Review of The Black Middle by Matthew Restall

MATTHEW RESTALL. The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 456. $29.95.

cover for The Black Middle

The Black Middle is the twelfth book by the colonial Latin Americanist and current Professor of History, Anthropology, and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University, Matthew Restall. It is the first work to undertake the history of Africans and people of African descent in Yucatán—a peninsular province of New Spain—during its colonial era, approximately 1541-1829. Borrowing the “black middle” thesis from historians like Philip Morgan, Restall positions “Afro-Yucatecans” as social, economic, and political intermediaries between Mayas and Spaniards. Organized in thematic chapters with engaging historical anecdotes, drawn from extensive research, and packed with tables, maps, notes, and sources, The Black Middle is a path-breaking regional work with profound implications for the greater history of the Caribbean.

Restall uses works like Breve Historia de Yucatán by Sergio Quezada as foils. Despite including ninety-seven sections, Quezada makes no mention of the African presence in colonial Yucatán. According to Restall, six factors have contributed to this invisibility: growing prejudice, the pace of miscegenation (mestizaje), the gradual and relatively-uncontested decline of Yucatán slavery and the slave trade, postcolonial migrations, changes in racial terminology, and inherent source problems. Nonetheless, recovering Afro-Yucatecan history is imperative because genetics have revealed modern residents to have significant West-African ancestry. This revelation underpins the salient conclusion of The Black Middle: that present-day Mayans must be reinterpreted as Afro-Mayas.

The Black Middle is an introductory work that strives for comprehensiveness. Restall scoured archives in Spain, Mexico, and the United States from 1994-2006. He has cited inquisition files, manifests, slave-trade licenses, wills, testaments, probate proceedings, mortgage claims, marriage and parish records, cedulas, notary documents, census records (matriculas from 1688 and 1700), employment contracts, probanza, cartas, and more. For English perspectives, he has emphasized William Dampier and James Cook; and, with proficiency in both Maya and Nahuatl, he has referenced indigenous material.

Restall uses the dichotomy of slave-society/society-with-slaves—recently articulated by Ira Berlin—to frame his conclusions. Unlike the British colonies of the Caribbean and North America, the Portuguese colonies of Brazil, and Mexico before 1660, Yucatán was not a society based on racialized, plantation slavery. While the origins of Afro-Yucatecans resided in the Middle Passage, labor was filled by natives who worked rotations on Spanish estancias and haciendas. Small numbers of Africans trickled into Yucatán throughout the period—first from Campeche and then from Belize—but their numbers never outpaced the Mayas, notwithstanding a demographic collapse of nearly 90%.

Afro-Yucatecans predominantly settled in the “colored crescent,” a northwestern region. Slaves served as emissaries, skilled workers, domestics, and status symbols. Free Afro-Yucatecans worked as farmers, hunters, overseers, supervisors, foremen, artisans, and militiamen. The “hostility-harmony dialectic” describes the range of relationships between Afro-Yucatecans and natives in Mayan villages, urban cofradías, and along the camino real. These took on various contexts, ultimately resulting in the co-mingling of bloodlines. By emancipation, mulattos greatly outnumbered negros. Overall, the middling, “ambiguously-located” position of Afro-Yucatecans is reflected in colonial Mérida, where the African parishes of Santa Lucía and JesúsMaría were located halfway between Mayan barrios and Spanish courtyards.

Restall concludes that Spanish ethnocentrism was not synonymous with modern racism; the sistema de casta was fluid, and Afro-Yucatecans were Spanish-speaking (often literate) Christians judged based on their quality (calidad) as opposed to their phenotype. Although prejudice was widespread, Afro-Yucatecans were baptized, given Spanish names, and provided access to institutions (like the pardo militia) of upward social mobility. Some, like Sebastián Toral, even became full-fledged conquistadores who successfully petitioned the Spanish crown for salary.

The Black Middle is an exceptional monograph; but, its full potential has yet to be revealed. For example, Restall has suggested how the Afro-Yucatecan experience was shaped by conflicting empires on the Yucatán-Belizean border. Now scholars must anticipate the day when these claims are combined with other regional works, like Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers, to illuminate greater truths about the circum-Caribbean. Such a synthesis, which recaptures the geographic orientations of the early-modern world in order to rewrite the colonial history of the black-Caribbean experience, will be well received.

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