Africans into Creoles: Slavery, Ethnicity, and Identity in Colonial Costa Rica by Russell Lohse (review)
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Africans into Creoles: Slavery, Ethnicity, and Identity in Colonial Costa Rica. By Russell Lohse. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014, Pp. xiv, 351. Acknowledgments. Appendices. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. $34.95 paper.

This is one of the best fresh monographs on the history of Africans and their descendants in colonial Spanish America. While most recent historiography of this field focuses on Mexico and to a lesser extent on Peru, much remains to be said about the vast peripheries [End Page 653] of the Spanish empire encompassing Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, and other regions. Costa Rica, the southernmost province of the colonial Kingdom of Guatemala, provides a workshop for examining the complicated routes of slave trading to Spanish Americas, the origins of Africans, the process of creolization in a colony largely isolated from this traffic, and the experiences of Africans and their descendants under slavery with emphasis on labor, resistance, family, and freedom.

Lohse demonstrates the significance of slavery for the economy of one of the most marginal regions of the Spanish empire. Slaves were a fraction of the total population, accounting for probably ten percent. Sources illustrating the demographics of the slave population are scarce, whereas figures for the combined free black and free population of mixed origins point to a range from eight to 22 percent of the total population between the late seventeenth century and the mid-eighteenth century. Albeit a minority, captives worked in every sector of the colonial economy of Costa Rica, where the ownership of slaves was generally distributed across colonial society.

At its most basic level, this book counteracts claims of national race homogeneity in Costa Rica, where for many “blackness” is a synonym of “foreignness” in light of the early twenty-century migration from the British Caribbean (mostly Jamaica) into the province of Limón on the Caribbean coast. Lohse contrasts this view by demonstrating the early socioeconomic significance of both slavery and the presence of people of African ancestry in Costa Rica, which contributes to disbanding twenty-century national myths of the colonial society as a “rural democracy” largely free from the casta system.

Lohse shows the intricacies of the slave-trading routes to Spanish America through the case of the Danish ships Christianus Quintus and Fredericus Quartus. African politics in the Gold Coast led one of these ships to embark captives in Ouidah, Bight of Benin, rather than Christianborg, the Danish fort near Accra in the Gold Coast. After crossing the Atlantic and stopping in Barbados, these ships (intended for the Danish colony of Saint Thomas) changed route to Portobello, in today’s Panama, and then veered off into the Western Caribbean and up to the Costa Rican coast. After the crews of both ships mutinied, the captives were disembarked. While most of these Africans were either assimilated or sold to the English by the Miskitu Indians, a minority remained enslaved in Spanish Costa Rica. The analysis of the depositions on the Middle Passage, given by these Africans to the Spaniards, is one of the most engaging parts of this story.

Africans from diverse origins arrived in Costa Rica, which led to the wide use of “macroethnic” labels such as mina and popo. Shipmate experience, sharing the Atlantic passage in the same vessel (a carabela, or caravel), led Africans to forge these macro-ethnic forms of identity. Lohse shows that shipmate networks existed among African women, while sources on the transatlantic traffic generally show these ties more commonly among men. Shipmate ties originated along the lines of gender separation enforced on slave vessels. [End Page 654]

Lohse argues that these diverse origins, alongside the infrequent number of slave arrivals direct from Africa, the low-density geographical concentration of slavery, and the close contacts of Africans with European, Amerindians, and their mixed progeny led Africans and their descendants in this region to create collective identities based on overlapping sources: African, indigenous, European, and combinations thereof. By the mid-seventeenth century most of the slave population in Costa Rica was native-born, as was true in slightly different periods of colonial Oaxaca and Guatemala, and inland regions of New Granada and the Río de la Plata...