Almeida on Gharala, 'Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain'

Norah L. A. Gharala
James Almeida

Norah L. A. Gharala. Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain. Atlantic Crossings Series. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019. Illustrations. xii + 292 pp. $54.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-2007-2

Reviewed by James Almeida (Harvard University) Published on H-Atlantic (October, 2020) Commissioned by Bryan Rindfleisch (Marquette University)

Printable Version:

Unpacking the Economics of Racial Hierarchy in New Spain

Recent scholarship has turned a sharper eye on both race and imperial rule in eighteenth-century North and South America, moving past monolithic and top-down views to see what imperial policies looked like at the grassroots level. Norah L. A. Gharala advances this work by analyzing the contested domain of Afromexican tribute under Spain’s Bourbon monarchs, to argue that “blackness and tributary status became increasingly synonymous in the second half of the eighteenth century” (pp. 16-17). The author expertly defends her argument by exploring the tools and dynamics of Bourbon tribute expansion and the reactions of Afromexicans throughout the eighteenth century.

Taxing Blackness engages with the historiography of the Bourbon Reforms and with debates about the development of race and the social location of Afromexicans via the concepts of casta (caste) and calidad (status). Drawing on a broad and diverse source base in terms of chronology, geography, and level in the colonial bureaucracy enables the author to make both qualitative and quantitative claims and to analyze the changes in Afromexican tribute from both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Gharala does so to contribute an understanding of not just what changed over time in terms of tribute collection (an expansion based on registering people who had not paid previously, rather than on demographic growth alone) but also how it changed through new organizations and procedures. In the realm of casta and calidad, Gharala argues that neither was equivalent to race nor represented steps in a linear progression toward a modern racial system, but rather these were parallel systems mutually related to the tributary status. Furthermore, she builds on the work of scholars like María Elena Martínez (Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza De Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico [2008]) and Ann Twinam (Purchasing Whiteness: Pardos, Mulattos, and the Quest for Social Mobility in the Spanish Indies [2015]) in explaining the procedural modes of negotiating social status while invoking a long debate about when and how these categories mattered. Taxing Blackness also extends the work started by Ben Vinson in the study of Afromexican tribute (Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico [2001]) by considering exemption petitions based on changes to the petitioner’s calidad

Gharala traces the developments in tribute administration and Afromexican resistance to paying by dividing the study chronologically around the Caroline Reforms (1700-63) and into thematic chapters within each section. In the first half of the book, the first three chapters consider the period before the reforms (1700-63) to give an overview of tribute’s history and importance (chapter 1), to discuss how tributary status was determined and enforced (chapter 2), and to demonstrate Afromexican efforts to exempt themselves from payment (chapter 3). The second half of the book also uses this structure to deal with the post-Caroline Reform period (1763-1800), tackling the expansion of tribute and its economic impact (chapter 4), changing procedures used to identify tributaries (chapter 5), and new efforts at exemption (chapter 6).

The most important conclusion that the author draws is that Bourbon administrators successfully and significantly expanded crown income from Afromexican tribute during the eighteenth century and particularly after 1763. This was not simply a product of the natural growth of the Afromexican population. Rather, Gharala forcefully demonstrates that increased standardization and enforcement in collection practices are what led to the expansion. Despite the centralization efforts of Bourbon administrators, expanding the tribute registers required deputization of and negotiation with local officials who created the registers. The recording process took the married Afromexican couple as the base unit for registration and reformers looked for shortcuts—particularly physiognomy—to identify tributaries, but ultimately they had to accept genealogy as the basis. Genealogy was the preferred method of determining tributary status for most local officials and for potential Afromexican tributaries, because it offered a means of both assigning (descendance from Africans) and evading (descendance from conquistadors or providers of other important and recognized services to the crown) tribute. Genealogical claims involved communal knowledge about current and past residents and could be substantiated via documents or testimony.

This finding that genealogy substantiated identifications of tributaries points to Gharala’s second important contribution: an understanding of the complex relationship between process and social identification. Here, she demonstrates how the process of expanding tribute influenced perception and vocabulary about social positioning. Changing tribute registers had a mutually constitutive relationship with categories of casta and calidad. Gharala observes that the implementation of new registers using a centralized model flattened differences between different Afromexican castas (negros, mulatos, pardos, etc.) and even between indigenous Mexicans and Afromexicans, who had previously been listed separately but were now combined. This made tributary status itself an important social marker. She makes these conclusions by an extensive and well-documented explanation of the changing procedures for determining tributary status and collecting tribute. The author’s extensive knowledge of this process altogether lends ample support to her claims throughout her work.

These contributions make Taxing Blackness an important source for specialists in Afromexican history and economic or institutional history of the colonial regime in New Spain. For Atlantic scholars, Gharala provides comparative context by discussing tribute (and tribute-adjacent) practices and demographics of people of African descent elsewhere in Spanish America but also in British and Portuguese imperial possessions. These references are interspersed throughout the text.

What might limit the book’s appeal to nonspecialists or undergraduates is the way Gharala sidesteps fruitful debates about casta, calidad, and race. The author declares a preference to discuss “calidad, blackness, and tributary status” instead of identity or race and proceeds to argue that these “ideas about social difference did not take on a ‘coherent ideology of race’ that would operate in the Spanish Atlantic” (p. 9). But this seems a curious benchmark to set: was there ever a coherent ideology of race? As support for this idea, she offers evidence that Afromexicans avoided phenotypical or racial designations in their petitions. But a different reading might see this as confirmation of the idea that tributary identification of Afromexicans was building toward systemic racism and that Afromexicans wanted to maximize their potential for success by downplaying their blackness. I remain unconvinced by Gharala’s repeated insistence that calidad is not race, particularly when some of her evidence would suggest otherwise or at least demand more thorough consideration. For example, a petitioner justified his exemption by stating he was not a member of any “tributary castes” and declaring himself “free of any bad race” (p. 43). While Gharala acknowledges that ideas about calidad and casta contributed to the later development of race, this framing of the problem has the effect of making calidad (and more specifically, tributary calidad) into something real and isolated from other parts of social history in ways that it was likely not in practice.

This problem also exemplifies another limitation on the book’s usefulness to undergraduate readers and nonspecialists, though I presume this to be an editorial practice rather than the fault of the author. There are many uncontextualized quotes with simply an endnote citation that minimize or disguise important points of historiographic debate and make this text challenging for readers new to its themes. Only in the endnote does one find that “coherent ideology of race” is Matthew Restall’s phrase from his study of Afromexicans in the Yucatan, The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan (2009). For readers unfamiliar with or who have a different viewpoint on the historiography of race, casta, and calidad, this inhibits understanding of the important contention that Gharala is making within a broader conversation.

On the balance, though, this is a very welcome and important work of both qualitative and quantitative significance for the study of tribute and Afromexican socioeconomic positioning within colonial New Spain. And for H-Atlantic’s readers, Gharala has provided one more piece of the financial and racial puzzle of the early modern Atlantic World.

Citation: James Almeida. Review of Gharala, Norah L. A., Taxing Blackness: Free Afromexican Tribute in Bourbon New Spain. H-Atlantic, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL:

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