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Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place

Blacks and Blackness in Central America: Between Race and Place

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Many of The Earliest Africans to arrive in the Americas came to Central America with Spanish colonists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and people of African descent constituted the majority of nonindigenous populations in the region long thereafter. Yet in the development of national identities and historical consciousness, Central American nations have often countenanced widespread practices of social, political, and regional exclusion of blacks. The postcolonial development of mestizo or mixed-race ideologies of national identity have systematically downplayed African ancestry and social and political involvement in favor of Spanish and Indian heritages and contributions. In addition, a powerful sense of place and belonging has led many peoples of African descent in Central America to identify themselves as something other than African American, reinforcing the tendency of local and foreign scholars to see Central America as peripheral to the African diaspora in the Americas. The essays in this collection begin to recover the forgotten and downplayed histories of blacks in Central America, demonstrating the centrality of African Americans to the region's history from the earliest colonial times to the present. They reveal how modern nationalist attempts to define mixed-race majorities as "Indo-Hispanic," or as anything but African American, clash with the historical record of the first region of the Americas in which African Americans not only gained the right to vote but repeatedly held high office, including the presidency, following independence from Spain in 1821.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822348030
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/18/2010
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lowell Gudmundson is Professor of Latin American Studies and History at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Costa Rica Before Coffee: Economy and Society on the Eve of the Export Boom, a co-author of Liberalism Before Liberal Reform, and a co-editor of Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America.

Justin Wolfe is the William Arceneaux Associate Professor of Latin American History at Tulane University. He is the author of The Everyday Nation-State: Community and Ethnicity in Nineteenth-Century Nicaragua.

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Between Race and Place


Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8223-4803-0

Chapter One


ANGOLANS IN AMATITLÁN Sugar, African Migrants, and Gente Ladina in Colonial Guatemala Paul Lokken

In early 1613 an official of the Audiencia of Guatemala inspected a "cargo" of ninety-seven men and boys and thirty-nine women and girls aboard the ship that had transported them from Angola to the decade-old Caribbean port of Santo Tomás de Castilla. These 136 West Central Africans were among tens of thousands brought against their will to Spain's American empire in the early seventeenth century, when forced African migration to mainland areas of colonial Spanish America peaked. The colonial heartlands of Peru and New Spain absorbed the majority of these unwilling immigrants, but mining and agriculture in northern South America and Central America also drew them in by the thousands. The Angolans and others who ended up in the territory of the present-day republic of Guatemala played a more important role than is often realized in the early development of the nonindigenous sector of the population that is now defined as ladino. Their role was nowhere more crucial than in the region surrounding Lake Amatitlán, just south of present-day Guatemala City and home in the midcolonial era to several large sugar plantations employing hundreds of enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants.

These properties were investigated several times between 1670 and 1680 by royal officials charged with ferreting out abuses of indigenous laborers distributed to plantation owners by means of the labor draft known as the repartimiento. In conducting their investigations the officials recorded head counts of the enslaved workers of African descent who, long designated by legal and other considerations as the preferred labor force in sugar production and similarly arduous tasks, resided permanently on each plantation. Several scholars have published these numbers, but the precise antecedents of the enslaved individuals they represent, and the ties of those individuals to the rest of seventeenth-century Guatemalan society, have remained largely unexplored. This essay examines those antecedents, mostly West Central African, and demonstrates that the impact of forced African migration to the Amatitlán region extended well beyond the plantations themselves. Indeed by the late seventeenth century free people of part-African ancestry appear to have dominated demographically the rapidly expanding sector of the surrounding population whose members were classified neither as indio tributario (tribute-paying Indian) nor as español (Spaniard). In other words, around Lake Amatitlán many gente ladina (ladino people)-a classification just beginning to be used, although not consistently, in a sense akin to the modern one-were but a generation or two removed from Angola.

The location of Africans and their descendants at the center of the Amatitlán region's early demographic and social history has important implications for analyses of the interrelated histories in Guatemala of the term ladino and the people defined by it. On the one hand, the evidence presented here directly challenges the notion that modern ladinos are exclusively of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent, that ladino and mestizo are synonyms. This lazy "racial" claim continues to appear in authoritative and widely read sources, most strikingly right alongside a common and opposing scholarly definition of the term as a designation of a person or group as nonindigenous based on language or other aspects of cultural practice, not ancestry. At the same time, neither the latter definition nor the "Indian-ladino dichotomy" it conjures up has been a timeless feature of the Guatemalan social landscape. If the initial outlines of both can be glimpsed in the history of the African experience in seventeenth-century Amatitlán, so can competing definitions of the term, as well as a more complex set of colonial social relations.

The ultimate significance of this history for the Guatemalan national imaginary is left to the judgment of students of the postindependence era, some of whom have begun to attend closely to rather than ignore the fact that many nineteenth-century ladinos were better known as mulatos. The focus here is on evidence of the impact of Africans on colonial Guatemalan society and of colonial Guatemalan society on Africans. Early seventeenth-century plantation records reveal the extent of the Amatitlán region's integration into the wider networks of the contemporary Atlantic slave trade precisely at a time of unprecedented West Central African migration to Spanish America. Matrimonial and other records produced later in the century hint at the demographic, social, and classificatory processes by which the descendants of African migrants began to acquire an emerging Guatemalan identity that would eventually carry few, if any, connotations of African origins.


Writing in the 1640s of his experiences a decade earlier as a priest in the villages of San Juan Amatitlán and San Miguel Petapa, the Englishman and renegade Dominican friar Thomas Gage recalled a nearby sugar plantation thus: "[It] seemeth to be a little Town by it selfe for the many cottages and thatched houses of Blackmore slaves which belong unto it, who may be above a hundred, men, women, and children." The property to which he referred was formally named Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación but more commonly called the Ingenio de Anís after its founder, Juan González Donis, who had begun producing sugar there during the late sixteenth century. By the time it passed to González Donis's heirs in 1621 the property was the site of "a mighty sugar mill and cane fields where a great deal of sugar [was] made." Gage actually underestimated the size of the ingenio's workforce a decade later, despite his reputation for exaggerating the riches of Central America as a goad to an English invasion. An inventory drawn up in 1630 indicates that 191 slaves of both sexes and all ages then resided on the plantation.

Gage's stay in Guatemala between 1627 and 1637 coincided with the final years of the era during which forced African migration to the Spanish American mainland peaked. Nearly 270,000 Africans are estimated to have arrived there between 1595 and 1640, when Portuguese merchants held the Spanish slave-trading monopoly known as the asiento and otherwise enjoyed unprecedented access to Spain's American colonies as a result of a sixty-year union between the Spanish and Portuguese crowns (1580-1640). The Portuguese were at the same time both implicated in and benefiting from a series of wars in Angola, where they had established themselves at Luanda in 1575. As a consequence West Central Africa became the most important source of slaves for Spanish America in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth. Most of these slaves passed through Veracruz and Cartagena, the two ports designated by the Spanish crown for the receipt of slave imports, but at least ten ships brought more than a thousand Africans directly to the coast of Central America between 1613 and 1628 alone. Most, if not all, of these ships proceeded from West Central Africa.

Inventories from Guatemalan sugar plantations bear out at the local level the sense of a notable spike in African immigration in the early seventeenth century. The emergence of major operations like the Anís ingenio led to higher demand for imported African labor in and around the capital of the Audiencia, Santiago de Guatemala (now the town of Antigua), where the traffic in slaves had been relatively light for much of the sixteenth century. Up until the 1590s most Africans arriving in Central America appear to have ended up in the silver mining areas of Honduras and Nicaragua, but as silver production began to decline an increasing number went instead to the sugar-producing region near Santiago, where royal decrees banning the use of the diminishing indigenous labor force in sugar work and similarly "onerous" activities threatened economic expansion. Documentation of a recent influx of Africans into the region appears in the inventory of the Anís ingenio in 1630. Of 137 slaves identified as being at least eighteen years of age, as many as two-thirds were African-born. The key position of West Central Africa in the contemporary Atlantic slave trade is evident in the designation of no fewer than forty-eight of the plantation's residents as angola and another sixteen as either anchico or congo. Meanwhile the plantation's skewed sex ratio reproduced an especially notorious characteristic of the transatlantic trade in humans. Some three-quarters of the enslaved immigrants were men, while the property's total enslaved population was 128 men and boys and just 63 women and girls.

Similar demographic circumstances were to be found on other sugar plantations for which roughly contemporary information is available. When Gonzalo de Peralta died in 1625 the inventory of a trapiche he owned near Petapa named twenty-three slaves: fourteen men and boys and nine women and girls. Eleven of the sixteen adults listed were identified as migrants, all of them West Central African in origin. Four men and three women were defined as angola, and three men and one woman as congo. More than a decade earlier the prominent Santiago merchant Francisco de Mesa employed twenty-eight slaves, including eighteen who were African-born, on a trapiche named Santa Cruz, located south of Santiago along the Guacalate River near the community of Escuintla. Ten West Central Africans represented the majority of the newcomers in this labor force, and there were also seven individuals identified by diverse Senegambian origins as well as one Pedro "Mazanbique." Remarkably just three of the twenty-eight slaves listed were female.

Other large sugar operations in early seventeenth-century Guatemala probably shared the demographic conditions evident on these properties. Along with the Anís ingenio, the "three Farmes of Sugar" Thomas Gage saw in the Amatitlán area during the 1630s included the ingenio of Esteban de Zavaleta, formerly the Peralta operation and now employing some sixty slaves, and a nearby trapiche belonging to the Augustinian order, home to another twenty slaves. Gage also reported that a new trapiche was under construction in the area when he left, on property owned by one Juan Bautista between San Juan and San Cristóbal Amatitlán (today Palín). North in the Verapaz meanwhile the Dominican order had been developing a large ingenio called San Gerónimo near Salamá since the late sixteenth century. The terms of an obligation placed on the property in 1633 reveal that more than a hundred slaves "of different nations" were then toiling on it. By the late colonial era it would be the largest sugar-producing enterprise by far in all of Central America, employing hundreds of slaves.

Sugar was hardly the only regional employer of slave labor. The capital, with a total population estimated at more than thirty-three thousand by the 1650s, may have been home to more enslaved people of African origins in the early seventeenth century than all of the ingenios and trapiches combined. Others worked in small groups in rural household labor and on wheat farms, indigo plantations, and cattle ranches, mostly in territory east of Santiago and south along the Pacific coast but also, if more unexpectedly, in the vicinity of major Maya population centers like Quezaltenango in the western highlands. But sugar production was the only local economic activity that regularly concentrated large numbers of Africans and their descendants in dense residential settings. As a result the impact of African immigration may have been especially profound in the plantation zone.

Initially that impact was felt on the plantations themselves. As Gage's comments reveal, these seemed to be self-contained "villages," and they may well have been close-knit communities at a time of heightened immigration, when large numbers of newly arrived Africans had yet to develop any social networks outside the narrow bounds of the properties on which they worked. The forging of new relationships on the properties themselves was no doubt assisted by the mutual intelligibility of West Central African languages like Kimbundu and Kikongo, as well as the experience many migrants already had replacing ties of real or fictive kinship that in many cases had been disrupted several times since their initial enslavement. The inventories cited earlier reveal that immigrants indeed tended to be involved in family relationships internal to the workforce of the property on which they resided, at least where possible. But there was a major and obvious barrier to the formation of heterosexual family units, a rare area of mutual interest for most slaves and their owners: the demographic imbalance between women and men. The impact of this barrier was felt in varying degrees on the Mesa, Peralta, and Anís properties.

On the Mesa trapiche the one enslaved woman who was clearly identified as an African immigrant, María Angola, was noted to be the wife of Pedro Mazanbique. A recount in 1620 of the property's labor force reveals that they had a child, Juana, not long after the first inventory was made. The second woman in the trapiche's slave population in 1612 was the "esclava negra" Isabel, identified as the wife of Antón García, also labeled simply a "black slave." Isabel and Antón may or may not have been immigrants, as they were among the few slaves on the property who were identified neither by a specific African origin nor as criollos (American-born slaves). The only other woman listed, Agustina, was identified as both "mulata" and "criolla." She perhaps stood apart socially from the other slaves, since she was not linked in the inventory to any of the property's male residents. It may be significant in this regard that only two were classified, like her, as being of mixed ancestry.

Clearly the Mesa trapiche provided few opportunities for the men of its enslaved labor force to form families with their female counterparts. As a consequence at least five of those men developed relationships with women who were neither enslaved nor, with one exception, African in origin. The wives of the two slaves listed in the inventory as skilled workers-Gregorio, the sugar master, and the cartwright Juan Grande-were identified as "Indian," in this area perhaps Pipil. Two other enslaved men, including one immigrant, Antón Angola, also had native spouses. Another Angolan, Pablo, was alone in having found a free partner of African origins, Inés, identified as a free black woman. Pablo and Inés made for a rare couple in rural Guatemala, where free women of exclusively African ancestry seem to have been even scarcer than female African immigrants.

The inventory of the Peralta trapiche offers a rather different picture from the one that emerges from the Mesa property's records, owing to a more balanced sex ratio among its enslaved workers. Fully nineteen of the twenty-three slaves named in the inventory were associated with one of six conjugal units said to exist among those workers, including two families with a total of seven children between them. One of these families involved Mateo Congo and Agustina Conga, both said to be about forty, and their four children, who ranged in age from three to roughly eighteen years. The other was composed of Margarita, Antón Angola, and three children of indeterminate age.

The apparently successful establishment by these two couples of cohesive and relatively large family units must be balanced against the ever-present threat of involuntary family breakup. The seriousness of that threat is evident in the fact that Justino, the oldest of Mateo's and Agustina's four children, no longer lived with his family in 1625, but instead had been working in the capital for three years for a new owner, the bishop of Guatemala. Legal maneuvering upon the death of an owner could destabilize families as well. By the time the Peralta inventory was drawn up the deceased's widow had removed Margarita and her three children to Santiago, perhaps to ensure the protection of her dowry, while Antón remained behind on the trapiche. Margarita and Antón seem to have had difficulty exploiting the famed protections slave marriage enjoyed under Spanish slave law, even if other slaves were more successful in this respect. That same year, the decision of Pedro Angola and Lucía Negra to marry following the death of their owner, don Alonso Alvarez de Villamil, forced the executors of Alvarez's will to sell them together with their five children at a price far lower than their sales as individuals would have garnered.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction Lowell Gudmundson Justin Wolfe 1

Part I Colonial Worlds of Slavery & Freedom

Angolans In Amatitlán: Sugar, African Migrants, and Gente Ladina in Colonial Guatemala Paul Lokken 27

Cacao and Slavery in Matina, Costa Rica, 165O-175O Russell Lohse 57

Race and Place in Colonial Mosquitia, 160O-1787 Karl H. Offen 92

Slavery and Social Differentiation: Slave Wages in Omoa Rina Cáceres Gómez 130

Becoming Free, Becoming Ladino: Slave Emancipation and Mestizaje in Colonial Guatemala Catherine Komisaruk 150

Part II Nation Building & Reinscribing Race

"The Cruel Whip": Race and Place in Nineteenth-Century Nicaragua Justin Wolfe 177

What Difference Did Color Make": Blacks in the "White Towns" of Western Nicaragua in the 1880s Lowell Gudmundson 209

Race and The Space of Citizenship: The Mosquito Coast and the Place of Blackness and Indigeneity in Nicaragua Juliet Hooker 246

Eventually Alien: The Multigenerational Saga of British West Indians in Central America, 1870-1940 Lara Putnam 278

White Zones: American Enclave Communities of Central America Ronald Harpelle 307

The Slow Ascent of The Marginalized

Afro-Descendants in Costa Rica and Nicaragua Mauricio Meléndez Obando 334

Bibliography 353

Contributors 385

Index 389

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