African Experiences in Latin America: Land, Amerindians, and Slavery
The Europeans didn't want Amerindian land—Africans did, and Amerindians shaped African slavery.
No statement in Latin American Historical Studies contains more shock value—or hidden truths—than this, so with this begins the discussion. To slice through the confusing and often contradictory muddle of Spanish cultural prejudice requires a cutting statement, for the question--what created the hybrid cultures of modern Latin America--bears a thick skin. The secret to understanding begins with land. Cultural hybridization depended largely on European intentions towards land because those intentions affected the way Europeans saw Amerindian peoples. That vision affected European treatment of Africans, resulting in the brutal and unique slavery system that remains the most important non-human factor responsible for the success of African culture in Latin America. Amerindians also directly affected African cultural survival through interactions both during slavery and conquest.
Spanish nonchalance towards land affected treatment of Amerindians, ultimately altering the treatment of Africans. The Spanish explorers wanted wealth that they depended on the Spanish crown to legitimize, and the Spanish crown wanted to expand its empire: this required the addition of new citizens, not an influx of land. The encomienda system and the later repartimiento system both focused on the exploitation of the people, not the land, which the Spaniards depended on the Amerindian people to operate. In the encomiendo, each encomendero received a grant for certain kinship groups of people or ayllus;1 in the repartimiento the colonist received a set number of healthy males or “tributaries”, and their immediate families.2 Because the Spaniards wanted people to rule, not a place to use, they depended heavily on native institutions. The mita labor system in Peru, for example, came originally from the conquered Incan empire.3 Similarly, when in contact with settled agricultural peoples, the Portuguese “created a fiscal system based on villages of 'surrendered' or conquered Native Americans.”4 Thus, while Amerindians received awful treatment as second-class citizens, they were not legally slaves. From the very beginnings of the conquest, when Cortez's men gazed down at Tenochtitlan, they lauded its technological developments as evidence that these people could belong in the Spanish empire.5 Unlike the European settler families of North America, the single (or effectively single) male conquistadors did not need to displace all the Amerindians for land.
This view of Amerindian peoples as people, so necessary to the expansion of the Crown's power, added fuel to the continual struggles between the Crown, the Church, and settlers. Each of the three groups of elites, as they tried to expand their power, would accuse the other two of mistreating the Amerindian peoples.6 The Church, compelled by the desire to establish the new perfect church in the New World, had priests such as Bartolomeo de las Casas7 and Lorenzo de Bienvenida8 who claimed that innocent Amerindians suffered at settlers' hands. The State and settlers struggled against the church in the Yucatan to limit the power of Inquisitorial priests.9 Finally, the State restricted how the settlers could exploit the Amerindians under their jurisdiction, requiring separate settlements and fair wages of some kind.10 Without Amerindians, the church could not find new converts, the State had no one to rule and the settlers had no source of income,11 so all three groups found humane treatment of Amerindians to their advantage. These continual struggles gave the Amerindians the opportunity to pit the three sides against each other, and Spanish dependence on native peoples and their institutions allowed Amerindians to hold on to their culture.
Thus the Spanish desire to rule people, not land, made Amerindian slavery difficult and finally illegal, opening the door to African slavery. Africans had higher resistance to European diseases because of early livestock domestication on the African continent, they usually had useful “modern” skill sets for agriculture and iron trade, their unfamiliarity with the landscape kept them near or at least moderately dependent on settlements, and, unlike the Amerindians, they had not had rigorous Christianization and the church would not defend them.12 Most importantly, they came from outside Latin America: they did not need to have rights like the original inhabitants of the land did in order to maintain the illusion of an empire. African slavery took a particularly strong foothold in New World areas populated by migratory tribes such as the chichimec. These tribes not have highly controlling social institutions and political institutions such as those of the Incas or Aztecs upon which the conquistadors so rigorously depended, and in many places, the nomadic militant lifestyles of these people groups made them accustomed to fighting and living in impassable areas, rendering them difficult to subdue.13 Hence, in these areas African slavery posed an especially enticing alternative from the point of view of colonialists, and the nations in South America with the highest black proportions of the population today include Brazil and Haiti, whose native populations either did not exist or simply disappeared into the interior. The vacuum for mass labor created by Amerindian rights thus birthed the unique African plantation slavery.
The unique style of plantation slavery in South America in name actively opposed the survival of African culture, but inadvertently forced its survival through two land-related phenomena: the long life of the slave trade, the Catholic tradition of a Sunday. These remain unintentional factors, of course, for certainly no one in Brazil or Haiti wanted an influx of African culture: Latin American masters made a deliberate effort to split up different linguistic and ethnic groups in order to prevent rebellions.14 Yet because European ignorance of African languages and cultures diminished their ability to differentiate between them, cultural dilution did not really succeed: one African leader found and bought back his entire tribe.15 Additionally, no matter how one mixed the tribes, most of the people in one ship would at least come from the same trade network or geographical area, and Thornton argues that within that network ethnic diversity did not play such a dividing role as one might imagine.16 Despite their failure, slavery's intentional agents certainly tried to eliminate or at least limit African culture, if not through relocation and dilution, then through overwork.
Overwork and other elements of brutality resulted from the late abolition of the slave trade in South America, specifically in Brazil. First of all, the longevity of the slave trade in Brazil made brutality more economically feasible; in Brazil plantation owners made the calculations that working slaves to death and shipping in more would cost less than trying to care for and breed them. The life expectancy on sugar plantations remained at 23 years, with 88% mortality on some coffee plantations.17 In North America, on the other hand, once the slave trade became abolished, plantation owners had to ensure slave health remained at least sufficient for breeding. Brutality drives people to extremes; when escape provides more hazards than slavery, slaves tend to remain slaves, but when, as in Brazil, the dangers of escape no longer outweigh the dangers of slavery, flight becomes more feasible. The extra brutality of the slave trade encouraged more aggressive resistance, making slaves more prone to cling to their own culture or even to found new societies based on their own norms.
Furthermore, because the slave trade lasted such a long time Brazillians could predominantly import male slaves.18 Thus the inherent uselessness plantation owners associated with older slaves, children and even women allowed for inflated rates of manumission19 as compared to the North American experience in which masters needed women, the elderly, and especially children to continue the slave line and maintain slave dependency. Additionally, these single male slaves had few ties to the plantation and could more easily flee from slavery or bargain for more land without too much to lose, whereas in North America, family ties would keep slaves dependent on their masters for several generations, diluting their cultural heritage with slave life.
The longevity of the slave trade also accidentally encouraged runaways because of the frequency with which new Africans arrived. Throughout the New World, African-born slaves tended to run away more frequently,20 so in Latin America, where most slaves came from import, instances of runaways remained common enough to promote the establishment of actual runaway communities, something unheard of in the US.21 The threat of running away to a slave or even Amerindian community thus became so significant that slaves even began to have the power to negotiate their treatment.22 This power, also unheard of in North America, contributed to the sense of self-sufficiency that gave Africans a firm grip on their cultural pride.
This essential self-sufficiency also arose in Latin America, especially in Brazil, because the economic calculations made possible by the continuation of the slave trade convinced masters not to provide basic necessities for their laborers. Instead of providing them with food or clothing, masters found it cheaper to provide slaves with a plot of land. This plot of land, and its expansion, often stood at the top of the slaves' lists of demands from their masters,23 and its cultivation allowed slaves to maintain a sense of self-sufficiency. Interestingly, one notes that in modern Venezuela, where during the colonial period owners provided for their slaves' every need, African culture does not play as large a role as it does now in Brazil, where colonial slaves only received that all-important plot of land. As Thornton points out, providing for most or all of the slaves' necessities leaves them “deprived of all sense of self-sufficiency and community feeling.”24 On their land, Africans grew African crops such as rice, and their experience with agriculture caused them to so excel that some local economies actually depended heavily on the surplus sold by African slaves for survival.25 That land helped maintain African culture in three ways, then: it maintained that sense of self-sufficiency that strengthens cultural pride, it gave them a space to practice their African heritage, and it made the local freed people dependent on them, forcing them to at least practically accept the value in an African lifestyle. The same land that in the minds of the original conquistadors had little value compared to the riches produced by Amerindian peoples had infinite value to the Africans, and it became theirs because of the longevity of the slave trade.
Catholic intervention, or the lack thereof, similarly provided Africans with a space to celebrate their culture. While masters rarely brought priests onto the plantation and made little effort to give religious instruction to their slaves, they did not try to halt or limit religious expansion as they did in North America.26 Whereas in North America church organization came under suspicion because of the solidarity it provided, and ultimately reading the Bible became illegal for a slave,27 in Latin America lay brotherhoods dedicated to particular saints merged with new nations that had elections of kings and queens in public.28 Priests would even help to organize these brotherhoods of Africans to ease their transition to Christianity, and the Africans would then worship in their own native languages.29 Language, so crucial to the maintenance of African culture, was not the only cultural artifact to find refuge in the Catholic church. These organizations also presented slaves with the opportunity to practice their material culture in aesthetic expressions such as pottery or decorative textile and to worship with African dances and music.30 In this way the power of the church--and the ingenuity of the African slaves who used it--sheltered African culture.
Catholicism also furthered African culture through the practice of the Sabbath. The church had enough control over Latin American society to prevent anyone from working their slaves on Sunday, and of course the many slaves owned by the church could not work either.31 This Sunday off gave slaves the opportunity to work on their all-important land, and while eking out an existence posed nearly insurmountable difficulty, some Africans even earned enough from their fields to buy their own freedom. The Sunday off also set a precedent for Africans to request additional days off, such as Friday and Saturday.32
While the ultimate responsibility for the longevity of African culture goes to the perseverence of the Africans themselves, these two fundamental attributes of plantation slavery—the longevity of the slave trade and the Catholic intervention—played a heavy role in seeping African culture into Latin America today. However, Amerindians did not only affect Africans by creating the slave-labor-vacuum into which Africans fell. Their struggles to maintain their own cultural heritage sometimes competed with African subsistence, as sometimes Amerindians would enslave Africans or use them as bargaining chips to gain freedoms from conquistadors. On the other hand, sometimes Amerindians directly helped Africans establish their own communities. As mentioned before, Africans could flee to Amerindian communities,33 creating a unique opportunity for cultural blending that surely contributed to the mindset with which modern Latin Americans view their mixed heritage. Thornton describes Amerindian relations with Africans thusly:
“Runaways seeking aid in the native societies did not always find a good reception. Native American attitudes towards helping runaway slaves depended on many factors, including the structures of the Native American societies themselves, their relations with the Europeans, and the goals of their leaders. Sometimes these converged to help runaways; sometimes they contributed to the destruction of runaway communities or to runaways being returned to their masters.”34
European attitudes towards Amerindians, then, were not alone in shaping how African culture would survive in the New World: Amerindian attitudes towards Africans also played a significant role.
Those Amerindian attitudes had some root in the African role in the conquest. A 1539 play pitted African actors, led by a black king and queen, against Amerindian actors representing primitive wildmen. As Matthew Restall explains, certainly this would have reminded Amerindians of African roles in the conquest, and would have fired up African pride at the often over-looked military prowess of real-life dark-skinned conquistadors. Significantly, the play also would have hearkened back to the rebel black king executed in Mexico city only a few years earlier.35 Because many Amerindian groups supported the European conquest against other groups, some Amerindians at least would have seen black rebels as disrupting a desirable status quo. Amerindians viewed Africans sometimes as allies against Europeans and sometimes as conquistadors, but always as foreigners. Amerindians who lived as second-class citizens after the Toledo reforms would most likely have resented zealous black conquistadors such as Juan Valiente just like they resented any other conquistador; his rise to encomendero36 despite enslavement by Europeans would not likely have elicited much sympathy from them. The rare black encomendero would not have been the only bad memory Amerindians had of black conquest: early European expeditions only included dozens of Africans, but later conquests featured entire armies of American-born African soldiers, trained by Europeans to put down Amerindian revolts and to conquer new territories.37 The Amerindians opposing Europeans would never have forgotten the hundreds of Africans bearing down on them alongside sometimes merely dozens of whites. Small wonder, then, that Amerindians did not always view Africans as allies against European infarction.
The African role in the conquest shaped opportunities for later African slaves by helping to create a mixed society in which runaways could hide and creoles could bargain. Because the conquistador mercenary armies made up of unmarried or effectively single men often resulted in sexual alliances, forced or un-forced with Amerindians and slaves, the average Latin American did not look European, but rather mixed African or mixed Amerindian. By contrast, North America became largely settled, with the exception of colonies like Virginia, by migrating families or groups that had little interest in forming such liaisons, resulting in a very different demarcation of race later on in the history of slavery. A person classified as black in North America could in that day easily find herself labelled white in Brazil.38 This does not mean that Brazil had a more benign system of slavery than the US, or less racism; merely that racism became differently defined, because of the conquest, so that an escaped slave or manumitted African could more easily blend into society39 and maintain their cultural practices.
Europeans did not want Amerindian land, but Africans did. The shocking statement still stands, then, not to claim that Africans sailed over to take Amerindian lands, but to explain how Europeans' desire to control Amerindian peoples, not land, caused a slave-labor vacuum that brought African slavery, marked by late abolition of the slave trade and heavy church involvement, into the forefront of Latin American society. African culture survived in large part because of land, which slaves bargained dearly for, and Amerindian interactions sometimes helped and sometimes inhibited the progression of African culture in Latin America, in part influenced by the legacy of African involvement in the conquest. The tendency to focus on European-African or European-Amerindian interactions downplays the important effects Amerindians and Africans had on each other, and in order to understand modern Latin American culture all the variables must lay out on the table. The analysis of Amerindian-African interactions shows how actively both parties shaped modern Latin American culture and demonstrates that involved actors, not passive survivors of European conquest, claim responsibility for history. History, like life, requires more than survival victims; it requires protagonists.
1Stern, Steve J. “Peru's Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest.” (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993), 27
4Thornton, John. “Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 133
8Clendinnen, Inga. “Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 52
14Thornton, 195. Lecture, 11/15/10
35Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 52