Freedom in Homogeneity: From Slave to Free Vassal in From Chinos to Indians

tw: racism, use of racial slurs by the author, colonialism

This paper received a B-, specifically for being a biased critique!

Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians concerns itself with a period of about a century and a half, from the early 16th century to the late 17th century, when the Spanish crown outlawed all enslavement of indigenous peoples. The author, Tatiana Seijas, now a professor at Rutgers University, structures her book both thematically and chronologically. The first chapter focuses on one woman, Catarina de San Juan, the mythical originator of china poblana,[1] and becomes more general, each chapter moves the narrative slightly forwards in time, ending with the 17th century and the outlaw of “Indian” slavery. The “Conclusion” of the book (as opposed to the “conclusions” of each chapter) ends, “The experience of chino slaves calls for a reevaluation of the chronology of racial slavery in Spanish America” (p. 250).[2] This is only part of Seijas’s argument. More broadly, she shows that individual “chino”[3] slaves, no matter their background, were able to take advantage of fluid ethnic and racial categories to gain freedom, and that during the period of the transpacific slave trade, there were many more categories of enslaved persons than just Africans. In assimilating into a more “homogenous” idea of “Indian,” non-indigenous people were able to take advantage of the special protection under Spanish law granted to native populations after famine and depredation rapidly reduced their numbers. Overall, From Chinos to Indians has an argument that follows its subtitle: the “chino” slaves became “Indians,” escaping their enslaved status in the process.

Each chapter is an independent unit within the book, ending with a mini-conclusion or thesis, leading to different chapters covering similar ground with similar language. Other than the first chapter, which focuses on one person and her status as a mythological figure, each chapter covers a breadth of individuals, organizations, and ideas within the topic. The next two chapters focus on the transpacific slave trade, with one covering the Manila slave market and where the slaves sold there came from, and the other covering the Manila Galleon (the once a year journey carrying goods, slaves, and the crew from Manila to Acapulco) and the pressures from Atlantic Slavers that ultimately caused the end of the transpacific slave trade. The next two chapters, four and five, cover what it meant to be a “chino” slave, the work enslaved “chinos” put into freeing themselves, and how exactly the “chinos” became assimilated into the “Republic of Indians,” or the station designated to all indigenous Mexicans and Filipinos under the Spanish crown. The sixth chapter discusses in more explicit detail a thread weaved throughout the book, theological justifications and oppositions to indigenous and “chino” slavery, while the seventh and final chapter completes the transition of “chino” slaves to free natives with the abolition of non-African slavery in Mexico, and eventually even in the Spanish Philippines.

Seijas is skilled at pulling out individual stories from records and following them as far as she can, giving a “human face” (p. 98) to vast, impersonal systems. The enslaved peoples bought and sold in the Manila slave market and brought to Mexico in horrendous conditions retain their identities, even personalities, through her writing. Peppered throughout the book are descriptions of people and where they came from, and most importantly, how they freed themselves. She emphasizes, over and over, that enslaved people have agency, and that there is more to those people than their misery. She is also quite good at keeping the reader engaged with small details, such as when she elaborates on complex systems of go-betweens that allowed people to profit despite restrictions on what could or could not be loaded onto the Manila Galleon (p. 95).

Unfortunately, despite the interesting topic and how much research Seijas clearly put into her book, it is an extremely frustrating read, leaving large gaps in discussion and refusing to even so much as acknowledge any explicitly racist motives on the part of slave owners. While she weakly condemns slavery as an institution, she also repeatedly mentions both the kindness of masters and the loyalty of slaves (p. 121), apparently convinced that one can only give agency to those pleased with their situations. The church “at least gave [a “china” woman] some comfort at the time of her death” (p. 211), a sentiment that is only possible if one accepts forced conversion and Christianity as net positives. For all her human faces, much is lost by the wayside. This book came out in 2014, and yet she herself, not quoting any source, calls a black slave “a black” (p. 102) with no apparent irony. She also insists on referring to indigenous peoples as Indians, because accuracy to what the Spanish called their subjects is her priority. Finally, she is unwilling until the very end to acknowledge the concept of racism, instead almost comically scratching her head at why slave owners might possibly free non-black slaves at higher rates than black slaves. Instead, she repeats that these “chino” slaves spoke better Spanish and does not delve much into the implications of Spanish obsession with the physiognomy of supposedly natural slaves. Racism, she implies, was created by the banning of indigenous slavery, not the other way around.

Tatiana Seijas wrote a mediocre book on an interesting subject, paying lip service to the agency of enslaved peoples while calling them “a black” and “a chino.” She repeats herself. Her lack of engagement with the topic of race is borderline negligent. And when she does, finally, discuss the racial aspect of slavery, it is only to say that is should be “evaluated.” “Chino” slavery and assimilation does not show that the system became racist against Africans over time. It shows that, from the beginning, this complex racial hierarchy allowed for mobility for many under the Spanish crown but was careful always to keep black people and their mixed-race children at the bottom.

[1] A modern symbol of feminine Mexican identity.

[2] Seijas, Tatiana. Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

[3] Slur derived from “Chinese,” used more generally to refer to anyone from Asia.

I am, fundamentally, yet another pseudonym of the internet denizen @ftmshepard. I have many names because I cannot escape my legal one. Behold my works.