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Chloe Ireton , UCL

The paper explores how free black individuals and communities in the early Spanish empire successfully petitioned royal courts in Castile – sometimes traversing the Atlantic - in order to guarantee their rights as black Old Christian loyal royal vassals. The active, yet under-explored, role that some black communities played in negotiating the inclusion of blackness in definitions of vecindad (subjecthood / citizenship) by seeking royal aid to shape localized ideas about blackness, provides important insights into the relationship between black vecindad, royal vassalage, and religious lineage. The paper focuses on two successful petitions to the Castilian crown, one from late sixteenth-century Panama and another from early seventeenth-century Mexico City. These royal petitions highlight that far from there existing a unanimous and ubiquitous understanding of blackness and its relationship to notions of vecindad, that instead plural ideas about blackness and differing lived experiences coexisted across the early Hispanic empire. Ideas about the irredeemability of black blood circulated at the same time that free black men and women lived as vecinos, black royal vassals, and Old Christians across various sites of the empire. Importantly, while localized views on blackness differed across the Hispanic empire, black individuals and communities often played an important role in shaping notions of blackness and community in the early Castilian world through their daily practices and, sometimes, by appealing to higher authorities in the empire, namely, the crown in Castile. Monarchical intervention in both cases also highlights how ideas about blackness, vecindad, and royal vassalage varied across different sites of power within the empire, especially between the crown and local colonial authorities. The paper demonstrates that black communities often recognized that parallel and overlapping structures of imperial justice held differing views of blackness, and appealed to the crown as black loyal royal vassals when suffering injustices by local authorities.