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Forced Migration in the Spanish Pacific World (Review)

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Eva Maria Mehl. 2016.
Forced Migration in the Spanish Pacific World: From Mexico to the Philippines, 1765-1811
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781316480120

Eva Maria Mehl’s monography connects with a trans-Pacific historiographical discourse that had been traditionally carried out by Mexican scholars (e.g. Carmen Yuste Lopez, Mariano Ardash Bonialian, and María Fernanda García de los Arcos) and, only very recently, has been calling the attention of scholars working in the United States (see the Spanish Transpacific conference held in Princeton in February 2018[1] and Tatiana Seijas’s monography on the slavery trade, Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico: From Chinos to Indians, Cambridge University Press, 2014). An overlooked aspect of this strong link between Mexico and the Philippines was the forced migration of convicts and vagrants through the Manila galleon during the last years of its existence. Mehl’s goal is, by focusing in this specific issue, to demonstrate the centrality of New Spain Viceroyalty in the arrangement and implementation of imperial policies and its wide capacity to take decisions referring to Philippine affairs. At the same time, it aims to break through a trans-Pacific historiography that has been somehow traditionally monopolized by the galleon trade, the mere exchange of goods, and the economic dependence of the Philippines.

Mehl’s book begins with an introduction that presents a quite thorough and updated presentation of scholarly works dealing with the trans-Pacific history of New Spain and the Philippines. Mehl shows a deep familiarity with the bibliography of the history of the Philippines which is uncommon for scholars of Latin American colonial history. She even perceived and pointed out what might be the main malaise of the Philippine historiography; namely, nationalism, until today there has been a tendency to study and understand the history of the archipelago in isolation and ignoring (or downplaying) the strong links it has always held with their neighbours and Latin America (p. 8).

In the first chapter, Mehl is able to picture a very balanced view of the Philippines under Spanish rule while underlying the commercial (and religious, I would add) nature that made this archipelago a very specific case. She accurately states that ‘labor was not modified to extract the natural resources of the Philippines in the benefit of New Spain and in exchange for manufactures. Instead, the viceroyalty established a purely commercial relationship with the Philippines. […] The incoming situado did not directly affect the subsistence of indios, and native economic systems and the pre-Hispanic political organization continued to rule the internal day-to-day economic and social order’ (p. 47). This statement could have been somehow nuanced, but its truthfulness becomes evident when the weak Spanish presence in the archipelago (most of Cordillera, Western Mindanao and several peripheral areas, like the mountains of Mindoro, were never conquered) is taken in consideration. This chapter allows the author to set up the peculiar character and the several anomalies of the Philippine colonization. Mehl contextualizes the forced migration carried out in the years 1765–1811 by passing by the continuous Moro attacks (and the lack of effective defences), the Sangley revolts, the trans-Pacific migration before 1762, and the lasting shock produced by the British occupation of Manila. It is evident that Spanish control and defence of the archipelago was always extremely weak and precarious; therefore, there was a constant need of skilful men and able soldiers to face those menaces accordingly. The Bourbon reforms and its enlightened ideas were conceived in Madrid – and reshaped in Mexico City and Manila – in order to better organize the territories.

The thesis of Mehl’s book is developed in the next five chapters. Chapter 2 argues convincingly that sending convicts from New Spain to the Philippines was not so much motivated by judicial decisions, but by imperial projects and Mexican views about the particular role of the Philippines in the defence strategy of the Spanish empire. The Philippines was perceived as an undesirable destination after a long and dangerous trip. Therefore, sending convicts and deserters was viewed as a kind of punishment itself and at the same time could supply the permanent lack of able bodies in the archipelago. This policy in practice, however, meant also the arrival of hundreds of ‘low-quality human resources’ that were of little help for the Philippines.

Mehl analyses how the enlightened reforms carried out by the Bourbons had a deep impact in vagrancy policies in New Spain. Using an extensive amount of archival sources, the book presents quite a thorough picture of the deportations carried out to Manila, providing numbers (336 individuals between 1765–1788) (p. 157) and digging into the judicial processes. One of the striking insights of this research is the fact that, in many instances, the family members of vagrant were the ones who actually called the authorities to facilitate the deportation. New Spain’s society upheld moral and ethical values and authorities made an effort to enforce them and captured individuals whose behaviour was not acceptable or somehow deviant. Mehl concluded that ‘most of the deportees to Manila did not come from prison but directly from the streets, their homes, their taverns and the gambling dens’ (p. 192). Philippines was, therefore, seen as a place where those individuals – not criminals, but not considered exemplary for a desirable society – could be eventually reformed. This did not always work as expected, as the title of Chapter 6 illustrates: Unruly Mexicans in Manila. This last chapter tries to trace the lives of some deported individuals from Mexico and their impact in the Philippines, taking in consideration that the number of peninsulares in the whole archipelago never exceeded 4000 people. Mehl states that ‘the fate of the majority of convicts was confinement in one of the archipelago’s fortified military settlements’, although they also engaged in forced labour activities (p. 235). Mehl concludes that the insertion of this newly arrived people meant new challenges for the colonial authorities in Manila, as they were often associated with insubordination and they also altered the racial-hierarchical structure of the archipelago.

Mehl’s scholarly work is a remarkable effort to understand trans-Pacific links in Imperial Spain, the crucial role of forced migration, and the centrality of Mexican colonial authorities in shaping and implementing policies. But, the most important contribution of this work is that it does not treat the Philippines and its relevance as peripheral, as happens in traditional scholarly works. This research opens new and necessary debates to the historiography about Colonial Latin America.

[1] An important collection of annotated and translated sources will come out soon from this meeting: Christina Lee & Ricardo Padrón (eds), The Spanish Pacific, 1521-1815: A Reader of Primary Sources, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, forthcoming.

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