General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Apr 2021/4 Wind
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Aztec slaves wearing collars, Codex Mendoza

Slave’s collar

Life for a Mexica (Aztec) slave was VERY different to that of slaves in ancient Rome or Greece (follow links below to learn more). In the Mendoza (main image, right) and Florentine Codices slaves are depicted wearing a heavy collar, both to identify them as slaves and to hinder any attempts to escape. Curiously, they were always given a fighting chance... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

A wooden slave collar was called quauhcozcatl in Nahuatl.
Sahagún states that under the day sign One Death, slaves received special treatment from their masters, including removal of “the wooden collars, the curved ones in which they were held and with which they went about restrained lest they flee.” [Fray Diego] Durán describes these cumbersome devices as wooden or metal collars with small rings through which were passed rods about a yard long. Not only did these fetters immediately identify the wearer as a slave but they also hindered quick movement in a crowd. This was necessary because, according to Durán, if a slave could escape from his master in a market and run outside the limits of that marketplace before being caught, and then immediately step on human excrement, he could obtain his freedom. The escapee would then present himself to the purifiers of slaves and demand his rights under the law of the land. Washed, and presented with new clothes, he was praised for his skill and enterprise and was given a whole new start in life. Such a person was considered lucky and often was kept in the palace as a retainer.

Artist’s impression of the great marketplace at Tlatelolco
Artist’s impression of the great marketplace at Tlatelolco (Click on image to enlarge)

Allegedly, if a slave was trying to escape in the marketplace in the above manner and someone got in his way or tried to stop him, that person himself became a slave, and the slave thus earned his freedom. Durán points out that this fear of enslavement caused the throngs to make way for the fleeing slave, much to the master’s chagrin. Unfortunately for the slaves, this method of escape was so well known that the owners remained particularly alert in the marketplaces. As a result, these dramatic escapes may have taken place no more often than once a year.

A slightly different interpretation of this custom is provided by Professor Warwick Bray (see ‘Freedom: run for it!’ below...)

Quote from The Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt, vol. II, University of California Press,1992, p.206.
Image sources:-
• Image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• ‘Tlatelolco Marketplace as depicted at Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago’, photo by Joe Ravi (Wikipedia Creative Commons Share-Alike License CC-BY-SA 3.0).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 01st 2018

emoticon Q. What’s the modern UK equivalent of this curious Aztec custom?
A. The ‘day release’ scheme!

Learn more about slavery from Professor Elizabeth Graham (1)

Learn more about slavery from Professor Elizabeth Graham (2)

‘Freedom: run for it!’

‘The human cost of famine’

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