but also between slaves and free persons. Owners often set aside time and sometimes even designated a specific day for slaves to work on these plots of land (Mintz 1984:204). Where slaves received rations and had access to provision grounds, they usually benefitted from a healthier and more varied diet (Cabanillas de Rodríguez 1973:358; Díaz Soler 1953:161; López Cantos 1985:151). More importantly, slaves were permitted to bequeath freely the right to continue to cultivate a certain piece of land for as long as the owner permitted that land to be cultivated (Mintz 1984:209). According to Sidney Mintz, “the slave with a better diet, a small source of income, and a feeling of proprietorship in land was less discontented, less likely to run away, and less dangerous as a potential rebel (Ibid:192).” To this, I would also add that slaves were more likely to marry and/or form a family.

During the late-seventeenth and early- to mid-eighteenth century sugar production was largely confined to San Juan, and distinct agricultural regimes evolved on either side of the Cordillera Central bisecting the island. Animal husbandry and cattle ranching were combined with the export of hides in communities such as Arecibo and Caguas to the north of this mountain ridge, and with the export of dye and hardwoods or other cash crops like tobacco or cotton in communities such as Coamo and Yauco to the south. With the information gathered through family reconstitution, I have recreated the contours of adult slave ownership as well as data on the minimum levels of slave importation into these geographically diverse communities. Such variables influenced the likelihood of marriage and family formation among enslaved populations.

But first a few comments on the availability of historical records and demographic data on slavery in Puerto Rico. Such information is limited. Only one manuscript census, a household census conducted for San Juan in the year 1673, survives from the seventeenth century.5 No other census was undertaken for San Juan--or for that matter the island until 1765. While this census provides information on the age structure of the island’s free population, it does not for the unfree population. Annual censuses were conducted from the years 1779 through 1802, except for the year 1796. However, these do not list the age structure of the island’s free or unfree population. Notarial records from this period are also quite scarce, as are wills and other primary sources which would enable us to establish the size and/or distribution of slave populations in island communities at any point between the years 1673 through 1765. Therefore, it has been difficult for scholars to reconstruct the demography of slaves.

Patterns of slave ownership in areas such as Arecibo, the island leader in animal husbandry, cattle ranching, and the export of hides, differed from those observed in areas such as Coamo, where foodstuffs were grown along with tobacco, cotton, and later coffee and thus, the agricultural economy was more labor-intensive. There were few slaves in areas along the northern coast of the island, including Arecibo and Caguas, because economic pursuits such as animal husbandry, along with the harvest of dye and hardwoods, did not require a large labor force. Furthermore, owners lacked sufficient capital for the purchase of additional enslaved labor. The lives of slaves in these communities were probably less heavily regimented and disciplined than they were in areas along the southern coast of the island, including Coamo and Yauco, where the cultivation of coffee and tobacco was more labor-intensive and the sizes of slave holdings were larger.

The effects of lower labor requirements are clearly discernable in both the smaller slave populations and the smaller size of slave holdings in Arecibo and Caguas. For example, slave holdings in Arecibo during the years 1708 through 1757 were quite small, with an average size of three adult slaves in addition to any children they might have.6 Similar slave ownership patterns also prevailed in Caguas; that is, there were many owners with few slaves and, conversely, few owners with many slaves. The slave population in that community during the years 1730 through 1765 was indeed among the island’s smallest, with the average size of holdings only two adult slaves and any children they might have. Only a handful of masters in these communities possessed ten or more slaves (Stark 1999:128 and 133).7

In contrast, the agricultural regime was more labor intensive in communities to the south of the cordillera central such as Coamo and Yauco due to the additional production of cash crops including tobacco, cotton, and coffee. The distribution of slave ownership in Coamo reflects a slight, albeit important difference in the regional intensity of the island’s agricultural regime. For example, the average size of holdings in Coamo during the years 1755 through 1800 was four adult slaves and any children they might have. Coamo also had the greatest number of owners with ten or more slaves.8 The concentration of slaves on larger holdings probably indicates greater reliance on the commercial production of cash crops. Throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, Yauco emerged as one of the island leaders in the cultivation of tobacco and cotton. However, the average size of slave holdings in Yauco during the years 1751 through 1790 averaged only three adult slaves and any children they might have (Stark 1999:139 and 143). The largest slave holdings on the island were located in the sugar-growing area concentrated in San Juan and its surrounding communities. Here, we find a handful of sugar plantations worked by up to 200 slaves (Bergad 1983:5).9 While slave ownership throughout the island was common, few owners possessed ten or more slaves.

Trade in slaves had flourished as long as sugar production remained profitable for planters on the island. Levels of slave traffic to Puerto Rico declined in the early-seventeenth century following the near collapse of sugar production. Portuguese traders were the major providers of African slaves to the Hispanic Caribbean. They trafficked in slaves from the Congo and the Gold Coast. Dutch traders gradually assumed a more active role in the introduction of African slaves to Puerto Rico in the waning years of the seventeenth century (Morales Carrión 1995:66-7) and (Picó 1986:105). Consequently, there was an influx of slaves from the Loango region, located along the southwestern coast of Africa (Alvárez Nazario 1974:71). During the early years of the eighteenth century when the French controlled the legal slave trade, slaves from Upper Guinea and the Congo river region were introduced to Puerto Rico (Uya 1987:86). After the British assumed control of the legal slave trade in 1713, the majority of slaves brought to Puerto Rico came from the Gold Coast. This trend continued into the mid-eighteenth century.

It is virtually impossible to determine how many slaves were legally or illegally introduced by the British, Dutch, or Portuguese since most records of such transactions have been lost or destroyed (Scarano 1984:128) and (López Cantos 2000:25).10 Nonetheless, from 1675 to 1765, low levels of legal slave importation probably characterized the structure of slavery. This conclusion is based on the surviving records from the years 1710 through 1714 and 1731 through 1733. A total of 96 slaves (88 adults and 8 boys aged 12 or younger) were legally sold in Puerto Rico between 1710 and 1714 (López Cantos 1994:113-4), while the number of Africans legally introduced to the island between 1731 and 1733 totaled only 115 (López Cantos 1994:37). We can infer that the levels of illegal slave importation during the early years of the eighteenth century were also low. I base this upon the small number of African slaves baptized in island communities selected for this study. Because the baptismal entry in the parish register contained information on the individual’s legal status, it provided proof of ownership in the case of slaves. The number of adult slaves baptized during the years covered by this study in Arecibo, Caguas, and Yauco averaged less than one per year, while in Coamo they averaged 2 per year (Stark 1999:113). Prior to the liberalization of the slave trade in the 1760s, which brought about a sizable influx of African slaves to Puerto Rico, many planters and ranchers undoubtedly relied on the contraband trade for increasing the size of their holdings and/or encouraged the growth of the island’s enslaved population through natural means by promoting marriage and family life.

The low level of legal and illegal slave importations to Puerto Rico had a lasting impact on the demography of slaves. Since fewer adult African males were purchased from slave traders this helped to lessen their imbalance with women. As the number of women increased, so too did the proportion of children, therefore promoting natural growth. The transition from a predominantly African-born to a predominantly native-born slave population also contributed to evening out the sex ratio among this segment of island society. This transformation of the slave population from African-born to native-born most likely occurred during the late-seventeenth century. The possibility for natural growth continued until the second coming of sugar, which occurred early in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the emergence of a creole majority among slaves facilitated social cohesiveness. Opportunities gradually evolved over the course of the eighteenth century for a more settled family life within a larger, nascent Afro-Puerto Rican community.
Religious Context and Social Implications of Marriage Among Slaves

In areas of the Spanish Caribbean including Puerto Rico where Catholicism was the officially recognized religion, slaves were forcibly baptized into the Church. Thus, it is difficult to gauge how well slaves in Puerto Rico were indoctrinated with the dogma of the Catholic faith and the extent of slaves’ subsequent adherence to its tenets. The degree of religious instruction that slaves received, as well as their compliance with religious practices, probably varied from one parish to another and over the course of the eighteenth century. Some priests, such as Juan Apolinario Herrera, who served in the rural parish of Toa Baja along the island’s northern coast during the 1750s and 1760s, were particularly attentive to the spiritual needs of their parishioners.11 In contrast, other clergy, such as José Correa, who served in northwestern coastal community of Añasco from 1754 through 1767 and later in northeastern coastal community of Loíza, were apparently overly preoccupied with their own material well-being and therefore lax in providing the catechism as required following Sunday mass and on holy days of obligation to slaves (Morales Muñoz 1949a:137) and (López Cantos 2000:87).12 Owners too played a role in how well slaves were inculcated with the beliefs of Catholicism. Often they would make it difficult for their slaves to attend mass and receive religious instruction by forcing them to work on Sundays and other major feast days of the Church (Morales Muñoz 1949b:249-50). The extent of slaves’ compliance with Church norms was also contingent on the staffing of diocesan parishes and the level of training among the island’s clergy at the time. Thus, the extent of slaves’ compliance was sometimes constrained by factors beyond their control.

Slaves’ adherence to the customs and practices associated with Catholicism may have been related to the proportion of Africans comprising an area’s overall slave population. Newly arrived African slaves probably found it difficult to create a community of their own in which they could openly continue to practice their own forms of religion. In such cases, slaves may have outwardly embraced Christianity as a means of integrating themselves into their new surroundings, while secretly continuing to worship in their own way. The African slaves introduced annually as a part of the trade in human cargo to the island communities selected for this study, often spoke mutually unintelligible languages and were of different ethnic origins. Moreover, the structure of slavery in Puerto Rico during the years 1675 through 1765, characterized as it was by low levels of slave importation and widely dispersed slave holdings, was probably not as conducive to the survival or the transmission of African religious beliefs and practices as it was later in the nineteenth century following the resurgence of sugar as a primary export crop (López Cantos 2000:75). Of course, some assimilation of African religious beliefs and practices did take place. According to Angel López Cantos (1992:11), however, it was much less common than has previously been assumed.

Canonical marriage offered slaves tangible benefits. Laws governing marriage among slaves possibly encouraged formal unions among this segment of the island’s population. For example, when two slaves belonging to different owners married, the law stated that the husband’s owner was obliged to purchase his slave’s wife from the other owner, along with any of her children younger than three (Rípodas Ardanaz 1977:378-82), (Sued Badillo and López Cantos 1986:273), (Rodríguez León 1990:45 and 54). Should the husband’s owner fail to purchase the slave’s wife, then the wife’s owner was obliged to buy the husband. Married slaves could not be separated through sale and neither could they be separated from their minor children. This benefit for slaves was an inconvenience for owners, who were often reluctant to allow slaves the right to formally legitimize their unions through marriage.13

The scarcity of primary sources has made it difficult to ascertain the actual number of slave and slave/free marriages occurring throughout the island, prompting a historiographical debate concerning the frequency of slave marriages in Puerto Rico. My findings show that marriages among slaves were common on the island in the years leading up to the nineteenth-century resurgence of the sugar industry. Referring to marriage records consulted for this study, I found a total of 2,712 marriages, including 237 in which one or both spouses were slaves. Assuming that 11 percent of Puerto Rico’s population were slaves, as the 1765 census shows, it is striking that nearly 9 percent of all marriages involved at least one slave spouse. Thus, a significant portion of the island’s slave population married in the eighteenth century.

Let us examine the formal union of Pedro and Francisca as well as that of Lázaro and Agustina in order to provide greater insight into whom slaves married, at what ages they did so, and the seasonality of slave marriages by drawing attention to the vital statistics of slaves that can be reconstructed through the linking of data contained in parish registers.

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