African Americans in the Caribbean and Latin America
Shamil Cruz and Moses Seenarine
May 30, 2000 (Published by Saxakali.com on June 1 2000)
May 30, 2000 (Published by Saxakali.com on June 1 2000)
The Latin American and Caribbean regions were the first areas of the Americas to be
populated by African immigrants. African immigration to the Americas may have begun
before European exploration of the region. Blacks sailed with Christopher Columbus
even on his first voyage in 1492, and the earliest Spanish and Portuguese explorers were
likewise accompanied by black Africans who had been born and reared in Iberia. In the
following four centuries millions of immigrants from Africa were brought to the New
World as slaves. Today, their descendants form significant ethnic minorities in several
Latin American countries, and they are the dominant element in many of the Caribbean
nations. Over the centuries, black people have added their original contributions to the
cultural mix of their respective societies and thus exerted a profound influence on all
facets of life in Latin America.
EARLY IMMIGRATION AND SLAVERY
Most of the earliest black immigrants to the Americas were natives of Spain and
Portugal—men such as Pedro Alonso Niño, a navigator who accompanied Columbus on
his first voyage, and the black colonists who helped Nicolás de Ovando form the first
Spanish settlement on Hispaniola in 1502. The name of Nuflo de Olano appears in the
records as that of a black slave present when Vasco Núñez de Balboa sighted the Pacific
Ocean in 1513. Other blacks served with Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico and
with Francisco Pizarro when he marched into Peru.
Iberian Blacks Estebanico, one of the survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’s unfortunate
expedition to Florida in 1527, was a black. With three companions, he spent eight years
traveling overland to Mexico City, learning several Native American languages in the
process. Later, while exploring what is now New Mexico, he lost his life in a dispute with
Juan Valiente, another black, led Spaniards in a series of battles against the Araucanian
people of Chile between 1540 and 1546. Although Valiente was a slave, he was rewarded
with an estate near Santiago and control of several Native American villages.
Between 1502 and 1518, Spain shipped out hundreds of Spanish-born Africans, called
Ladinos, to work as laborers, especially in the mines. Opponents of their enslavement
cited their weak Christian faith and their penchant for escaping to the mountains or
joining the Native Americans in revolt. Proponents declared that the rapid diminution of
the Native American population required a consistent supply of reliable work hands. Free
Spaniards were reluctant to do manual labor or to remain settled (especially after the discovery of gold on the mainland), and only slave labor could assure the economic
viability of the colonies.
Beginning of the African Slave Trade
By 1518 the demand for slaves in the Spanish New World was so great that King Charles
I of Spain sanctioned the direct transport of slaves from Africa to the American colonies.
The slave trade was controlled by the Crown, which sold the right to import slaves
(asiento) to entrepreneurs.
By the 1530s, the Portuguese were also using African slaves in Brazil. From then until
the abolition of the slave trade in 1870, at least 10 million Africans were forcibly brought
to the Americas: about 47 percent of them to the Caribbean islands and the Guiana’s; 38
percent to Brazil; and 6 percent to mainland Spanish America. About 4.5 percent went to
North America, roughly the same proportion that went to Europe.
The greatest proportion of these slaves worked on plantations producing sugar, coffee,
cotton, tobacco, and rice in the tropical lowlands of northeastern Brazil and in the
Caribbean islands. Most of them came from the sub-Saharan states of West and Central
Africa, but by the late 18th century the supply zone extended to southern and East Africa
Impact of Slavery
Slavery in the Americas was generally harsh, but it varied from time to time and place to
place. The Caribbean and Brazilian sugar plantations required a consistently high supply
of labor for centuries. In other areas—the frontiers of southern Brazil, Argentina,
Venezuela, and Colombia—slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy.
To tame the wilderness, build cities, establish plantations, and exploit mineral wealth, the
Europeans needed more laborers than they could recruit from among their own
metropolitan masses. In the early 16th century, the Spanish tried unsuccessfully to
subjugate and enslave the native populations of the West Indies. Slavery was considered
the most desirable system of labor organization because it allowed the master almost
absolute control over the life and productivity of the laborer. The rapid disintegration of
local indigenous societies and the subsequent decimation of the native peoples by warfare
and European diseases severely exacerbated the labor situation, increasing the demand
for imported workers.
African slaves constituted the highest proportion of laborers on the islands and around the
Caribbean lowlands where the native population had died. The same was true in the
northeastern coastlands of Brazil—especially the rich agricultural area called the
Reconcavo, where the semi nomadic Tupinamba and Tupiniquim peoples resisted
effective control by the Portuguese—and in some of the Leeward Islands such as
Guadeloupe and Dominica, where the Caribs waged a determined resistance to their
expulsion and enslavement. In areas of previously dense populations, such as parts of
central Mexico or the highlands of Peru, a sufficient number of the Native American inhabitants survived to satisfy a major part of the labor demands of the new
colonists. In such cases African slaves supplemented coerced Native American labor.
Volume of Immigration
In Mexico (then called New Spain), the principal economic activity for the colonists in
the early colonial period was mining. African slaves were imported to counteract the
precipitate decline in the Native American populations. When the indigenous inhabitants
recovered sufficiently to provide the required labor, the demand for expensive African
slaves diminished. Between 1519 and 1650, Mexico imported about 120,000 African
slaves, or slightly fewer than 1000 per year. From 1650 to 1810, Mexico received an
additional 80,000 Africans, a rate of merely 500 slaves per year. Indeed, Mexican slave
owners bought no more than 50,000 slaves during the entire 18th century, when the
transatlantic slave trade was at its highest. Chile imported about 6000, about one-third of
whom arrived before 1615; most were utilized in agriculture around Santiago. Argentina
(mainly Buenos Aires) and Bolivia (mainly the mining areas around Charcas) brought in
about 100,000 Africans. Import figures to all these areas were low compared with those
for Brazil and the West Indies.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean the slave population declined at the
astonishing rate of 2 to 4 percent a year; thus, by the time slavery was abolished, the
overall slave population in manyplaces was far less than the total number of slaves
imported. The British colony of Jamaica, for example, imported more than 600,000
slaves during the 18th century; yet, in 1838, the slave population numbered little more
than 300,000. The French colony of Saint-Domingue (present Haiti)imported more than
800,000 Africans during the 18th century, but had only 480,000 slaves in 1790, on the
eve of the Haitian Slave Revolt. Between 1810 and 1870, the Spanish colony of Cuba
acquired about 600,000 slaves; in 1880, however, the Cubans had only 200,000 slaves
and an entire Afro-Cuban population of 450,000. Altogether, the 4.7 million Africans
imported to the Caribbean over the centuries had diminished to about 2 million in 1880.
Blacks in Colonial Society
In Latin America society was, in general, a three-tiered structure of castes, subdivided
into classes. At the top were the Europeans; in the middle were the free nonwhites; and at
the bottom were slaves and Native Americans. Each caste had its own set of legal rights
and social privileges, which varied from place to place. In the sugar-producing areas and
other plantation-based economic units of Brazil, the Caribbean, and the lowlands of
Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, the rights of slaves as well as free persons of color tended
to be legally circumscribed. The greater the demand for labor, the more severe the
coercion and discrimination exercised against the African sector of the population.
In the coffee, cattle, and fishing areas of southern Brazil, Puerto Rico, eastern Cuba, the
interior of Argentina, and Venezuela, social mobility tended to be greater and internal
class and caste distinctions more relaxed and less formal. In the towns and cities Africans
filled occupational roles just as did other free members of society, although they tended
to be concentrated in the more menial and unskilled tasks. The majority of the black population in Latin America and the Caribbean spent their lives
in domestic service or as agricultural laborers. About 20 percent—both slave and free—
were sailors, artisans, nursemaids, wet nurses, merchants, small shopkeepers, mining or
sugar experts, or itinerant street vendors. Slavery was never only a form of labor
organization or only an economic enterprise. It was a socioeconomic complex held
together by law and custom. Regardless of their conditions, their hopes for freedom were
strong, and slaves often revolted.
Throughout the history of slavery in the Americas, some masters voluntarily manumitted
their slaves. In the Spanish colonies, slaves could purchase their freedom on a time-purchase
plan called coartación. A similar scheme prevailed in Brazil and the sugar
colonies of the Caribbean. Almost everywhere, female urban slaves constituted the
majority of those who benefited from voluntary manumissions and self-purchase. The
children of these women were also free. In addition, some free white fathers emancipated
their children born of slave mothers; the state also emancipated slaves from time to time
for a variety of reasons.
The Free Blacks
Because slavery played such an important role in the New World economy between 1600
and 1850, it overshadowed by far the number of Africans who came to the Americas as
free persons. The first group of free, or semi free, Africans arrived in the early 16th
century with the original European colonists. The second came during the 19th century,
mainly as part of a British-sponsored attempt to provide an alternative source to African
slave labor. Besides these free immigrants—of whom about 50,000 settled in the British
and French West Indies—each slave society contained, almost from its beginning, an
ever-expanding component of blacks who had been freed by manumission.
By the beginning of the 19th century this free population had become a fixture of every
slave society in the Americas. In the New Granada provinces of what today are the
independent states of Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, the free black
population in 1789 was 420,000, whereas African slaves numbered only 20,000. Free
blacks also outnumbered slaves in Peru, Argentina, and Brazil. In Puerto Rico they
numbered nearly half the total population in 1812. In Cuba, by contrast, free blacks made
up only 15 percent in 1827; in Saint-Domingue the ratio was even lower—5 percent in
1789—and in Jamaica it was a mere 3 percent in 1800. Thus, in plantation societies,
opportunities for emancipation did not come easily, whereas in regions where
the economy was more diversified, the free black and mulatto population expanded
The Campaign Against the Slave Trade
By the end of the 18th century, the possibility of a general emancipation of all slaves
began to emerge as a preoccupation of every slave society. By the 16th century Spanish
missionaries such as Antonio Montesino and Bartolomé de Las Casas had become critical
of slavery, and in the 17th century English Quakers opposed both slavery and the slave
trade. General disapproval developed only during the 18th century, however, when the rational attitudes of the Enlightenment combined with British Evangelical Protestantism
to form the intellectual preconditions for the abolitionist movement.
The British abolitionists, aware that their compatriots transported the greatest number of
African slaves to the New World, concentrated their efforts against the slave trade rather
than slavery itself, feeling that the termination of the trade would eventually lead to the
end of the institution. The abolitionist attack was spearheaded by Granville Sharp, a
humanitarian who in 1772 persuaded the British courts to declare that slavery could not
exist in England. The ruling immediately affected the more than 15,000 slaves brought
into the country by their colonial masters, who valued them at approximately £700,000
(averaging £47 each, or one and one-half times the average yearly income of a London
laborer of the period). In 1776 the British philosopher and economist Adam Smith
declared in his classic economic study, The Wealth of Nations, that slavery was
uneconomical because the plantation system was a wasteful use of land and because
slaves cost more to maintain than free laborers.
By the 1780s, slavery was being attacked, directly and indirectly, from several sources.
Evangelicals condemned it on the grounds of Christian charity and the assumption of a
natural law of common humanity. Economists opposed slavery because it wasted
valuable resources. Political philosophers saw it as the basis of unjust privilege and
unequal distribution of social and corporate responsibility. In 1787 Thomas Clarkson, an
English cleric, joined Granville Sharp and Josiah Wedgwood, the famous English potter,
to form a society for the abolition of the slave trade. The society recruited William
Wilberforce as its parliamentary spokesman and in 1788 succeeded in getting Prime
Minister William Pitt to set up a select committee of the Privy Council to investigate
the slave trade. The year before, the society had established Sierra Leone in West Africa
as a refuge for the "London black poor," and it achieved other successes.
Abolition of the Slave Traffic
A bill designed to restrict the number of slaves carried by each ship, based on the ship’s
tonnage, was enacted by Parliament on June 17, 1788; and that year the French
abolitionists, inspired by their English counterparts, founded the Société des Amis des
Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks). Finally in 1807, the British Parliament passed an
act prohibiting British subjects from engaging in the slave trade after March 1, 1808—16
years after the Danes had abolished their trade. In 1811 slave trading was declared a
felony punishable by transportation (exile to a penal colony) for all British subjects or
foreigners caught trading in British possessions. Britain then assumed most of the
responsibility for abolishing the transatlantic slave trade, partly to protect its sugar
colonies. In 1815 Portugal accepted £750,000 to restrict the trade to Brazil; and in 1817
Spain accepted £400,000 to abandon the trade to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo.
In 1818 Holland and France abolished the trade. After 1824, slave trading was declared
tantamount to piracy, and until 1837 participants faced the penalty of death.
Abolition of Slavery
The campaigns to abolish the trade exposed the abusive nature of slavery and led to the
formation of the British Anti-Slavery Society in 1823. Long before that, the thrust for full emancipation of the enslaved Africans began with the successful revolt of the slaves in
the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791 during the French Revolution. The radical
French commissioner, Léger Félicité Sonthonax, emancipated all slaves and admitted
them to full citizenship (1793), a move ratified the following year by the revolutionary
government in Paris, which extended emancipation to all French colonies. This measure
was revoked by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Emancipation nevertheless remained
permanent in Haiti, which won its independence under black leadership two years later.
Elsewhere slaves worked for the disintegration of the system, but the official acts of
emancipation lay outside their hands. Only in Haiti did they seize and hold political
During the struggle of Spain’s American colonies for independence from 1810 to 1826,
both the insurgents and the loyalists promised to emancipate all slaves who took part in
military campaigns.Mexico, the Central American states, and Chile abolished slavery
once they were independent. In 1821 the Venezuelan Congress approved a law
reaffirming the abolition of the slave trade, liberating all slaves who had fought with the
victorious armies, and establishing a system that immediately manumitted all children of
slaves, while gradually freeing their parents. The last Venezuelan slaves were freed in
1854. In Argentina the process began in 1813 and ended with the ratification of the 1853
constitution by the city of Buenos Aires in 1861.
Brazil suffered a long internal struggle over abolition and was the last Latin American
country to adopt it. In 1864 the Brazilian emperor Pedro II emancipated the slaves that
formed part of his daughter’s dowry and acceded to the request of French abolitionists
that the government commit itself to ending slavery. At the end of the disastrous
Paraguayan War in 1870, more than 20,000 slaves were emancipated as a reward for their
services. In 1871 the Brazilian Congress approved the Rio Branco Law of Free Birth,
which conditionally freed the children of slaves. Until they were eight years old, such
children remained in the custody of the mother’s master. At that time the state
could compensate the master for the emancipation of the child, or the master could elect
to have the child work without wages for 13 years. This scheme failed to satisfy
advocates of outright abolition, who won widespread support in the late 1870s. In 1884
dissatisfaction increased when it became known that in 12 years the Rio Branco Law had
freed only about 20,000 slaves—less than 20 percent of those voluntarily manumitted. In
1887 army officers refused to order their troops to hunt runaway slaves, and in 1888 the
Senate passed a law establishing immediate, unqualified emancipation.
The West Indies
Caribbean colonies required action by their European metropolises. In the British,
French, Danish, and Dutch Antilles, economic problems in the early 19th century
combined with the humanitarian and political pressures from Europe to weaken the
planters’ resistance to emancipation. West Indian sugar exports stabilized in volume and
declined in price, driving production costs up. Meanwhile, the slaves became increasingly
difficult to control. Emancipation became part of a general reform movement in Britain in
the 1830s, and Parliament abolished slavery in 1833, instituting an apprenticeship program for ex-slaves, an arrangement that lasted until 1838. France and Denmark followed Britain’s example in 1848, and the Netherlands did so in 1863. In
every case, emancipation resulted from the combined pressure of political reformers,
humanitarian idealists, and believers in more efficient methods of production—a
coalition that overwhelmed opposition from the colonial slave owners. Slaves also
contributed to the disintegration of the system by actively revolting and by passively
increasing production and administrative costs.
Largely under pressure from Cuban slave owners, Spain refused Puerto Rico’s request
that slavery be abolished on that island in 1812. In 1870 the Spanish Moret law freed the
newborn offspring of slaves, all those more than 60 years old, and those who fought for
Spain in the Ten Years’ War in Cuba. Slavery in Puerto Rico was abolished in 1873, and
in 1880 a system of gradual, indemnified emancipation was established in Cuba. The
gradual system was abandoned in 1886, when the last 30,000 Cuban slaves were granted
BLACK SOCIETY AFTER EMANCIPATION
The black inhabitants of Latin America and the Caribbean were able to enjoy the rights of
full freedom depending on their relative numbers, their economic or occupational roles,
and the degree of their access to political power. In parts of Latin America where the
black population was relatively small, cultural and genetic integration with
the white or Native American majority over time blurred considerably the obvious ethnic
In Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, the black
sector constituted less than 1 percent of the population. In Central America, coastal
Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, and the Caribbean, the black concentration ranged from 2
percent (Honduras) to 99 percent (Haiti). People of mixed African, European, and Native
American ancestry, however, had ceased to be counted as "black."
Prejudice Against Blacks
The rise of pseudoscientific racism and the popularity of social-engineering ideas among
Latin American white elites militated against the social acceptance of the black
population. The positivist followers of the French philosopher Auguste Comte thought
Africans were far from ready for the stage of technical modernity, and neglected them.
Adherents of social Darwinism considered the African dimension of the pluralistic
society a sign of fundamental weakness because they assumed the natural superiority of
the white race. The preoccupation of Marxists with class conditions dulled their
awareness of the problems of race and color. Thus, the Latin American elites of the 19th
century refused to accept cultural pluralism because they feared sharing power with the
domestic black populations. Several Latin American nations adopted laws prohibiting
black immigration during the 19th century. In most areas, the economic situation has not
yet diversified or expanded sufficiently to allow blacks to move out of menial
occupations. Most of them, therefore, remain in the lowest economic and social strata.
Assimilation of Latin Population
The prevalence of intermarriage precludes the historical development of a two-tiered
society, and a racially mixed "colored" (as distinct from black) group frequently shared
the legal and economic opportunities of the white elites. Race mixture in Latin America,
however, is too complex for easy categorization. Centuries of contact among African,
European, indigenous American, and Asian people have produced a socioethnic
complexity in which status and racial designation depend on many factors.
When slavery collapsed, governments compensated not the ex-slaves, but the ex-slave
owners. The black masses possessed neither the requisite economic base nor the skills to
compete with the wave of new immigrants who poured into the southeastern part of
South America. Between 1870 and 1963, the country of Brazil absorbed nearly 5 million
European immigrants, a large number of whom had official or private sponsors who paid
for their transportation and resettlement costs. Eighty percent of these immigrants settled
in São Paulo and the southern states of the country, virtually inundating the resident black
populations. Later economic expansion did not substantially improve the poor economic
conditions of the blacks. Color and race contributed to the continued expulsion of AfroBrazilians
from occupations above the marginal and menial tasks assigned to servants,
odd jobbers, porters, and other nonorganized groups.
In Argentina the impact of European immigration on the country’s black people was even
more dramatic. Between 1869 and 1914, the Argentine population increased from 1.8
million to 7.9 million. During this period the total population in the city of Buenos Aires
increased eight-fold, but its black population remained stable. In 1970 the AfroArgentines
numbered only about 4000 in a city population of 8 million. Most of the black
men died in continuous wars, and a large number of Afro-Argentine women married
European immigrants, thereby losing their ethnic identity. Peasant and Maroon
communities in the West Indies the situation was different. White immigrants to the
islands were not numerous enough to swamp the Afro-Caribbean populations. In some
countries, independent African American communities were established in remote areas
by runaway slaves known as Maroons. Maroon settlements were continually challenged
by planters needing slaves. The Maroons resisted in Palmares, Brazil (1605?-1695), and
in Esmeraldas, Ecuador (1570-1738). In Jamaica they signed (1796) a formal treaty with
the British government after a series of conflicts and retained their independence until
1962. The Maroons were the first black peasants in the West Indies.
The trend to peasant production expanded greatly during the period after slavery. Exslaves
bought up abandoned or bankrupt estates throughout the Caribbean. In Barbados
and Antigua this was difficult, but in Cuba and Puerto Rico, land was available outside
the sugar zones. Free peasant villages thus became a feature of Caribbean life. Blacks
also entered commerce, the professions, and government. Throughout the 19th century
and the first half of the 20th century, Haiti remained the only independent black nation in
the Americas. By 1962, when Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other nations had
become independent, there remained much to improve in the economic realm.
A strong African influence pervades music, dance, the arts, literature, speech forms, and
religious practices in Latin America and the Caribbean. Africans, whether as slaves or
free immigrants, brought a variety of African cultural influences to the New World. They
came from too many places in Africa and were too scattered throughout the Americas to
reestablish all the conditions of their homelands, but wherever possible, they did their
best to reconcile reality with their beliefs. Like all other immigrant groups, they
abandoned some aspects of their culture, modified others, and created new forms. This
adaptation to local American conditions is called creolization. The number of Africans,
their proportion in local society, and the length of time they spent in any one place were
crucial in the development of an African American culture.
In countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, African immigrants were a minority
having to deal with a vital and dynamic form of European society and culture. The
African communities survived, and in some instances proliferated, but they did so against
the stiff and relentless competition of the majority, or "high," culture. Aspects of the
African ethnic subculture were eventually adopted by the mainstream. Nonetheless, in
such societies, the African character of the African American culture is less pronounced
than in societies where Africans formed the majority of the inhabitants.
In the essentially plantation societies of the Caribbean islands, people of African ancestry
retained considerable control over their daily lives, despite the efforts of the politically
dominant minority group to restrain and coerce them. The lack of cultural homogeneity
as well as the paucity of the plantation elites provided an almost unique opportunity for
the African masses to fashion their own society and influence the "high" culture.
Caribbean people speak variants of the standard European languages, which uniformly
reflect West African speech patterns regardless of whether the spoken language is
English, Spanish, French, or Dutch. The French spoken in Haiti constitutes a language of
its own. In Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire, Papiamento, a blend of Dutch, Spanish, and
Portuguese, is one of the official languages. Nor are these Creole languages confined to
the poorer, unschooled classes. Creole has now been accorded greater respect in the
literature and political life of the islands.
Official acceptance modifies some forms of culture. The carnival is an example. Until the
19th century, the annual celebration of carnival was confined to the black population; the
upper classes deplored carnival and tried to destroy it as a public festival. By the early
20th century, however, it had attracted all classes and races, and currently it has official
government support in the Bahamas, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil. Although
carnival has become respectable, and its festivities are open to all races and classes, the
chief participants of these carnivals are still black. The same remains true for other folk
festivals such as the Jonkonnu in Jamaica. In some cases, however, the transition from low to high culture obscured the African origin, as in Argentina where the tango was developed from dual African ancestry. One source is undoubtedly the Spanish fandango, but the fandango is really Moorish. The
other source is a black dance called the candombe, the feature attraction of AfroArgentine
festivals during and after the period of slavery. Latin American music has
always been deeply influenced by the vibrant rhythms and melodies that blacks brought
with them from their African homeland. This is particularly true of Brazil; in fact, the
first real music school in that country was founded by a black priest. Brazilian music is
thoroughly imbued with African themes, and illustrious composers such as Heitor VillaLobos
have long found inspiration in the black musical heritage. Many Caribbean
musical styles have become widely known, including the mambo from Cuba, salsa from
Puerto Rico, reggae from Jamaica, and calypso from Trinidad.
When it came to religion, African immigrants to Latin America and the Caribbean not
only retained some of their original beliefs but also borrowed and modified religious
rituals from the various European Christian churches they encountered there. Religious
affiliation, however, is no longer restricted by race or color. A number of Christian
groups such as the Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, and Churches of God are
predominantly black. On the other hand, religious sects of African origin—such as the
vodun in Haiti (see Voodoo); Shango in Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, and Brazil;
Santería in Cuba and Puerto Rico; Kumina, Myal, Revivalist, and Ras Tafari in Jamaica;
and Umbanda, Macounda, and others in Brazil—are no longer only black.
African Americans have left a deep impression on the lore and literature of the New
World. In some parts of Latin America, such as Brazil, popular tales and legends are to a
great extent of African origin. Themes dealing with slavery have always been popular
with black writers. Some, such as the Brazilian poet Luis Gama, were also active in the
abolitionist movement. Antônio de Castro Alves was identified as the "poet of the slaves"
for his treatment of slavery in his writings. João da Cruz e Sousa, the son of emancipated
slaves, is considered one of Brazil’s greatest poets.
As nationalism has intensified during the 20th century, even more attention has been paid
to African origins. The Haitian poet Jacques Roumain stressed the value of his native
(African) culture, while expressing the pride and bitterness of his black ancestry. Nicolás
Guillén, one of Cuba’s most eminent poets, wrote some of his best works as "black"
poetry based on the rhythms of Afro-Cuban music. The novels, poetry, dance, and mime
of Latin America and the Caribbean area have all incorporated African speech patterns,
styles, or concepts and have tried to express the spirit of the black cultural heritage. In the
Nobel Prize-winning poetry of Derek Walcott and the autobiographical short stories of
Jamaica Kincaid, an effort is made to reconcile the differences between the writers’
native West Indian and adoptive white milieus.
The Maroon settlements in the days of slavery were attempts to form black states; they
were, in effect, states within states. Haiti, where slaves led by Jean Jacques Dessalines
captured the governing apparatus in 1804, was only the second independent country in
the western hemisphere the first being the United States) and the first one ruled by blacks.
As such, it became a symbol of black independence and a catalyst for black nationalism.
Blacks in many other countries participated in politics within the prevailing political
structures, but in some nations such activities were restricted.
In Cuba, for example, a law
forbade the organization of political parties based on race or color after 1911, and the
military efforts of the Afro-Cuban leaders Pedro Ivonet and Evaristo Estenoz to reverse
that decision ended in disaster in 1912. Government troops killed 3000 Afro-Cubans in
Oriente Province, putting an end to black political resistance in Cuba. In Brazil, the
Frente Negra Brazileira (Brazilian Black Front), founded in São Paulo in 1931, served
as the national political voice of Afro-Brazilians, but faded along with other political
parties during the Vargas dictatorship of the 1930s and ‘40s. In the British, French, and
Dutch Caribbean, blacks have participated in politics for more than a century, and today
hold local political power. Governments controlled by people of African ancestry have
been in power in the Netherlands Antilles, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Saint Lucia,
Grenada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, Antigua, Saint Kitts and Nevis,
and Jamaica. The Marxist government of Cuba has declared Cubans an Afro-Latin
American people and has formed close ties with Angola, Ethiopia, and other African
Other Caribbean countries have also established contacts with the free nations of Africa,
both directly and through United Nations agencies and other international organizations.
Caribbean-African cooperation, however, has more frequently been based on shared
ideology than it has on race or color.
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