Brazil was the last Western country to abolish slavery, which it did in 1888. As a colonial institution, slavery was present in all regions and in almost all free and freed strata of the population. Emancipation only became an issue in the political sphere when it was raised by the imperial government in the second half of the decade of the 1860s, after the defeat of the Confederacy in the US Civil War and during the war against Paraguay. In 1871, new legislation, despite the initial opposition from slave owners and their political representatives, set up a process of gradual emancipation. By the end of the century, slavery would have disappeared, or would have become residual, without major disruptions to the economy or the land property regime.
By the end of the 1870s, however, popular opposition to slavery, demanding its immediate abolition without any kind of compensation to former slave owners, grew in parliament and as a mass movement. Abolitionist organizations spread across the country during the first half of the 1880s. Stimulated by the direct actions of some of these abolitionist organizations, resistance to slavery intensified and became increasingly a struggle against slavery itself and not only for individual or collective freedom. Incapable of controlling the situation, the imperial government finally passed a law in parliament granting immediate and unconditional abolition on May 13, 1888.
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.
Set within a larger analysis of class relations in the Haitian Revolution, this is a microhistory that intersects with several important themes in the revolution: rumor, atrocity, the arming of slaves, race relations, and the origins and wealth of the free colored population. It is an empirical investigation of an obscure rebellion by free men of color in the Grande Anse region in 1791. Although the rebellion is obscure, it is associated with an atrocity story that has long resonated in discussion of the revolution. Formerly the least-known segment of Caribbean society, research has shed much new light on free people of color in recent decades, but much remains to be clarified. In certain ways, they are the key to understanding the Haitian Revolution, because of their anomalous position in Saint Domingue society and the way their activism precipitated its unraveling. The Grande Anse region had a unique experience of the revolution in that white supremacy and slavery were maintained there longer than in any other part of the colony. Based primarily on unexploited or little-known sources the article demonstrates the range and depth of research that remains possible and suggests that a regional focus is best way to advance current scholarship on the Haitian Revolution.
Yolanda Blasco-Martel and Jose Miguel Sanjuan Marroquin
Barcelona is an ancient Mediterranean Catalan city. It was inhabited by the Iberians, the Romans, and the Muslims, who turned it into an important port city. In the 10th century it became the capital of an independent county. It merged with the Crown of Aragon two centuries later and thus began a process of intensive commercial expansion that has characterized the city’s history of over the intervening centuries.
The merchants from Barcelona were actively involved in trade with America in the 18th century, as were those from some other cities from the Kingdom of Spain. The last decades of that century saw the beginning of a process of population and commercial exchange that continued to develop through the 19th century. This process helped Barcelona become the first city on the Iberian Peninsula to industrialize. It is during this period that we observe the emergence of the indianos—individuals born on the peninsula who went to do business in America. Many indianos returned to the peninsula after the loss of the Spanish Continental Empire, others moved to Cuba and Puerto Rico, the last Spanish colonies in the Antilles. Around these individuals, commerce and business of all kinds were developed, giving Barcelona the appearance of an open and cosmopolitan city that it has maintained ever since.
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.
Rafael de Bivar Marquese
The coffee economy was decisive for the construction of independent Brazil. By the middle of the 19th century, the country was responsible for about half of the coffee global supply; in 1900, that number had increased to about three-quarters of the world’s production. In the Brazilian monarchical period (1822–1889) the center of the activity was located in the valley of the Paraiba do Sul river. Brazilian coffee production from its very beginnings demonstrated an inherent spatial mobility and a great demand for workers. Before 1850, labor supply was guaranteed by the transatlantic slave trade; after that, by an internal slave trade. The two basic characteristics of the coffee economy created during the era of slavery (the intensive exploitation of workers through the extensive exploitation of natural resources) were maintained after the crisis and the abolition of the institution (1888), when the center of the coffee economy moved to the West of São Paulo. Now counting on a new arrangement of free labor (the colonato) and on the subsidized immigration of European peasants, the São Paulo coffee economy in the new republican regime (founded in 1889) underwent a huge productive leap. Overproduction and falling prices became the new problem. The coffee valorization policy adopted by the State of São Paulo after 1906 and then the federal government indicates the reconfiguration of the class relations experienced in the new republican era, which nevertheless kept many of the historical structures of the slave legacy intact.
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.
Inés Pérez and Elizabeth Hutchison
The regulation of labor relations and social rights substantially changed workers’ lives over the course of the 20th century. Domestic service, however, was only poorly and belatedly protected under labor law, and its incorporation proceeded in a slow, ambiguous, and nonlinear manner. The specific ways in which domestic service regulation emerged in Chile and Argentina, respectively, offer insight into this process and also present some important contrasts, despite the nations’ geographic proximity. In Chile, although the rights recognized for household workers were limited, the Labor Code of 1931 included an article on domestic service. In Argentina, the first comprehensive regulation for this sector was a special statute sanctioned by decree in 1956. In both cases, the “special” nature of such regulation was attributed to the place of domestic service in family life. As domestic labor was reconceptualized through legislative reform in each country, household workers gradually came to enjoy some, but not all, of the rights guaranteed to other workers.
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.
Pedro Meira Monteiro
Roots of Brazil, the debut book of historian and literary critic Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902–1982), is a classic work of Brazilian social critique. Conceptualized in Germany between 1929 and 1930 and published in Rio de Janeiro in 1936, during the Getúlio Vargas government (1930–1945), the book attempts to make sense of the dilemma of modernization in Brazil. Focusing on the crises stemming from urbanization and, in 1888, abolition, Buarque de Holanda analyzes how these factors put in check the personalism that had governed Brazilian sociability since colonial times. In exploring the Iberian roots of the mentality of the Portuguese colonizers, as well as concepts such as the “adventurer” and the “cordial man,” the book reveals the contentious formation of democratic public space in Brazil.
The limits of liberalism, the seduction of totalitarianism, the legacy of slavery, and new forms of labor are some of the themes explored in Roots of Brazil. Still central to the Brazilian imagination today, the book has lent itself to a diversity of conservative and radical readings, including those of the author himself, who revised it substantially and never felt fully satisfied with his initial foray into topics that would captivate him throughout his academic career.
Since the beginning of the colonial period, slavery was an important factor in the constitution of international relations between the Portuguese Empire and the other empires and states in the Atlantic world. In the 15th century, Portuguese merchants sold enslaved Africans from West Africa, initially to Europe and afterwards to the Americas, opening commercial and diplomatic relations that lasted for centuries and would be responsible for the establishment of the largest commercial venture in the Atlantic world in the early modern period. With the independence of Brazil, slavery—and the debate about the prohibition of the Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans—came to be the central element in negotiations of diplomatic relations between the country and other nations, notably Great Britain and the republics of the La Plata River region. Indeed, slavery remained a core issue at least until the end of the Paraguayan War in 1870, when growing international isolation, resulting from the ongoing presence of slavery in Brazil, opened the final crisis of the empire.
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.
In December 1801, First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte sent a massive expedition to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today: Haiti). His goal was to restore direct French rule and overthrow Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who, as governor general of Saint-Domingue, had been suspected of plotting independence. Bonaparte’s secondary goal may have been to reinstate slavery, which France had abolished in 1793–1794.
Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, General Victoire Leclerc, headed the expedition. After landing in Saint-Domingue in February 1802 with 20,000 troops, he managed, with great difficulty, to defeat Louverture’s army. He then deported Louverture to France, where he died in exile. In August 1802, however, resistance intensified as plantation laborers became convinced that the French intended to restore slavery. Leclerc, who lost much of his army to yellow fever, embraced increasingly murderous tactics against the black population until he died in November 1802.
For one year, Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien de Rochambeau, battled Louverture’s successor, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in a brutal conflict with genocidal overtones. The bravery of Dessalines’s troops, lack of support from France, epidemic disease, and the renewal of Britain’s war with France eventually doomed the French effort. After the departure of the last remnants of the Leclerc expedition, Dessalines declared the independence of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, on January 1, 1804, and then put to death most of the remaining French planters.
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.
The native populations of Portuguese America were essential for the implementation of the Portuguese colonial project. Their labor was indispensable in constructing the colony, and political alliances with native peoples ensured the success of the conquest at several crucial moments, and only with the aid of native knowledge it was possible to occupy the land and advance the conquest of the immense territory that became known as Brazil. In this sense, peace was a necessity.
Yet, in highlighting the centrality of Indians in the settlement of the Portuguese colony in the Americas, it must also be recognized that the relations established there between Portuguese conquerors and native populations were also historically marked by tension and violence. A war of extermination, often masquerading as a “just war,” and slavery became inseparable parts of colonial strategy. Moreover, access to land and the use of indigenous labor could both constitute secure indicators of success in the conquest of Portuguese America. In the process of colonization the Portuguese Crown was confronted by various forms of native resistance and by the differing interests of diverse colonial agents. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Crown faced tensions, disputes, and contradictions in relation to the slavery and freedom of Indians and the way it solved these conflicts revealed the configuration of its indigenist policy.
Forming and encouraging families in Jamaica was a struggle from the very beginning of English colonization there, making Caribbean households transatlantic in nature. The explosion of plantation slavery in the 17th century prioritized economic expansion over white family cultivation. Likewise, planters were more concerned with profits than they were with enslaved families. Constant migration from Europe and Africa was therefore needed to keep populations stable for the whole history of slavery in Jamaica. The island’s demographic and political security was always tenuous as a result of this, and officials attempted numerous strategies to encourage family growth, among both the free and enslaved communities. As the island transitioned to freedom, regulating the definition of “proper” families became a weapon from which English authorities wielded imperial power. Racist sentimental toward Caribbean households created social tension when thousands of black Jamaicans emigrated to Britain after the Second World War. Their arrival produced new British households that challenged some British conceptions of domestic family life. Throughout this whole history, migration defined the growth and character of families in the Jamaican-British Atlantic World.