Far from monolithic, the seven Central American countries—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—each have unique cultural traditions and historical trajectories. Their different geographies, while not deterministic in any facile manner, influenced their development in ways that continue to shape their national characteristics. The cataclysmic 16th-century Spanish Conquest introduced new peoples and cultural traditions to the region. African slaves, primarily from the sub-Saharan region, accompanied the first Spanish ventures, and, later, as the colonies consolidated and grew, peoples of African descent, both enslaved and free, became a part of the area’s economic and cultural landscape. Starting in the late 18th century, African peoples from the Caribbean—whether forcefully exiled or as a result of searching for economic opportunities—traveled to Central America. Despite a contemporary collective historical amnesia that imagines Africans isolated in specific regions, namely the Caribbean coast, peoples of African descent can be found throughout the Central American nations.
Rather than addressing each country, a thematic approach that focuses on the Spanish Conquest, slavery, emancipation, the ethnogenesis of African connected cultures, the historical erasure of Africans, and the contributions of peoples of African descent helps to understand the complex ways that peoples of African descent have impacted the history of modern Central America. For far from isolated to small populations along the Caribbean, the African presence can be discerned throughout the region, even in places often perceived as entirely devoid of its influence.
Luis Nicolau Parés
Of the estimated 4.9 million African captives disembarked in Brazil, 70 % were shipped from Central Africa, 24 % from West Africa, and the remaining 6 % from the East Coast of the continent. Despite their diverse political and cultural backgrounds, Africans were classified by slavers with a discrete number of generic categories often referred to as “nations.” The enslaved appropriation of such external labels, like Mina and Angola—distinguishing Western and Central Africans respectively—resulted in the formation of new collective identities. The novel ways of colonial belonging and behavior shaped and expressed themselves as distinct forms of Afro-Brazilian culture when organized around social institutions such as Catholic lay brotherhoods or other African-inspired associative dynamics. Religious practice, including music, language, bodily performance, cooking and dress, became a privileged domain for African cultural production, subsequently irradiating into other secular manifestations. The colonial calundu, concerned with healing and oracular functionalities, greatly influenced by the Bantu-speaking people, coexisted and intermingled with the more ecclesiastical West-African traditions of initiatory ritual dedicated to the worship of multiple deities. Despite common elements of celebration, healing and mediumship, Afro-Brazilian religious pluralism was historically marked by an extraordinary eclecticism. Different local interactions with the hegemonic Iberian Catholicism, Amerindian healing practices and French Spiritism, together with the circulation of people and ideas between Africa and Brazil after the end of the Atlantic slave trade, led to a wide range of regional variation. This heterogeneous Afro-Brazilian religious field, prone to continuous discrimination and selective tolerance by the authorities, is stressed by a discursive contrast between the alleged traditional pure African forms and the mixed syncretic Brazilian ones, all claiming their share of legitimacy and ritual efficiency.
The population of African descent in Brazil has always maintained vibrant associative communities, whether in the form of mutual aid societies, confraternities, and religious brotherhoods that existed since the time of slavery or in the form of other voluntary associations that appeared later, such as recreational societies, civic centers, literary guilds, musical groups, carnival blocos, and the black press. For Afro-Brazilians, the associative experience throughout the 20th century contributed to a sense of group belonging and a consciousness of a shared identity and experience of racial discrimination. Furthermore, these relationships enabled Afro-Brazilians to begin claiming rights as citizens, protesting against what afflicted them as a community. These joint efforts fueled collective acts of resistance and self-determination that, while evident for centuries, acquired new meanings and manifestations following the abolition of slavery in 1888. Black associations did not limit themselves to denouncing problems or detecting their causes and consequences. They tried to point out ways to overcome them by proposing several solutions: the moral elevation of Afro-Brazilians, which implied a preoccupation with their image in the various sectors where they acted; improving their educational and instructional level; valorizing their race and, by extension, black identity; and emphasizing the need to react to injustices, and even to act politically. However, the main solution was the union of black Brazilians, a sine qua non for this segment of the population to strengthen and thus be able to claim and gain space in society, improve living conditions, and even overcome persistent challenges. Understanding the history of black associative life in Brazil during the 20th century is necessary in order to grasp the struggles and challenges Afro-Brazilians have faced around common interests, particularly since these collective actions are an integral part of the black experience and, in some respects, overlap with it.
Nicole von Germeten
Free and enslaved Africans played an important role in developing a unique form of participatory Christianity in New Spain’s mining towns, especially Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, and Parral. Afro-Mexicans founded, organized, and led religious organizations, called cofradías, shaping them to their own needs and understandings of the sacred and its connections to social ties, gatherings, and celebrations. The practical goals of cofradías included helping sick members and paying for burials and funerals. Historians observe a kind of Latin American African-influenced Baroque piety in cofradías, with embodied practices concentrating on annual flagellant processions held during Holy Week, and an evolving internal gender dynamic, which suggests assimilative goals, even as cofradías strengthened Afro-Mexican communities.
Manuel Hernández González
The configuration of Canarian migration during the Conquest and colonization of the Spanish Caribbean was significantly influenced by its historic continuity, familial nature (with an elevated presence of women and children), dedication to agriculture, and contribution to the settlement of towns. This migration gave rise to quintessentially rural prototypes, such as the Cuban guajiro, linked to self-sustaining agriculture and tobacco; the Puerto Rican jíbaro, a coffee grower; and the Dominican montero or farmer from Cibao. All of these contributed a great many aspects of their speech, idiosyncrasies, and culture.
The migratory dynamic has evolved since the Conquest and includes such processes as Cuban tobacco colonization, the foundation of townships in Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico (in order to further analyze their adaptation to the economic boom of sugar plantations in Cuba and Puerto Rico), and the uprising of slaves in French Santo Domingo, as well as the cession of the Spanish portion of the island to this country in 1795. This event merits special focus, due to its great transcendence in terms of the signs of identity that emerged during the rebellion of the Canarian vegueros against the monopoly within the Havana context, and the defense of their configuration as a distinct people in San Carlos de Tenerife: processes that explain their response to 19th-century innovations in Cuba and Puerto Rico and to Dominican political avatars, as well as their attitudes toward criollismo and emancipation. Their singularities are reflected in the mass Cuban emigration that took place during the early decades of the 20th century.
Matthias Röhrig Assunção
Capoeira is a martial art that developed from combat games enslaved Africans brought to Brazil. It is systematically documented since the beginning of the 19th century in Rio de Janeiro and later in other port cities. During the 19th century capoeira was increasingly practiced by the poor free people, black and of mixed ancestry, and also by white immigrants. Capoeira gangs controlled their territories against intruders and allied with political parties until the Republican purge of 1890. Capoeira survived best in Bahia, where it remained more associated with other forms of Afro-Brazilian culture and acquired many of its features still extant in present-day capoeira. From the 1930s onward, capoeira masters such as Bimba and Pastinha modernized capoeira, leading to the emergence of the Regional and Angola styles. Bahian capoeiristas migrated to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in search of better opportunities during the 1950–1970s. There they and their students developed what later became known as “Contemporary capoeira” (Capoeira Contemporânea) which is the most practiced style today. Capoeira was and is practiced in various ways: as a friendly game or as a fight, as a combat sport, or as an Afro-Brazilian cultural activity. Since the 1980s, capoeira has undergone a process of globalization and is now practiced in many countries around the world. Capoeira is the only martial art of the African Diaspora that is known and practiced worldwide. Writing on Capoeira has rapidly grown in a number of disciplines, leading to the constitution of its own interdisciplinary field of study.
Carmen Miranda (b. 1909–d. 1955) was a Brazilian singer and actress who made her debut on the radio in the late 1920s and soon became one of the most popular voices in Brazil. She recorded close to 250 singles, many of which were major hits, starred in five films (four with the Cinédia studio and one with Sonofilms), and gave innumerous performances on the most elite stages of Rio de Janeiro, such as the Urca and Copacabana casinos. Her signature look was a stylized version of the typical Bahian woman’s outfit, known as the baiana, complete with an abundance of bracelets and necklaces, platform shoes, and a whimsical turban that served as a base for all kinds of adornments. In 1939, she was invited by the Broadway impresario Lee Shubert to perform in his musical review The Streets of Paris and moved to New York with her band Bando da Lua to bring authentic Brazilian music to North America. A success overnight, Miranda would then be invited to star in her first US film, Down Argentine Way (1940), with 20th Century Fox, and would be cast in thirteen subsequent films. Carmen Miranda’s iconic look was immediately recognizable and became prime material for imitations by both male and female impersonators in theater, film, and cartoon media. Her excessive femininity, imbued with style, exaggeration, and playful deception, and her inclusion in musicals governed by theatricality and artifice, made her a productive site for camp interpretations that have remained in vogue to this day.
The expansion of the Internet and computing technologies has transformed, heuristically, methodologically, and epistemologically, the scholarship on modern Atlantic slavery and the slave trade. An increasing number of primary and secondary sources are now available online. Archives, universities, libraries, research centers, and other institutions have digitized partially or entirely historical collections and archival records and made them public through digital portals in a variety of formats. Users can instantly access, analyze, search, share, transfer, visualize, and interact with a vast amount of historical data on slavery and the slave trade, which, in the late 20th century, was scattered across archives and libraries. The increasing Web presence of digital repositories on Latin American historical slavery and the slave trade is changing previous scholarly perceptions about broader demographic, historical, and social issues, as well as about the everyday life of enslaved Africans. Digital databases on the slave trade, for instance, are answering long-term historiographical concerns regarding the number of captives carried to the Americas, their African embarkation regions, or the nationality of the carriers. Digital repositories and databases help to better understand the African geographical origins of the slaves and their ethnicities, a key component in the formation of the Afro-Latin American culture. Digitized repositories such as baptismal, marriage, and burial archival records and databases on runaway or self-liberated slaves, plantation lists, or court cases are filling gaps in scholars’ understanding of the internal dynamics of the institution of slavery, which characterized most of Latin American history for about three centuries.
Rosemary A. Joyce and Russell N. Sheptak
The Online Finding Aid for the Archivo General de Centro América will provide increased ways for researchers to identify documents of interest in a widely distributed microfilm copy of this primary resource for the history of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Chiapas (Mexico). The original archive, located in Guatemala, houses approximately 147,000 registered document collections from the colonial period, ranging in date from the 16th century to independence from Spain in 1821. The microfilm copy, composed of almost 4,000 reels of microfilm, is organized according to basic keywords designating the original province in colonial Guatemala, a year, and a subject-matter keyword. Also associated in the basic records of the finding aid (which are already available online) are the reference number assigned each document in the original archive, and the specific reel(s) on which it is found. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, enhanced records are being created for documents dating between 1700 and 1821 identified as associated with Guatemala, the administrative heart of the colony, for which there are no published indices. Enhanced records add names of people and places not recorded in the original record, opening up the microfilm collection, and through it, the original archive, to broader social history including studies of the roles of women, indigenous people, and African-descendant people.
Álvaro Pereira do Nascimento
At least four major periods help to understand Brazilian history from pre-contact until modern times: the era of indigenous societies prior to 1500; the Portuguese colonial period (1500–1808); the experience of the Monarchy (1808–1889); and the Republic (1889–2019). Although the expanding and varied repositories offering digital resources do not necessarily cover these four highlighted periods thoroughly, researchers should still know them before navigating through the documents and images such repositories are making freely available to the public.
Historical Brazilian digital holdings can be grouped into nine broad areas: (1) documents produced by national, state, and municipal governments; (2) records relating to specific historical moments; (3) sources for immigrant, indigenous, and African and Afro-Brazilian studies; (4) collections helpful for examining labor, industry, and plantations; (5) sources relevant for sex and gender studies; (6) materials for the history of science; (7) personal and private collections; (8) periodicals (newspapers and magazines); (9) and sources related to artistic, patrimonial, and cultural production. Researchers will find abundant sources about Brazilian society, political changes, the economy, education, commercial relations, wars and revolts, urban reforms, companies, violence, customs, and values, among many other topics and issues. Scholars and students can access interviews, photographs, newspapers, magazines, books, civil and parish records, laws and reports from government institutions, correspondence, music, movies, documentaries, maps, and much more.
The Slavevoyages website completed ten years of successful operation in 2018. Drawing on four decades of archival research on five continents, a revolution in computer-processing costs, and the more recent explosive growth of the worldwide web, the site currently offers public access to several databases on slave trading in the Atlantic World. The two most important of these are first, a database of 36,000 slave-trading voyages between Africa and the New World, and second, a database of 11,400 voyages from one port in the Americas to another—a traffic known as the intra-American slave trade. The time span covered is from the 16th to the late 19th century. The site also offers personal information on 92,000 Africans found on board some of those voyages, which is stored in a separate database, as well as an interface that permits users to explore our estimates of the overall size and direction of the transatlantic slave trade broken down by each of the 340 years of its existence. In other words, the site attempts to allow for voyages for which information has not survived. The site currently averages over 1,000 visitors per day, who consult a mean of eight pages per visit. It was one of the first web-based databases to use crowdsourcing to correct existing information and attract new contributions to its core database. These are currently refreshed on an approximately annual basis and earlier versions are made available to users on a download page. Slavevoyages has become the basic reference tool for anyone studying the transatlantic slave trade, and is used widely by teachers, genealogists, and scientists as well as historians and, more specifically, scholars of slavery and the slave trade.
Pablo F. Gómez
In the early modern Spanish Caribbean, ritual practitioners of African descent were essential providers of health care for Caribbean people of all origins. Arriving from West and West Central Africa, Europe, and other Caribbean and New World locales, black healers were some of the most important shapers of practices related to the human body in the region. They openly performed bodily rituals of African, European, and Native American inspiration. Theirs is not a history uniquely defined by resistance or attempts at cultural survival, but rather by the creation of political and social capital through healing practices. Such a project was only possible through their exploration of and engagement with early modern Caribbean human and natural landscapes.
Between the arrival of Columbus and the last slave voyage to Cuba in the 1860s, over 12 million enslaved Africans were carried and sold in the Americas. Brazil received almost half of all these captives, most of them during the colonial period. An efficient slave-trading system allowed slavery to become a major force in the development of Portuguese America. The institution became pervasive throughout the colony in the three centuries comprising the colonial era, with important differences across time and space. Some of the major exports produced by African slaves in Brazil, such as sugar, tobacco, and gold, had various global impacts. They also stimulated important domestic developments, such as the creation of internal markets and the growth of cities like Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, with African slaves playing essential roles everywhere. Moreover, the history of African slavery became intertwined with the history of native Brazilians in peculiar ways.
Matthew J. Smith
Of the many conditions pronounced that have been strongly featured in the Caribbean experience since the ending of slavery in the 19th century, exile ranks as one of the most profound. Its impact is far-reaching. The circumstances that encourage exile are well known and involve either a willful decision to leave one’s country as a result of political and economic distress or a forced departure sanctioned by the state in an effort to quash internal dissent. There is also the case of political exile of state leaders who fall from grace, a situation associated more with Haiti than with other countries in the Caribbean. Whatever the reasons, exiles and refugees—like other migrants from the Caribbean—brought the Caribbean experience to wider attention. People from the islands surrounded by the Caribbean Sea have since the first days of colonial rule made of that sea a highway for travel to other places, an escape and entry into the wider Atlantic.
The personal impact of exile is manifest in several domains, but most obviously in Caribbean culture. The Rastafari faith in Jamaica has as one of its fundamental beliefs that blacks in the Caribbean are in a state of displacement, taken by force to an oppressive Babylon. The Rastafari desire for repatriation to Africa as necessary to bring to an end centuries of exilic life in the Caribbean is not uncommon, nor is their spiritual and cultural preoccupation with exile. Caribbean writers have consistently written about exile and a yearning to return to an imagined home: Barbadian writer George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile, Martinican Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, Jamaican Thomas MacDermot’s poem “A Song for Exiles” (written under the name Tom Redcam), or Bob Marley’s Exodus document the exile experience from several perspectives. Common to all these examples is a melancholic sense of rootlessness and guilt that exile creates among those who have left. There is also a persistent theme of the Caribbean exile as wanderer, moving in and out of different locations across the Atlantic while searching for both a spiritual and physical home and a rationale for their condition. It is a perceived inability to settle completely in a foreign country that produces this guilt. Bob Marley captured this perfectly in “Running Away,” the most poignant of his songs recorded during his exile from Jamaica in 1977: “You must have done something wrong / Why you can’t find a place where you belong?” which is followed later by the rationalization of the decision to leave—“It is better to live on the house top than in a house full of confusion.”
The longing to return, whether to Africa, Europe, or Haiti, has been a constant theme in Haiti and the Caribbean, and it is linked to the long centuries of slavery. Metaphors of slavery and its associated sense of displacement are replete in the literature on exile not only in the 20th-century writings of Depestre, Dany Lafferière, Danticat, the art of Edouard Duval-Carrié, and the music of the Haitian diaspora, but also in references to the social conditions of the Caribbean’s populations during the period of slavery. If exile has been a persistent theme in Caribbean history, popping in and out of narratives of the nation at various points on a temporal map of the region, in Haiti it has been woven completely into the fabric of Haitian national history. Exile has always carried a powerful resonance in Haitian culture because it has been a pervasive aspect of Haitian political life. Twentieth-century cultural references to exile and displacement are numerous. In the decades since the coming to power of François Duvalier in 1957, which precipitated mass migration from the island, the theme of exile has been consistently and most powerfully articulated by Haitian writers and singers. From Réne Depestre’s famous poem “Exile,” in which he compared the country itself to a departure gate in an airport with people waiting to leave, to Edwidge Danticat’s novels, the theme is ever-present. Rodrigue Milien’s painful song of exile in the Duvalier years, “Nostalgie,” sung in both Creole and English, poignantly captured the loneliness of the Haitian exile: “When someone leaves his country far away and life is mistreating you and you want to kill yourself … take me back to Haiti, take me back to Haiti.”
This article considers the roots of exile in Haiti’s long 19th century, which Haitian scholar Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has suggested began with independence in 1804 and ended with U.S. military occupation in 1915, through the personal experiences and writings of three prominent 19th-century exiles: Joseph Balthazar Inginac (Mémoires, 1843), Edmond Paul (Les causes de nos malheurs, 1882), and Anténor Firmin (Lettres de Saint-Thomas, 1910). None of these men were ever president of Haiti, but they all wielded political and intellectual influence. Common to all three was their forced departure from Haiti for political reasons. They each settled in locations across the Caribbean at different times. Notably, none of these writers settled in North America or Europe. From afar they wrote extensively on Haiti’s predicament and the impact of exile on Haiti and their personal lives. Through a reading of their experiences in exile it is possible to arrive at a fresh perspective of the place of exile in the unfolding of Haiti’s post-independence development.
Fernando Ortiz is recognized today as one of the most influential Latin American authors of the 20th century. Amazingly prolific, his publications written between the 1890s and the mid-1950s engage with a vast array of subjects and disciplines. Perhaps Ortiz’s most significant accomplishments were the creation of the field of Afro-Cuban studies and major early contributions to the emergent field of Afro-diasporic studies. Almost everyone else associated with similar research began their investigations decades after Ortiz and in dialogue with his work. Ortiz was one of the first to seriously examine slave and post-abolition black cultures in Cuba. His studies became central to new and more positive discourses surrounding African-derived expression in the mid-20th century that embraced it as national expression for the first time in Latin America.
This essay considers Ortiz’s academic career and legacy as regards Afro-Cuban musical study beginning in the early 20th century (when his views were quite dated, even racist) and gradual, progressive changes in his attitudes. Ortiz’s work on music and dance have been underrepresented in existing academic literature, despite the fact that most of his late publications focus on such topics and are considered among his most valuable works. His writings on black heritage provide insight into the struggles within New World societies to overcome the racial/evolutionist ideologies that justified colonial subjugation. His scholarship resonates with broader debates throughout the Americas over the meanings of racial pluralism and the legacy of slavery. And his changing views over the years outline the trajectory of modern Western thought as regards Africa and race, specifically the contributions of Afro-diasporic peoples, histories, and cultures to New World societies.
Although the slave trade to Brazil did not end until 1850, and slavery itself lasted until 1888, the practice of freeing slaves had been common from the time of first colonization by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and the children of freed women were born free. The result was that, by the time of a national census in 1872, there were 4.25 million free blacks and mulattos in the country, accounting for over three quarters of all those of African descent and two fifths of Brazil’s total population.
To understand the willingness of Brazilian slave owners to free so many one must first consider the general nature of Brazil’s social structure and the paradigms that ordered it. For most, society was not thought of as being made up of individuals equally protected in their rights and mobile in relationship to one another, but by castes, ranks, corporations, guilds, and brotherhoods, layered one atop another or arranged side by side. Almost everyone could feel superior to someone else, even if inferior to others. The nuanced distinctions of ranks somewhat restrained the threat to social order that free and freed blacks might otherwise have been thought to pose. “Free-and-equal” was not a phrase heard in Brazil.
There is overwhelming evidence that race was an important variable affecting one’s position, and discrimination against blacks was widespread and constant. The government reinforced the prejudices of white Brazilians, acquiesced in maintaining a hierarchy based on color, and presented obstacles to the ambitions of free African Brazilians. Civil service positions were usually denied to them, regardless of their qualifications. Recruitment for the army was focused on the poor, that is, on African Brazilians.
Yet, it is also true that many individuals found their way around those obstacles and rose to positions of some importance, for skin color was just one of the many characteristics to be considered. There are multiple examples of freeborn mulattos (and some freed and freeborn blacks) who succeeded in 19th-century Brazil. Some became doctors, pharmacists, journalists, and teachers. Others entered politics and rose to positions of real power. A few worked energetically to bring about the end of slavery.
On the one hand, Cubans from Havana tend to paint themselves as the quintessential representation of Cubanidad (Cubanness) and often enjoy all the visibility, especially from a global perspective. This trend has become even more pronounced since the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014. On the other hand, eastern Cubans often view their culture and history as absolutely crucial to the development and identity of the nation. The central role of Oriente (eastern Cuba) in both the late 19th-century Wars of Independence and the 1959 Cuban Revolution buttresses this alternative discourse. In terms of Cuba’s musical history, Oriente has contributed in major ways to the development of national genres, particularly with son, but also in terms of the 19th-century social dance contradanza and the Haitian influence in popular and folkloric Cuban music. The most recent contribution has been the introduction of reggaeton into the Cuban context by a Santiago-based rapper.
In this study of the discourse of eastern Cuban musicians, as well as the work of Cuban and foreign scholars, the centrality of regional traditions to the development of national genres is considered. Unlike hegemonic representations of Cuban musical history, these narratives often foreground the links to and influences from other Caribbean islands, particularly Haiti. This discursive emplacement of eastern Cuba at the center of Cuban musical creativity is clearly a reaction to the common marginalization of the region within the national production of knowledge, represented by scholars from the capital and some foreign researchers. Havana-centric perspectives are counterbalanced by foregrounding those of eastern Cuba.
Dario A. Euraque
The relationship between historically specific ideas of race and national identity in Central America between the onset of Spanish colonialism in the region, in about 1500, and the end of the 20th century is very complicated. The relationship is rooted not only in the political economy of the region and subregions that were under Spanish colonialism, but also in Spain’s resistance to incursions of British colonialism in the area, particularly on the North Coast, well into the late 18th century, and in some areas of Central America into the 1850s. The nexus between the political economy of nation-state formation in the postcolonial setting deepened after break of the Federation of Central America in the late 1830s, especially after the rise of coffee and bananas as major regional exports. Independent governments in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica tried to impose “imagined political communities” over these exports that would be different from the colonial identities designed by the Spanish imperialism of the past. In this 20th century context, mestizaje, or ladinizaje, became state sanctioned; it promoted racialized national identities in each of these countries, mostly the idea of ethnicity, albeit with critical regional and subregional differences, particularly between Guatemala and Costa Rica. Historiographies that have been influenced by postmodern sensibilities, particularly critical race theory, the new cultural history, and subaltern studies, have influenced recent understanding of the political economy of race and nationality in Central America.
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.
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.