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Rediscovering the Aztecs and Mayas: Field Exploration, Archaeological Exhibits, and National Museums
Kevin M. Gosner
In the last decades of the 18th century, with the visit in 1784 of José Antonio Calderón to the Maya ruins at Palenque and the discovery in 1790 of the statue of Coatlicue and the Stone of the Sun in the central plaza of Mexico City, the study of ancient Mexico entered a new era. In the century that followed, teams of field surveyors, mapmakers, graphic artists, and artifact collectors worked across central and southern Mexico as well as in Guatemala. Some were commissioned by the Spanish Crown or later by national governments; many arrived from England, France, Germany, and eventually the United States. Early on they worked side by side with geologists, geographers, and field biologists as part of natural history expeditions, accumulating collections of artifacts that would be displayed in curiosity cabinets and early museums alongside trays of colorful butterflies and stuffed tropical birds. And then, as foreign travel books won popular audiences in Europe and the United States, and as international investors arrived in Mexico and Central America, archaeology also was taken up by enthusiastic amateurs looking to sell books, build private collections, or organize international trade fairs.
For serious students of ancient history, field exploration and advances in archaeological record-keeping transformed a body of research and scientific speculation that since the 16th century had been dominated by theologians, historians, and philologists, who studied Spanish chronicles and native language annals but paid scant attention to the remnants of material culture. In the process, Aztecs and Maya were rediscovered as historical subjects, their histories disconnected from that of contemporary Indian peasants and recast as rivals to the great civilizations of the Old World. Ruins of monumental architecture, recovered artifacts in sculptured stone or finely crafted metals, and ancient texts inscribed on wooden lintels and bark cloth were reclaimed as part of national patrimonies to be protected by new state agencies and displayed in modern museums. On January 20, 1911, the International School for American Archaeology and Ethnology formally opened in Mexico City, and this formative period in the archaeological study of ancient peoples ended. Manuel Gamio introduced the study of stratigraphy to fieldwork practices in Mexico and the discipline was transformed once again.
Daniela Zappi, Rafaela Campostrini Forzza, and E. Nic Lughadha
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Brazilian flora, the richest in the world, has long been the subject of scholarly study. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, plant samples collected in Brazil were sent to European herbaria, where botanists documented the little-known flora and its potential uses. From the twentieth century onward, Brazil created research centers to house its biological collections, facilitating study by Brazilian professionals of their native biodiversity. However, many early specimens deposited in European collections have yet to be examined by taxonomists.
In the early twenty-first century, cost-effective digitization techniques enabled large-scale repatriation of herbarium data. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported herbaria worldwide to digitize their collections, especially type-specimens, through the African, Latin American, and Global Plants Initiatives.
A party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Brazil responds to global challenges, such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), which set sixteen targets for understanding and conserving plant diversity. In 2008, Brazil’s Environment Ministry tasked the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden (JBRJ) to coordinate a compilation of the Brazilian List of Plants, Algae, and Fungi (Brazilian List) by 2010, to meet GSPC Target 1. JBRJ tapped the expertise of more than 500 Brazilian and foreign taxonomists to develop and maintain a dynamic list that rapidly became the reference for Brazil's flora.
In 2011, Brazil’s Science and Technology Ministry, recognizing the need to link knowledge from digitized plant specimens and the Brazilian List, funded the amalgamation of the Brazilian List with a new Virtual Herbarium dubbed “REFLORA.” Founded as a partnership among JBRJ, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris), and the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew, UK), REFLORA includes two components: (1) digitization of herbarium specimens and maintenance and update of the Brazilian List, and (2) capacity-building, including visits by Brazilian researchers to European collections to improve specimen identification and foster baseline research that directly impacts plant conservation.
Both the Brazilian List and the Virtual Herbarium are interactive platforms incorporating feedback from scientists involved in the project. Changes to these databases appear immediately, making current taxonomic views regarding a specimen or a plant name available online worldwide. Their success has stimulated Brazilian zoologists to prepare a similar list, while the botanical community is already responding to GSPC’s 2020 target to build a digital World Flora. The Brazilian Flora project will be founded on the platforms and scientific community created by the Brazilian List.
Paul Vanderwood and Robert Weis
By revealing the weaknesses of its political system and the fragmentation of its social fabric, Mexico’s devastating loss to the United States in 1848 forced a reexamination of the nation’s very foundation. It also emboldened leaders to redouble efforts to either refashion Mexico into a modern, democratic republic or strengthen colonial-era institutions that had ensured unity and stability despite cultural and regional heterogeneity.
Those who hoped to modernize Mexico were the liberals. Their ideas regarding the depth and pace of change varied considerably. But they coalesced around broad principles—democracy, secularism, and capitalism—that, they insisted, would help Mexico overcome the vestiges of colonialism. In pursuit of equality under the law, liberals proposed to dismantle legal privileges for nobles, ecclesiastics, and the military. In order to stimulate the economy, they wanted to force corporate entities, especially the church, to sell their lands to individual owners. Finally, liberals sought to establish the primacy of the state by granting civil leaders authority over the church.
Conservatives countered that the liberal program and its exotic ideas constituted an attack on Mexico’s Hispanic Catholic legacy and would only further weaken the nation. It was a chimera, if not demagoguery, to declare the equality of citizens in a society where the masses were illiterate, isolated hamlets who barely spoke Spanish, and residents in the far-flung regions regarded national rule with deep suspicion. Conservatives feared that the liberal program would foster more of the peasant revolts, threats of regional succession, and racial antagonism that had roiled the nation since independence. They wanted to conserve the pillars of order—the military and the Catholic Church—reinstate monarchism, and curtail political participation. Liberals and conservatives vociferously debated these divergent visions in the public forum. But ultimately their differences plunged the country into civil war.
Peoples and biotas of the Andes and Amazonia have been interacting for millennia, influencing each other through complex dynamics of biological, social, and cultural adaptations. The 16th-century Spanish invasion introduced radical technological, ideological, and political changes that altered fundamentally the forms of ecological and social coexistence that had been in place for thousands of years. Indigenous peoples of the two areas as well as the new “mestizo” communities have resisted the more than five centuries of colonial and postcolonial occupation of these lands, structuring organized responses to protect their communities and their lands.
The role of religion shifted dramatically in Central American politics during the 20th century, as the Catholic Church moved from a position as conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights. The century also witnessed the rise, then the “boom,” of Protestant—specifically Pentecostal—religion. By the century’s end, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions of Latin America, with every country except Costa Rica and Belize measuring a large and rising evangélico minority. These changes unfolded alongside, and deeply affected, one of the most traumatic and violent periods in the region’s history, the so-called Central American crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became the battlegrounds for one of the last large proxy wars of the larger Cold War, between Marxist insurgencies and authoritarian governments.
Jennifer L. Jenkins
The visual and technical culture of the Mexican Revolution shaped and was shaped by cinematic innovation in newsreel and fiction filmmaking, which evolved simultaneously with those social changes, presenting the image of those changes for the first time to Mexican audiences. While Russian Sergei Eisenstein has been (wrongly) credited with inventing Mexican cinema, a strong tradition of family-based production units existed long before Eisenstein’s visit and persists to this day. From the earliest newsreels of the conflict to the melodramas and historical epics of the epoca de oro, the Revolution infused cinematic narrative in the first half of the 20th century. As such, distinctive visual tropes and film language evolved in response and counterdistinction to Revolutionary ideals. Moving toward midcentury, cinema developed genres and narratives that continually revisioned the Revolution, creating the epoca de oro films. In this period, the film industry developed in direct correlation to the agendas of the sitting presidents, Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–1946), and Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946–1952). Influential directors Fernándo de Fuentes, Emilio Fernández, and Spanish immigrant Luis Buñuel, along with cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, shaped the charter myths of modern Mexico though their cinematic works. At midcentury, with the advent of television and a postwar economic boom, Revolution-themed films appeared in near-continuous playback on television, while Buñuel inaugurated a cinema of realism that explored the harsher realities of the failure of Revolutionary ideals for the urban underclasses. The cultural imaginary that is cinema continued this exploration up to and after the tragedies of 1968.
Joseph U. Lenti
For seventy-five years the Mexican government allocated private and public land to people who needed it—and lots of it. An average of 1.3 million hectares were redistributed annually from 1917 to 1992, for a total of nearly 1 million square kilometers, or, almost exactly half of the nation’s arable area. On the other hand, serious flaws in government policy, coupled with macroeconomic, demographic, and environmental phenomena, undermined the program and turned its signature component, the ejido, into a synonym for rural backwardness and poverty. Thus, in spite of the astonishing volume of redistributed land, many assert that revolutionary land reform in Mexico failed: that it did not permanently improve the lives of rural land recipients as much as convert them into clients of the government.
Kevan Antonio Aguilar
The political and cultural legacy of Ricardo Flores Magón (b. San Antonio Eloxochitlán, September 16, 1873; d. U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas, November 21, 1922,) has become an integral component of the histories of the Mexican Revolution, Mexicans and Chicanos in the United States, and global social revolutions. Despite being deemed by historians and the Mexican state as a “precursor” of the national revolution, Flores Magón’s political activities preceded and surpassed the accepted chronology of the Revolution (1910–1920), as well as the borders of Mexico. While historical literature on the Revolution is extensive, the global and radical implications of the event as a social revolution are often underappreciated.
Through the Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM, Mexican Liberal Party) and the newspaper Regeneración (Regeneration), Flores Magón mobilized a transnational social movement in 1906 and continued to inspire popular revolt through his writings on anarchism and revolution until his death in 1922. Many of the members of the PLM (often inaccurately referred to as ideological adherents to Flores Magón, or magonistas) continued to participate in revolutionary activity well after the organization disbanded. Even in death, Flores Magón continues to inspire revolutionary movements in Mexico, the United States, Latin America, and Europe. The history of Ricardo Flores Magón therefore intersects with various local and global histories of resistance throughout the 20th century.
Timothy Wilson and Mara Favoretto
In the 20th century Argentina experienced a series of dictatorial regimes of varying intensity, but the last dictatorship stands apart. The Process of National Reorganization or Proceso (1976–1983) was not only the most brutally repressive, “disappearing” 30,000 of its own citizens into concentration camps, but also the most ambitious in terms of ideological mission. Its campaign, officially called “the war against subversion,” was committed to the total eradication of leftist ideas from the political landscape of the country by any means necessary. This radical transformation was to be brought about not only in the torture chamber, but in the media as well. The regime planned an Orwellian redefinition of words: the systematic creation of a national vocabulary that would exclude certain ideas and parties. In order to achieve its overt project of the appropriation of language, the junta maintained obsessive control over the media, instituted strict censorship reinforced by terror, and bombarded the airwaves and newspapers with official communiqués. In the face of this repression, most journalists and writers and many artists could not express dissent of any kind. Yet singers of a new Argentine music genre that came to be known as rock nacional developed codified and oblique metaphorical expression in their lyrics that allowed them to evade censorship and to continue to criticize the military regime with relative impunity. Moreover, many Argentine youths found solace in the music and used it to create communities in which they could meet and express themselves. The regime had sought to deny young Argentines a forum for public speech; however, together artists and listeners created a rock nacional culture that provided community for the isolated and lent a voice to the silenced.
Communities of runaway slaves, more commonly known as “Maroon communities,” were created throughout the Americas. Enslaved people ran away from their owners all the time, often just for a few days, but some decided never to return to slavery and instead found permanent (or semi-permanent) refuge from the harsh life on the plantations in swamps, jungles, forests, and mountains. Sometimes in very small groups of less than ten people, but more usually in much larger numbers, maroon communities attempted to live independently, free from white interference. White responses to maroon communities varied over time and included military assaults and peace treaties.
When the anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff proposed a new definition of Mesoamerica in a landmark study from 1943, the first common characteristics he identified were technological and agricultural: the use of the digging-stick (coa) and “the construction of gardens by reclaiming land from lakes (chinampas).” For thousands of years, Native peoples across Mesoamerica drew on their technological innovations to devise bountiful kinds of farming that have been as diverse as the environments in which they were created. All of their farming systems required some degree of intervention in nature, be it through domesticating plants, tilling the soil, or altering the physical environment by making terraces and harnessing water supplies. On an essential level, then, technology and agriculture went hand in hand. Of the many kinds of Mesoamerican farming, the one that arguably modified the environment the most was a distinctive kind of wetland agriculture in which Nahuas—or Aztecs, the speakers of the Nahuatl language—constructed raised garden beds, known as chinampas, in the shallow, freshwater lakes of the Basin of Mexico.
At the heart of this zone of wetland agriculture was the ancient city of Xochimilco. There the raised gardens filled the surrounding lake of the same name, and eventually came to cover a vast area of some 120 square kilometers. The construction and the intensive cultivation of the chinampas required a considerable investment of time and effort, a good deal of technical expertise, and the mastery of specialist skills and knowledge, including hydrology and engineering so as to manage water levels in the lakes through complex irrigation works. The intensive farming of the fertile, well-irrigated gardens, which could be cultivated year round, yielded sizable harvests of maize and other crops. So productive was chinampa agriculture that scholars have considered it one of the most abundant kinds of farming ever devised. As a technological innovation and environmental adaptation, the chinampas were crucial to changes in Mexican history: they generated surpluses sufficient for urbanization and the rise of Tenochtitlan, one of the early modern world’s great cities, as well as the expansion of the Aztec Empire. The chinampas remained important for the provisioning of the capital long after the Spanish conquest, and in spite of the desiccation of the Basin of Mexico, they are still cultivated in a few places today.
Luis R. Corteguera
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Inquisition in New Spain tried individuals for a broad range of sacrilegious acts against religious objects, including spitting, trampling, stabbing, and breaking them to pieces. Men and women also desecrated images through verbal insults, irreverent gestures, and even sexual acts. In most of these cases, the term sacrilege does not adequately reflect the often-complex motivations behind such actions. The Protestant iconoclastic violence of the 16th century unleashed on Catholic sacred images has made us think of acts of sacrilege as primarily directed at denying the power of images and their ability to represent divinity. Yet even seemingly obvious cases of iconoclasm in New Spain challenge this assumption. In many and possibly most cases, such actions betrayed the longing of men and women for spiritual closeness with divinity. The anger, desperation, and desolation sacrilegists sometimes expressed were not always unlike the ardent emotions that sacred images could elicit from devout Catholics. At other times, men and women sought to appropriate the power of sacred images and relics for reasons that challenge an easy distinction between religious and superstitious intentions. Taken together, cases of sacrilege, blasphemy, desecration, irreverence, profanation, and superstition can therefore reveal the variety and creativity of authorized and unauthorized religious practices in colonial Spanish America.
Steven S. Volk
Salvador Allende Gossens (1908–1973), democratically elected President of Chile in 1970, pledged to move Chile to socialism within a constitutional framework. A medical doctor by training, and a long-time member of the Socialist Party, Allende won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies in 1937 and the Senate in 1945. He campaigned for the presidency four times (1952, 1958, 1964, and 1970), always at the head of a coalition of left-wing parties. He was deeply committed to improving the condition of the country’s poor, workers, peasants, and women, insuring Chilean ownership of its natural resources, strengthening state ownership of the economy, and deepening popular democracy and worker control of industry. His program was undermined by the conservative opposition, conflicts within his own governing coalition, spontaneous revolutionary activism, and the unrelenting antagonism of the Nixon Administration. He died in a military coup on September 11, 1973, which initiated a 17-year long military dictatorship.
Antonio López de Santa Anna (b. Xalapa, February 21, 1794; d. Mexico City, June 21, 1876) was one of the most notorious military caudillos of 19th-century Mexico. He was involved in just about every major event of the early national period and served as president on six different occasions (1833–1835, 1839, 1841–1843, 1843–1844, 1846–1847, and 1853–1855). U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary Waddy Thompson during the 1840s would come to the conclusion that: “No history of his country for that period can be written without constant mention of his name.”1 For much of the 1820s to 1850s he proved immensely popular; the public celebrated him as “Liberator of Veracruz,” the “Founder of the Republic,” and the “Hero of Tampico” who repulsed a Spanish attempt to reconquer Mexico in 1829. Even though he lost his leg defending Veracruz from a French incursion in 1838, many still regarded him as the only general who would be able to save Mexico from the U.S. intervention of 1846–1848. However, Mexicans, eventually, would remember him more for his defeats than his victories. Having won the battle of the Alamo, he lost the battle of San Jacinto which resulted in Texas becoming independent from Mexico in 1836. Although he recovered from this setback, many subsequently blamed him for Mexico’s traumatic defeat in the U.S.-Mexican War, which ended with Mexico ceding half of its territory to the United States. His corruption paired with the fact that he aligned himself with competing factions at different junctures contributed to the accusation that he was an unprincipled opportunist. Moreover, because he authorized the sale of La Mesilla Valley to the United States (in present-day southern Arizona) in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, he was labeled a vendepatrias (“fatherland-seller”). The repressive dictatorship he led donning the title of “His Serene Highness” in 1853–1855, also gave way to him being presented thereafter as a bloodthirsty tyrant, even though his previous terms in office were not dictatorial. Albeit feted as a national hero during much of his lifetime, historians have since depicted Santa Anna as a cynical turncoat, a ruthless dictator, and the traitor who lost the U.S.-Mexican War on purpose. However, recent scholarship has led to a significant revision of this interpretation. The aim of this article is to recast our understanding of Santa Anna and his legacy bearing in mind the latest findings. In the process it demonstrates how important it is to engage with the complexities of the multilayered regional and national contexts of the time in order to understand the politics of Independent Mexico.
The Scandinavian countries established overseas settlements in Africa and the Americas, starting in the 17th century. In Africa, trading stations were initially established with the consent of local rulers. The Danish trading stations on the Gold Coast developed in time into a more formal colony. In the Americas, Scandinavian settlements were of various natures, including the short-lived settlement colony of New Sweden and slavery-based plantation societies in the Caribbean. The Caribbean colonies would bear resemblance to many other Caribbean plantation economies of the time. The Scandinavian countries also participated in the transatlantic slave trade: while these countries might have been responsible for a quite small share of the total transatlantic slave trade, the trade was large compared to the size of the domestic population in these countries. The formal abolition of the slave trade, and later of slavery, in the Scandinavian colonies made the colonial possessions unimportant or even burdens for the Scandinavian states, so that the colonies eventually were sold to other European nations.
The Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929), also known as La Cristiada, was a conflict between the Catholic Church and the Mexican government. The Catholics, especially from western states, rose up in arms against the anticlerical and pro-agrarian measures of President Plutarco Elías Calles’s government (1924–1928). General Joaquín Amaro, Minister of War, was charged with fighting the Cristeros in various regions of Mexico. Certain army generals, unable to conquer the Cristeros on the battlefields, triumphed when negotiating the road to peace with certain priests and Cristero leaders. In the higher echelons, two bishops, Pascual Díaz y Barreto and Leopoldo Ruiz y Flores, arranged, with President Emilio Portes Gil (1928–1930), an end to the conflict. The known “arrangements” between church and state were agreed upon, officially, on June 22, 1929. Once the conflict was formally over, General Amaro planned for the writing of an authorized version of the Cristero uprising. For this, he created the Historical Commission within the Ministry of War. The commission, according to Amaro’s orders, would produce, beginning with military documents, its own version of what had happened during the war. The soldiers turned “historians” would present their interpretation to their colleagues as well as to future generations. In spite of this, in the end the version that was disseminated was that of the former Cristeros. General Amaro failed a second time upon trying to pacify newer generations.
Coralia Gutiérrez Álvarez
Severo Martínez Peláez is the most important figure in the founding of contemporary Guatemalan historiography. His work, in particular La patria del criollo (The Homeland of the Criollo), has been viewed by historians as a starting point for advancing the reconstruction of Central American history. Additionally, his work continues to have a broad readership, who consider it a factor in understanding the present. His contributions are essential to the understanding of the colonial period in Latin America, including debates that inspired his theses concerning the character of society in that period and his historical views on indigenous peoples. Like other thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s, his focus was primarily on economic and social history, in particular class struggles. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the intellectual, political, social, and even personal conditions relevant at the time he was writing in order to thoroughly understand and appreciate his work.
Kelly E. Hayes
Belief in the power of feitiçaria or black magic has both endured and continually changed over time in Brazil. However, black magic is a peculiar and protean thing. Rather than defining a specific set of ideas, practices, and objects, or a systematic body of knowledge, black magic is better understood as a type of discourse the social function of which is to stigmatize its referent as maleficent, immoral, or evil. Because of its negative connotations, black magic typically is a discourse of accusation rather than self-affirmation: People accuse others of practicing black magic rather than describing their own practices this way. Nevertheless, the dangerous potential attributed to black magic means that some people openly claim it as a source of power in certain circumstances.
Focusing on the various intersections of black magic and sexuality in Brazilian history reveals aspects of social life and categories of persons that elite authorities, in the effort to civilize and reform Brazil, identified as problematic. Because these shifted over time, different constellations of black magic and sexuality emerge as especially salient in different historical periods. In the colonial period (1549–1822), women’s love magic troubled ecclesiastical authorities as the Catholic Church struggled to establish its patriarchal vision of social and moral order over an unruly colony. Under the empire (1822–1889), black magic was associated particularly with the threat of black sorcerers whose perceived promiscuity and primitivity threatened the civilized society that elites envisioned. During the first Republican period (1889–1930), public officials used black magic as a catchall designation for a broad range of popular spiritual practices deemed illicit by the state in its struggle against social degeneracy and other ills.
The first few decades of the 20th century saw the consolidation of the Afro-Brazilian spirit entities Exu and Pombagira as distinctive apotheoses of black magic and sexuality in the Brazilian cultural imagination. Forged in the conjuncture of African and European traditions, these controversial yet extremely popular entities are said to work with both the “right hand” and the “left hand” and are called upon in situations marked by moral ambiguity. Their prominence in Candomblé and Umbanda is one reason that evangelical Protestant churches like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) consider Afro-Brazilian religions to be instruments of the devil and target Afro-Brazilian religious practitioners, objects, and spaces in their campaigns of spiritual warfare. More recently, discourse about black magic among evangelical Christians has centered on the violence and sexual immorality associated with the drug trade that has flourished in many Brazilian cities.
As a moral discourse that defines the licit by identifying the illicit, black magic is used in situations marked by struggles for social legitimacy and the access to resources and influence that such legitimacy enables. The protean nature of black magic means that it is endlessly adaptable to different social realities, from the struggles of Portuguese colonists in a new land to the urban violence associated with contemporary drug trafficking. And because questions of power are deeply embedded within the term, accusations of black magic seem to burgeon precisely in moments of social transformation when the status quo is in flux, centers of influence are being formed, and new patterns of social division or alignment are being established.
Sheep Sovereignties: The Colonization of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego, 1830s–1910s
From the moment the expedition of Magellan gave Patagonia its name, it became a land where European fantasies and fears dwelled. A no man’s land inhabited by giant anthropophagites located at the antipodes of civilization, this steppe swept by icy winds was not transformed into a colonial setting until the 19th century. The territory then became the object of an ongoing territorial dispute between the new states of Argentina and Chile, whose efforts to establish sovereignty as landowners languished until the late 1870s. Nomadic indigenous sovereignties had faced slow Western expansion on the continent; here, they were swiftly replaced by sheep. On the continent, the Tehuelche were displaced; on the island of Tierra del Fuego, the Selknam faced extermination. Sheep sovereignty, fully integrated into imperial networks, was the driving force behind local state building. Just as the British pastoral colonization of the Falkland Islands conditioned any possibility of permanent presence in the South Atlantic, the sheep industry, arriving swiftly in the shape of capital, persons, and animals, allowed for the Argentinization and Chileanization of what was once the frontier of civilization. In this sense, the occupation of the Falklands/Malvinas, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego may be considered successive colonial processes that form part of the same frontier drive as the Empire in capital.
Richard Lee Turits
In the past, scholars of Latin America often assumed that Spanish colonists abandoned the Caribbean for the bullion riches of Mexico and Peru almost immediately after their conquest, while many Caribbeanists have imagined that Barbados, colonized by the British in the mid-1600s, was the “first black slave society.” Yet, in fact, more than a century earlier in the colony of Santo Domingo (then officially known as la Isla Española or simply la Española), European colonists built the first major American plantation economy and society made up mostly of enslaved people. Those held in chains on the island reached into the tens of thousands by the mid-1500s, and Santo Domingo became a pivotal crossroads in the early modern Atlantic. At first the enslaved population included thousands of people the Spanish called “Indians,” taken from other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas, and even an occasional enslaved person of European (Orthodox Christian or Muslim) descent. But after the mid-1500s slavery in Santo Domingo became isolated to people of African descent. This contrasted with the preexisting demography of slavery in southern Europe, where the enslaved were of more diverse geographic origins. Santo Domingo thus initiated a trajectory of racial and plantation slavery whose contours would shape the course of history in the Americas overall. Santo Domingo’s slave-based economy would also, though, be the first to collapse, at the end of the 16th century, partly because of sustained resistance by the enslaved—their continual escape and rebellion—that was costly for planters. The enslaved had composed most of society in the prior century. Now the majority were escaped and, to a lesser extent, freed slaves, living with substantial autonomy as independent peasants dispersed across the countryside. These themes are illuminated through an exploration of one of the earliest freedom suits in the Americas. This suit was won on appeal in Santo Domingo in 1531 through remarkable transatlantic collaboration by family members and sailors as well as through the evident power of notarized documents in the Spanish Empire.