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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Color and race are important references for assessing the privileges and barriers that sustained or impeded the social ascension of New Christians, Africans, Indians, and mestiços in the Portuguese world. Questions of race and color had profound links with the Catholic faith and with social exclusion, especially of Afro-descendants. The ideas of race and racism are not static, but were forged over time. Initially, they were strongly influenced by Catholicism and later were incorporated into the scientific knowledge of the 18th and 19th centuries. Therefore, the terms “race” and “racism,” based on 19th-century biological determinism, are not suitable for discussing social relations in the 17th and 18th centuries.