Asian Roles in New Spain

My favorite article in the latest issue of Journal of World History (on Project MUSE) is by Edward R. Slack Jr. on “The Chinos in New Spain: A Corrective Lens for a Distorted Image.” Here are a few excerpts (footnotes and references omitted).

Spanish galleons transported Asian goods and travelers from Manila to colonial Mexico primarily through the port of Acapulco. During the two and a half centuries of contact between the Philippines and the Viceroyalty of New Spain, a minimum of 40,000 to 60,000 Asian immigrants would set foot in the “City of Kings,” while a figure double that amount (100,000) would be within the bounds of probability. From Acapulco they would gradually disperse to the far corners of the viceroyalty, from Loreto in Baja California to Mérida in Yucatan…. The majority, however, would eventually settle in two distinct zones: on the west coast in the districts of Guerrero, Jalisco, and Michoacán, and in the large, ethnically diverse municipalities of Mexico City and Puebla in the central valleys and the eastern port of Veracruz. The two zones were transversed by the most heavily traveled arteries that connected Acapulco to Mexico City (known colloquially as el camino de China) in the west; Veracruz with Puebla and Mexico City in the east; and several arterials linking the capital with Puerto Vallarta in the west and Guanajuato in the northwest.

For the most part, the chinos disembarked at Acapulco as sailors, slaves, and servants. Over the longue durée of Mexican-Asian cultural exchange, the largest contingent of Asians arrived as sailors on the galleons and smaller vessels (capitanas, pataches, and almirantes) that annually plied the long and perilous return voyage from Manila. The seamen were primarily Filipinos, Chinese mestizos (known in Manila as mestizos de Sangley), or ethnic Chinese from the fortified port of Cavite near Manila that served as the primary shipyard for Spaniards in the archipelago. In 1565, the first chino sailors from the islands of Cebu and Bohol arrived in Acapulco aboard Friar Andrés de Urdaneta’s trailblazing galleon, the San Pedro. During the late sixteenth century Iberian sailors constituted the majority of crewmen, but by the early 1600s Asians had surpassed them, accounting for 60–80 percent of the mariners from that time forward. A historical snapshot of galleon seafarers in the mid eighteenth century comes from a crew manifest of La Santissima Trinidad. In 1760, this vessel was manned by 370 sailors, consisting of 30 officers (Europeans or Mexican criollos), 40 artillerymen (27 chinos), 120 sailors (109 chinos), 100 “Spanish” cabin boys (96 chinos), and 80 “plain” cabin boys (78 chinos). In sum, 84 percent (310) of the crew were born and raised in Spain’s Asian colony, with 68 percent (250) hailing from the port of Cavite alone….

Along the Pacific coast, chino sojourners tended to congregate in the cities and pueblos of Acapulco, Coyuca, San Miguel, Zacatula, Tex pan, Zihuatenejo, Atoya, Navidad, and Colima. With the arrival of more ships from Manila, the number of sailors who either had no desire to return to the Philippines or were brought over as slaves married local Indian and mixed-race women increased. Consequently, a sizable population of chinos and their descendants made these cities and pueblos a popular destination for fellow Asians. Both freemen and slaves farmed rice (brought from the Philippines), corn, and cotton; tended cacao and coconut palm trees; fished in the seas and rivers; and transported people and goods to various ports along the coastline. Those who followed the royal highways to towns farther inland worked as muleteers or in the silver mines, haciendas, obrajes (textile workshops), or sugar mills….

Slaves and servants constituted the second largest group of Asian immigrants during the colonial era. Manila quickly became an important entrepôt for the commerce in human flesh during the first century of Spanish rule. The greater part were transported by Portuguese vessels from colonies and trading ports in Africa, India, the Malay peninsula, Japan, and China, although Chinese junks and Malay prahus also shipped large quantities to Manila. Non-Filipino slaves that fetched the highest price were from Timor, Ternate, Makassar, Burma, Ceylon, and India, because “the men are industrious and obliging, and many are good musicians; the women excellent seamstresses, cooks, and preparers of conserves, and are neat and clean in service.”…

The incorporation of Asian immigrants into the armed forces of New Spain represents another fascinating fragment of the chino mosaic from the colonial era. Similar to restrictions placed on other castas in Mexico, there were numerous prohibitions against Asians carrying weapons or riding horses….

The legion of similar antiweapons ordnances from the 1550s onward notwithstanding, from at least the 1590s free chinos not only were granted permission to carry weapons, but gradually incorporated into both the salaried companies of Españoles as well as local militias, especially those cities and towns along the Pacific coast. In several documents from the years 1591 and 1597, an “Indio Chino” from the silver mining town of Zultepec named Juan Alonzo, who earned his livelihood from buying and selling mules, was granted a license to ride a horse with a saddle and bridle and to carry a sword. A key determinant in this matter was his racial classification as a chino, since indios (unless they were elites) were forbidden such privileges….

Among the scores of Asian peoples that were widely defined as chinos, in the early decades of the 1600s Japanese converts were held in high esteem by Spaniards in the Philippines and New Spain for their bravery and loyalty. In 1603 and 1639 when Chinese residents in the Parián of Manila revolted against their Iberian overlords, Japanese swordsmen distinguished themselves in combat. Without their assistance, Sangleyes would surely have made the Philippines a colony of the Middle Kingdom. Thousands of Japanese converts, traders, and ronin made the Philippines their home prior to the closing of Cipango to Iberians in the 1630s. They lived in a suburb of Manila called Dilao, with a population estimated at 3,000 by 1624.

Thus it is not surprising that samurai converts were considered a more privileged subgroup of chinos in New Spain….

It is unclear exactly when chino militias were established on the west coast of New Spain. It is evident, however, that prior to 1729 Asian paramilitary units were routinely patrolling the regions adjacent to Acapulco. Tiburcio Anzalde, “captain of one of the militias of chinos and mulatos in the district of Atoya,” discussed the duties and obligations of militiamen in a 1746 document: repeated trips to Acapulco to deliver mail and other correspondences; to clear the roads (of bandits) while on patrol; and, most importantly, their heroic role in resisting the English pirate George Anson‘s invasion at the port of Zihuatenejo in 1741.

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Filed under Asia, China, economics, England, Japan, labor, Mexico, migration, Netherlands, Philippines, Portugal, Spain

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