Black Ranching Frontiers: African Cattle Herders of the Atlantic World, 1500-1900

Black Ranching Frontiers: African Cattle Herders of the Atlantic World, 1500-1900

by Andrew Sluyter

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In this groundbreaking book Andrew Sluyter demonstrates for the first time that Africans played significant creative roles in establishing open-range cattle ranching in the Americas. In so doing, he provides a new way of looking at and studying the history of land, labor, property, and commerce in the Atlantic world.

Sluyter shows that Africans’ ideas and creativity helped to establish a production system so fundamental to the environmental and social relations of the American colonies that the consequences persist to the present. He examines various methods of cattle production, compares these methods to those used in Europe and the Americas, and traces the networks of actors that linked that Atlantic world. The use of archival documents, material culture items, and ecological relationships between landscape elements make this book a methodologically and substantively original contribution to Atlantic, African-American, and agricultural history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300183238
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/30/2012
Series: Yale Agrarian Studies Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Andrew Sluyter is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at Louisiana State University and a fellow at the American Council of Learned Societies (2012–2013). He is the author of Colonialism and Landscape: Postcolonial Theory and Applications, which won the James M. Blaut Award in Recognition of Innovative Scholarship in 2004.

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Black Ranching Frontiers



Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18323-8

Chapter One

Atlantic Networks and Local Frontiers

As a result of these research biases, scholars have been slow to consider the proposition that slaves may have actively shaped landscapes of the Americas not solely by their brawn but also with their brains. —Judith A. Carney and Robert A. Voeks, "Landscape Legacies of the African Diaspora" (2003)

THE ROLE OF AFRICANS in establishing cattle ranching in the Americas has long remained unknown. Until recently the literature on creation of the colonial landscapes of North, Middle, and South America generally emphasized the labors of enslaved blacks over their ideas, both those that survived the Middle Passage and those created in novel environments through innovation and hybridization with those of people of native, European, and mixed origins. In part such an emphasis on the unskilled labor of blacks over their knowledge and creativity derives from reliance on documentary archives created by racially biased whites. And in part it derives from the intellectual biases of the scholars who later interpreted those documents, including various admixtures of the assumptions that all useful knowledge originated in Europe and diffused to its colonies, that slavery so disempowered people that they could not have played active social roles, and that white males dominated in terms of initiative and creativity.

Yet an increasing number of scholars are now employing methodological innovations to demonstrate the active roles blacks played in the emergence of places throughout the Americas. One key to that effort has been the compilation of comprehensive digital databases related to the slave trade. Another has been the expansion of primary sources beyond documents to include landscape vestiges, oral histories, botanical materials, genetics, material culture, and linguistics. In one prominent example, such revisionism has revealed the active role of blacks in establishing landscapes of rice cultivation in colonial South Carolina. That maturing body of scholarship promises fundamental revision of our understanding of the places of the Americas, one that goes well beyond acknowledging the role of blacks in the history of musical genres such as jazz. After all, rice cultivation and other production systems were so fundamental to the environmental and social relations of the colonies that their consequences persist to the present.

That body of scholarship has matured enough to begin to reflect on its own weaknesses, in particular a tendency to trade racism for other types of categorical reasoning such as cultural and environmental determinism. Cultural determinism prevails when research emphasizes quanta of knowledge diffused whole across the Atlantic to the exclusion of the creation of new knowledge in the Americas. Louis Hartz's simplification thesis is one influential example. With a logic that parallels the biological concept of the founder effect, Hartz emphasized selective migration of European social elements, a feudal fragment dominating the colonization of Latin America and a liberal bourgeois one the later colonization of North America. Those founders thereby established exaggerated versions of their respective portions of more complex European societies, a simplification of Europe in its colonies. In 1941, in the seminal Myth of the Negro Past, Melville J. Herskovits similarly argued for the significance of the diffusion of specific African ideas and practices across the Atlantic.

In contrast, environmental determinism prevails when research virtually ignores the possibility of European and African antecedents to focus instead on the novel social and environmental relations of the Americas, as in Frederick Jackson Turner's use of the frontier qua frontier as an explanatory category. Turner's frontier thesis has much in common with the biological concept of adaptation, emphasizing the transformation of European social structure through accommodation to the relatively low cost of land and high cost of labor along the North American frontier, conditions that supposedly proved inimical to feudal relations and transformed colonial society into a democracy of independent farmers. Using a similar logic, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price published the influential Birth of African-American Culture (1976), concluding that innovations in ethnically diverse Caribbean slave societies produced a Creole culture largely bereft of particular African ideas or practices. The fundamental opposition between the Herskovits and creolization schools shaped much subsequent research on the role of Africans in forming society in the colonial and postcolonial Americas.

One response to those categorical tendencies has been to reconceptualize the Atlantic from a dead space of separation into a living space of flows. Doing so shifts the emphasis from static categories to dynamic processes. As categories such as Africa, Europe, the Americas, Africans, Europeans, native peoples, Creoles, environment, culture, and so on all dissolve into decentered networks of heterogeneous actors, their actions become the focus of research. The goal becomes understanding how such actors mobilized African, European, and American knowledge and materials along dynamic networks that intersected in particular places and times to create novel social and environmental relations through hybridization and innovation. The uniquely American places that emerged in turn reconfigured the networks to introduce additional actors, ideas, and materials into those places, in an ongoing process of transformation through variable degrees of hybridization and innovation.

The theoretical imperative to get back to the actors themselves poses a practical challenge, however, because the documentary sources elide most of the actions of, among others, enslaved blacks. For any given research project that challenge can either encourage retreat into categorical reasoning or stimulate methodological innovation that pushes diverse but complementary primary sources to reveal as much as possible about the actors. One priority involves reconstruction of the biographies of actors who mobilized ideas and materials along diverse networks. Yet at the same time, because those ideas and materials intersected in places where particular landscapes, languages, material cultures, and practices emerged, researchers must enter the networks through the archives, secondary literatures, and other characteristics of those places. Doing so requires the sort of place-based expertise that can yield methodological innovations that reveal the long-obfuscated actors involved in a given network: for example, the recent use of probate inventories to reconstruct the precise origins of West African slaves on rice plantations in the Brazilian Amazon and the use of historical linguistics to reconstruct the precolonial emergence of diverse West African agricultural ecologies and their entry into colonial Atlantic networks.

This book takes such an Atlantic actor–network approach to contribute to the collective effort to understand more thoroughly the processes that connected places in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. More specifically, it uses diverse but complementary primary sources to contribute to a better understanding of the roles of blacks in the networks through which open-range cattle ranching emerged in several places in the Americas: New Spain, Louisiana, Barbuda, the Pampas of South America, and the salt-beef trade that connected the Pampas to Cuba. Those case studies provide an initial sample by which to assess the method and the role of blacks.

A large body of scholarship has established the general process through which open-range cattle ranching frontiers emerged and proliferated in the Americas. By the time the Norse first transported cattle across the Atlantic to Greenland in the tenth century, Europeans, Africans, and Asians had for many millennia been raising domesticated members of the genus Bos, mainly breeds of the humped zebu in the tropics and the humpless taurine in temperate latitudes. The Norse never expanded south of northern latitudes, had entirely abandoned their American colonies by the fifteenth century, and therefore never had a hemispheric impact. The next introduction, however, on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1493, resulted in broad and lasting consequences for all of the Americas.

The cattle from the Canary Islands that Christopher Columbus disembarked on Hispaniola during his second voyage multiplied as rapidly as the population of the native people declined, the herds expanding across an open range of tropical savanna and moribund agricultural fields. The natives of the Canary Islands, the Guanches, had brought goats, pigs, and possibly sheep with them from Africa when they settled the archipelago but did not have cattle when the Spaniards began to colonize the Canaries in the early fifteenth century. The Spaniards introduced cattle from Europe and through raids for slaves and livestock along the nearby mainland coast of Africa. By 1493 large numbers of cattle of mixed European and African ancestry grazed on some of the Canaries, and Columbus transported a small herd of them to Hispaniola. Over the next five centuries their offspring, together with subsequent introductions from Europe and Africa, went on to graze other ranching frontiers throughout the Americas.

Along with the cattle came grasses. Many millennia of association between livestock and grasses in Africa, Asia, and Europe ensured a greater symbiosis than that between the cattle and the grasses of the Americas. The non-American grasses were not only more palatable and nutritious, but the cattle preferentially propagated them, favoring them when grazing, carrying their seeds inland from the coast, and fertilizing them with manure. That situation especially prevailed in the tropics, which lacked any large grazer such as the bison of the Great Plains of North America. African grasses such as Guinea and Pará thereby became established from Mexico to Brazil as seeds included with dried stalks used for bedding on slave ships or fodder for livestock shipments established beachheads near ports. In the subtropics, Bermuda grass, which had originated in the belt of savanna that stretches across Africa from Senegambia to the headwaters of the Nile River, reached Bermuda by way of the Canary Islands in the seventeenth century and became prominent from South Carolina to Texas over the eighteenth century. As herders recognized the productivity of the introduced grasses and encouraged their growth through planting and, in some cases, annual burning, they spread from one ranching frontier to the next.

Each of those frontiers differed in particular ways, but they shared the general characteristics of open-range cattle ranching. All shared an emphasis on raising large herds of cattle for beef, hides, and tallow to the virtual exclusion of raising crops. All privileged ownership of cattle over ownership of land. All had an open range, sometimes common property and sometimes not but in either case not divided by fences. Other livestock such as sheep and pigs may also have occurred, but cattle dominated. Brands and earmarks, distinctive patterns of slits or notches cut out of the ears, rather than fences served to distinguish ownership of the mobile property. As the herds wandered the open range for much of the year without much contact with people, controlled breeding, or castration, they became wild and grew imposing horns to protect themselves against predators and herders alike. At roundup time, the cowboys, vaqueros, vaqueiros, and vachères rode horses to chase down and manage those feral cattle.

Such frontiers proliferated through the nineteenth century before a major retreat in the twentieth due to the expansion of cropland, from sugar plantations along the Gulf Coast of Mexico to wheat farms on the Great Plains and Pampas. Figure 1.1 maps the frontiers through time, although the scale obscures small areas of ranching such as narrow Andean valleys and small Caribbean islands. The centennial temporal resolution similarly obscures many details, such as the elimination of open-range cattle ranching from the central highlands of New Spain over the 1550s. Moreover, the map excludes areas of open-range cattle herding not directly relevant to this book, for example, eastern Africa and the Hungarian Plain. The map also excludes the ranching frontiers of the nineteenth century associated with the culmination of genocidal wars against native peoples and a boom in the demand for beef and leather. Mapping of those late frontiers would fill in much of the Great Plains and other areas of western North America as well as a large portion of southern and interior South America. Relative to the Americas, the extent of cattle herding in Europe and Africa remained relatively stable for the period mapped; although, again, the map scale obscures many detailed changes that did occur, for example, the expansion of sheep range at the expense of cattle in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain.

One of the most prominent areas on the map stretches across Africa and has been a major center of open-range cattle herding for millennia. It approximately coincides with the sub-Saharan steppes that span Africa from the Indian Ocean to Senegambia, where the Senegal and the Gambia Rivers flow into the Atlantic. To the south, the tsetse fly spreads nagana in cattle; like sleeping sickness in people, nagana invades the nervous system and results in lethargy and death. To the north, the Sahara lacks the water, pasture, and fodder to support large herds of cattle. The Tuareg and other Berber groups who occupy the Sahara raise mixed herds in which sheep, goats, and camels predominate over cattle. A series of relatively more humid and extensive grasslands occur along the Atlantic coast of the Sahara and support larger numbers of cattle but also in mixed herds in which sheep and goats are dominant. Some of the cattle that stocked the Canary Islands in the fifteenth century seem to have derived from Spanish raids on those humid enclaves, such as the Sous Valley.

In sixteenth-century Senegambia, the Wolof, Serer, Mandingo, Mende, Bamana, and other groups grew sorghum, millet, and rice in conjunction with raising cattle. When the rainy season began in May or June and the crops began to germinate, those groups sent their herds northward with the Fulani, who specialized in cattle herding, to graze the open range of the Sahel as far north as the fringes of the Sahara. As the rains ended in September or October and the Sahel again turned from green to brown, the Fulani returned southward to the river valleys of Senegambia to trade cattle products for grains and graze the herds on the stubble of the harvested crops, manuring those fields in the process. In return for caring for the cattle of their neighbors during the cropping season, the Fulani kept a proportion of the increase in the herds.

Accounts by Europeans over the sixteenth century through the eighteenth describe that herding ecology. Many of the observers simply noted the abundance of cattle and the trade in hides and beef. But a few of them detailed aspects of the herding ecology. One of these was André Alvares de Almada, who provided an early, vivid account based on his experience in Senegambia from the 1560s through the early 1590s: "These Fulani enter throughout the coastal land of the Wolof, Serer, and Mandingos with their livestock and cattle. In the winter they approach the coast and in the spring slowly return again to the hinterland, leading their cattle along the pools of water and ponds that formed during the winter. Many of these herders travel along these two beautiful rivers, the Senegal River and the River of Cantor (that is, the Gambia River), pasturing their stock along them." As the slave trade intensified, demand for beef and other provisions impacted Senegambia's political ecology, including the herding ecology, but its general characteristics nonetheless persisted. The herds of cattle continued to move northward with the Fulani during the summer rainy season and return to the coastal valleys in the winter to graze on crop stubble, as observed by Francis Moore along the Gambia River in 1730: "The sides of the river are for the most part flat and woody, for about a quarter of a mile inland, in some places not so much, and within that are pleasant open grounds, which they use for their rice, and in the dry season it serves the cattle for pasture."


Excerpted from Black Ranching Frontiers by ANDREW SLUYTER Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Atlantic Networks and Local Frontiers....................1
2 New Spain....................19
3 Louisiana....................61
4 Barbuda....................98
5 The Pampas....................140
6 The Tasajo Trail....................169
7 Legacy and Promise....................211
List of Abbreviations....................221

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