Colonial Peru, the Caste System, and the “Purity” of Blood

David GaughranBackground, Historical Fiction, History, Latin America5 Comments

casta-painting
It was the Spaniards who gave the world the notion that an aristocrat’s blood is not red but blue. The Spanish nobility started taking shape around the ninth century in classic military fashion, occupying land as warriors on horseback. They were to continue the process for more than five hundred years, clawing back sections of the peninsula from its Moorish occupiers, and a nobleman demonstrated his pedigree by holding up his sword arm to display the filigree of blue-blooded veins beneath his pale skin—proof that his birth had not been contaminated by the dark-skinned enemy
—Robert Lacey, Aristocrats

The historical Spanish obsession with the purity of blood evolved into an elaborate caste system which reached its apogee with the colonization of South America and the subsequent intermingling of settlers with both South American Indians and imported African slaves, all of whose mixed offspring needed a separate classification, of course.

It was an intricate system—designed to pit sections of society against each other and play on the subsequent fear of overthrow by the lower classes, so that Spain could continue to exert its top-down control. But it also signified the relative social importance of the caste members, usually in a pejorative sense, meaning that only certain rights, occupations, and institutions were open to them.

If you had been born in Spain, then you automatically qualified as a member of the elite. If you had been born in South America, but your bloodline was “pure” then you were accorded privileged status, but of the second order, and the most influential posts were out of reach. However, if your ancestors had the temerity to dally with the Indians or blacks, then a complicated algorithm was brought to bear.

The four primary groups were the peninsulares (Spanish-born whites), followed by the criollos(who were also white, and of Spanish descent, but who had been born in South America), the indios (a catch-all term for any member or descendant of the various indigenous groups of South America), and the negros (black Africans or their descendants, usually slaves or freed slaves).

This however is a simplification, and the colonial authorities were anything but simplistic in their discrimination. Being more fluid than labels suggest, the various castes intermingled—a situation exacerbated by the gender imbalance of Spanish settlers—causing the colonial administration a huge headache. It was solved with a simple bureaucratic sleight of hand: classification based on the “purity” of blood.

Mestizo was the label given to products of the union of a Spaniard and an Indian. Those who were half-black and half-Spanish, were mulattos. Children to Indian and black parents were zambos, and the intellect of Galileo couldn’t save them from a lifetime of drudgery.

Spain attempted to regulate intermarriage, but with little success. To improve the prospects of their children, mestizos and mulattos often attempted to “purify” their bloodlines by marrying someone whiter than themselves, hoping to flush out the “bad” blood.

The result of all these rigorously calculated ruttings was a population with varying elements of the genetic smorgasbord of South America and beyond. Fortunately, the impressive Spanish bureaucracy had a system of classification to reflect the varying fractions of “good” and “bad” blood in each person, and allotted them their role in society accordingly, labeling them castizoscholos, coyotes, pardos, moriscos, chinos, cambujos, lobos, ladinos, or bozales, among many other sub-classifications which varied from place-to-place, and over time.

As seen in the painting at the top, artists traveled to the New World to capture this elaborate system of castes, and the descriptions attached to the paintings revealed the racial biases of the time. For example, a cambujo was the label given to the offspring of a lobo and an india, who were described in an 18th century painting as “slow, lazy, and cumbersome.”

Caste membership didn’t simply determine what occupation you could hold, but also whether you could bear arms, attend university, or even the clothes you were allowed wear.

This intricate system was most clearly visible in colonial Peru. Even by the time the independence wars spread its shores in 1820, Peru was still a feudal society—in racial and social terms at least.

Indios slaved in the mines, and negros toiled in the low-lying coastal farms which fed the country. The peninsulares held all the positions of power and influence. The criollos acted as their subordinates, or often made up the professional and business classes. And the mestizos were the working class in the towns and cities, doing all the menial jobs in proximity to the whites that the elite felt they couldn’t “trust” indios and negros with.

Aside from racial prejudice, that “lack of trust” was based—at least partly—on fear, which Spain was keen to exploit to keep the various castes and sub-castes in their allotted place.

The educated criollos had a lot to gain from an independent Peru: the highest positions of authority would be open to them, and they could benefit handsomely from the liberalization of trade, which Madrid had monopolized.

However, Spain knew that the best way to control a populous country like Peru was by setting sections of society against themselves. Out of one million souls, the whites barely numbered one hundred and fifty thousand. And since the successful slave revolt in Haiti in 1804 they had even more reason to be afraid. For them, a free Peru could mean death.

Spain relentlessly exploited this fear to suppress the liberal ideals which had been gaining popularity since the revolutions in France and the United States. And it was a successful strategy, until Napoleon seized the Spanish throne, Madrid lost its grip on the colonies, and an age of revolution was born.

While independence for Peru and the rest of Spanish America saw the abolition of both slavery and the caste system, colonial racial ideology took a little longer to dissipate.

As for the labels, they live on and many are still in use today—although mostly stripped of their pejorative connotations.

5 Comments on “Colonial Peru, the Caste System, and the “Purity” of Blood”

  1. This is all very interesting stuff! I was doing some research last week and learned that over 4 million African Slaves were taken to Brazil! I had no idea… that dwarfs the 500k that were taken to the United States!

    1. Yep, and 4m is probably a conservative estimate. If you want to read an excellent book on the whole sorry business, The Slave Trade by Hugh Thomas is a real doorstopper covering the whole thing in exhaustive (and harrowing) detail. There likely would have been even significantly more slaves transported to the rest of South America had it not been for their significant mortality rate when working in the high altitude mines of Peru and Bolivia. The Spanish switched to the indigenous Indians instead and an estimated 6m died in the various mines of Spanish America during the three hundred years or so of the Colonial period. Those numbers are staggering in isolation, doubly so when you consider that the entire world population in 1600 was less than a tenth of what it is now.

    2. I should also note that the estimate of 4m is in relation to those that survived the Atlantic crossing. At least 10% would have died en route, probably more, so at least another half a million would have been forcibly taken from Africa.

  2. Hello David,

    I liked your article very much. I happen to live in Peru, most what you write about in your article is not new to me.

    Even if independence was declared in 1821, slavery was not abolished until 1854. And some of the “pejorative connotations” you mention persist as of today. I could elaborate, but just to give an example, department stores tend to prefer (consciously or not) caucasian/european looking employees for sales positions over mestizo-looking ones. And if you look at some of the advertising in publications or on the street, looking at the face of the people chosen for the ads, you would think you are in Europe and not in Peru…

    1. Hi Roberto, I spent a few months teaching English in a small town outside Piura, near the border with Ecuador, and saw this unfortunate attitude up close. Some of the locals in the would have trouble getting basic treatment from the doctors unless one of us gringos accompanied them – which is shameful. One of the villagers died from something as preventable as a spider bite because the hospital sent her home without medicine and told her to rest. So tragic. These types of attitudes are common all across the world, of course, and I think we are going to be fighting them for a long time to come. But we are making progress, and that gives me some hope at least.

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