Slaves, Subjects and Subversives: Blacks in Colonial Latin America
The editors of this volume introduce the works to be discussed below by steering their own editorial work apart from the typical offerings in this field. In many respects, the editors are seeking to move away from the “white-guilt” morality play of the normal slave story and explore the variations and distinctions of African slavery in the New World. It is in the discussion of this diversity and a surprising element of ethnic affinity and social philosophy that makes this volume worth reading.
It is relatively unique in that it deals with not merely the “whites-own-blacks” cliche’s of the typical literature, but it deals instead with the societies thee slave communities developed and the constant interaction between the many free Africans and their enslaved co-racialists. It is a complex picture. There were substantial distinctions between blacks with a strong ethnic affiliation and creoles, there were substantial distinctions between Catholic and Islamic blacks, as well as distinctions in class status that mirrored any society.
One of these societies, though a free society, were that of the maroons, a fascinating study in corporate identity that filled the Spanish (and later, the British) with fear. There was substantial inculturation of the different communities into Spanish society and many fit in quite well in a society that viewed the world not in terms of race, but in terms of one’s place in the social pyramid. The primary element that one takes from this series of papers is that concept that race was not important.
The social pyramid was, and was accepted as normative. Hence, there was no need for dehumanization as there existed in the American South. In a society that is based on the acceptance of equality (in a moral sense) such as the US needed to dehumanize slaves in that they rejected the social pyramid. All were theoretically equal. But in a society that had institutionalized class status: dehumanization was not necessary, merely another rung on the social ladder was created.
Hence, the slavery that existed within the context of a hierarchical Catholic society made up of autonomous orders is better for slavery than one that needs to somehow justify the institution of chattel slavery in a system that accepts basic moral equality of rights. This insight is not mentioned anywhere in this book, and that is a shame, since it is the real and true conclusion to the work as a whole: a society made up of orders sees itself as creating a chain of being, with the truth being defined as approximating God, without matter, without determination.
Each order had a place on this pyramid (or chain), and the slave communities of catholic owners had their own order, with its rights and duties (like everyone else). Here, slavery did not need to become the horrid institution it became in the American south, the slave was just a part of another order. There was no race, or an order based on race, it was one’s place in the chain that mattered. This is the true subtext of this work, and it underlies all the papers and unifies them Chapter 2: “Boiling it Down: Slavery on the First Commercial Sugarcane Ingenios in the Americas (Hispaniola, 1530-45).
Lynne Guitar. The real purpose of this essay is to set the stage: to deal with a few general ideas concerning Spanish economic interests in the early years of the colonization of the new world. It has one major issue: the existence of African slavery as an oppressive institution in that there was a great deal of commercial competition for the highly labor intensive sugar trade (42). The Spanish found that the soil of Hispaniola was perfect for the growing of sugar, and it quickly became a major producer in the new world. Several things developed.
First, there was an immediate difference between Catholic and Islamic slaves, and the first slave revolts (specifically, in 1521) were led by Muslims, who were alienated from the Spanish order both by status and religion, not to mention that these slaves were viewed as part of the Islamic occupation of Spain that had just ended in 1492, at least formally. Hence, there was no love lost between the former colony, Spain, and the colonizers, the Muslims. Hence, the Spanish had no real interest in defending that specific order of slaves (50).
The Spanish were making substantial profits on the sugar trade, and hence, given the labor intensity of working the sugar fields, slavery was a profitable economic investment. There was always a demand for Africans over the native Indians given that the latter were physically and immunologically weaker (45). The author here goes to some lengths to describe the Africans as not dehumanized (51) as was mentioned in this discussion already. They had duties and certain rights as well. Heretics, of course, were another matter.
The result of the slave revolts were a series of laws passed by the Spanish authorities regulating the use of slave labor. Such things as sleep, Sunday rest and other issues were legislated under some papal pressure (51ff). The papacy did not want slaves harmed, he wanted them converted. This also spills over to later essays where Jesuit owned slaves were treated well (comparatively) and it was really the secular owners who were the problem. But that will be dealt with at a later time. Chapter 4: “Cimarron and Citizen.
Jane Landers This essay is one of the more interesting in the volume. It deals primary with the development of real, free African republics made up of runaway slaves throughout the Carribean Islands and elsewhere. Today, they are known as making up an inbred and isolationist minority on the island of Jamaica, bu their origins are well worth studying. The development of slave revolts was a constant threat to Hispanic slave ownership in the new world. But revolt was expressed in numerous ways, one of which was the simple runaway.
The reality is that enough runaways succeeded in escaping their owners that they were able to band together and form small, free republics, usually in the mountains where they were basically inaccessible. They forged their own culture and political philosophy (130). Even more interesting, these maroons also used Spanish medieval (corporatist) law to maintain their own freedom. These Maroons, as shown in the example of their writings at the appendix of this chapter), that they were literate and capable of creating powerful arguments using the rhetoric and legal bases of the day.
Even more, it was not financially or military possible or beneficial to destroy such communities, and as a result, they acted as a constant beacon of freedom from Spanish slavery (121-3). Comparatively speaking, they are very similar to the Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks, largely made up of runaway serfs that created their own republican institutions in the inaccessible southern regions of the Don and Denipr rivers. In both cases, the runaways created their own religious, military and legal structure, and dealing with them became both dangerous and useful, depending on the tack used in approaching them.
But both Cossacks and Maroons used the customary law of the medieval corporation to understand themselves and defend their existence to the wider world. Both the Russian and Spanish crowns did little more than accept the existence of these organizations and even attempt to use them on occasion. These were entities that existed form the medieval mindset of autonomous corporations that pre-dated the rise of the state, that sought to subject all things to itself. Chapter 5: “Manuel’s Worlds. ” Matthew Restall Manuel here refers to the name of a slave from the Congo, initially enslaved in the Yucatan, which was not a major slave area.
In fact, only a handful of African slaves lives in this largely Mayan region, and the average number of slaves owned by the Spanish citizens were about 2 or 3 (154). The significance of this paper is that the travels of Manuel are detailed, bringing him through several regions of the new world, bringing him in contact with many elements colonial society and the Spanish empire. This itself is significant for this volume in that there is much talk about the social vision and political philosophy of the Africans both free and slave, and yet, little in how this vision is developed.
This paper on Manuel and his travels is significant in that it provides some background on the possibilities of travel for a slave. Manuel is move (and moves) from place to pace given new owners and new opportunities, and reflects both the possibilities and the realities of competition in the sugar and other industries. The reality of the new world was cutthroat competition which means several things. First, it provides two incentives. The first is to treat slaves well so they can work. Sick or tired slaves will force their owners to fall behind the competition.
At the same time, second, the incentive is to squeeze as much labor as possible out of the slaves one has in order to produce and sell more. There is a sense that Manuel’s travels reflect this, and ad more moral ambiguity to the nature fo slavery in this area and other areas of the new world. In addition, secondly, this paper provides a closer view of slavery as an institution. In that it follows the travels of one person. One can get a glimpse of the realities of slavery and the topography (so to speak) of the region and its economy.
While most of the other essays take a bird’s eye of institutions and economic interest, this one is personal and biographical. Hence, from the point of view fo the levels of analysis, we have gone from the systemic to the communal to now, the individual. This book would have been remiss had it not included a narrative sort of approach where slavery and the new world itself can be understood from the individual and biographical point of view. Chapter 6: “Slave Protest and Politics in the Late Colonial New Granada. Renee Soulodre la France.
Very much like the Landers essay above, this essay deals with yet another facet of the social ideas of the slave culture and society. This remains the most interesting part of the volume and provides it with a unique status in the vast literature in this field. As was mentioned in the introduction, the idea of the medieval and Catholic idea of autonomous orders is the only context in which this paper can be understood. It is a shame, and one fo the few faults in this work, that a more detailed study of medieval social thought is not included.
It is necessary to place the nature of this volume in its historical context. We read of slave communities writing sophisticated works of social theory in the form of appeals to the Spanish authority, yet no background is provided on the nature of corporations in the medieval sense of the world. Yet this sense is all important to understanding this important element of the volume as a whole. Nevertheless, this essay deals with the development of the communal consciousness specific to New Granadian African communities.
Such “nations” were encouraged in the Jesuit estates, estates of slave plantations where the slaves rules themselves, developed their own interests and were generally well treated by their clerical overlords (177). It was when these estates went over to secular lords did things change. What is utterly fascinating about this history is that development a powerful corporate identity among blacks. They wrote well, and spoke of the need to protect liberty and fraternity among children of God (176).
The conclusion should be evident: rebellion was a reaction to the (attempted) destruction of the corporate rights of slave communities. Since a slave community had a place in the chain of being, they had rights as well as duties. They governed themselves and provided necessary services. In this respect, “slavery” is no different from early medieval serfdom. Nevertheless, they were willing to accept their lot so long as their rights and corporate identity lay undisturbed (176). Chapter 7: “The Defects of Being a Black Creole” Matt Childs This work derives its center of gravity from the previous.
While the previous work dealt with autonomous communities on the medieval model, this work deals with the formation of “nations” with the slave and free African communities of the new world, Cuba more specifically. As a matter of course, this volume shows that in many respects, the slave organizations were basically autonomous (but not free in the libertarian sense) and a sense of corporate identity developed. But this development also affected the free blacks, of which there were many. This piece details the existence of “nations,” or another facet of the development of a communal consciousness among the blacks of Cuba.
The scope of this essay is between 1790 to 1820, so of comparatively recent vintage. The “nation” idea developed among Africans of all status groups to assist in the development of a corporate idea. The “nation” derives largely from linguistic background, but there are examples of an almost random connection of former Africans transplanted to Cuba, so the word “nation” must always be in quotes. The fact is that the authorities countenanced the development of “nations” so as to facilitate both self government and an ethnic consciousness.
These “nations” were fully developed societies: they had banks (for manumission) and theaters, funeral homes and clubs of all kinds. These were service oriented entities that developed to such an extent that the term “slavery”cannot be used to describe entities so autonomous. However, the title of the article is telling: those of mixed background were often left out, since the “nations” usually concerned themselves with native Africans (racially speaking). Here, the Africans tribes (roughly speaking) were left to work out their own problems and define their own identity.
It should be stressed that the later freedom given to the Africans was based at least in part on the development of this identity. Unfortunately it was not to last in the world of freedom. This paper is just the beginning. The forms of self-government among the Africans need to be studied further first, as a means of stressing the humane treatment of slaves under Spanish control, but more importantly, to suggest new ways of living and self-identification so important to a black population in America that is too often dictated to by media and music, rather than from their own history and tradition.
Conclusion: Though this book has no conclusion, several things can be drawn from the above pieces. First, the importance of hierarchy as institutionalized in the treatment of African slaves. Class meant everything, race nothing. This is a strong argument for the justice of the medieval cause against modernity. It is central to this book and the stark differences between Spanish and Southern, Anglo-Saxon Protestant slavery.
Secondly, it shows a level fo sophistication in social thought among slave communities (or maybe just slave elites) that deserves more attention. Third, it shows the existence of a communal orientation among slaves that is now lost among black politicians throughout the new world, one that should be revived. And lastly, it paints a picture of a multiform, highly diverse society in the new world over two centuries. For this reason alone it should be read.
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