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The Americas 57.2 (2000) 167-170

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The African Experience in Early Spanish America*

Matthew Restall and Jane Landers

Of the five great African diasporas of historical record, as recently described by Colin Palmer, 1 the fourth includes the story of Blacks in Spanish America. 2 It remains the best studied of the "five major African diasporic streams," thanks to pioneering work by scholars such as Palmer, Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán, Frederick Bowser, Herbert Klein, Rolando Mellafe, and others, as well as a flurry of recent and forthcoming publications by a new generation studying this diaspora--among them the contributors to this special issue of The Americas, and the late Kimberly Hanger, to whom the issue is hereby dedicated. 3

Yet there remains so much about the story that is unstudied, or poorly understood, or well-known but inadequately substantiated. This issue seeks both to make that point and to make a modest contribution toward the gradual and ongoing rectification of the situation. It does so by offering one thematic piece (by Restall), followed by four regional studies (by Brockington, Lane, Herrera, and Vinson). All five articles represent more extensive in-progress studies of black society in regions of Spanish America; placed together in this issue they also represent a small step taken towards further identifying and articulating patterns of contrast and patterns common to the diaspora. [End Page 167]

The articles below suggest many topics and directions, but two broad themes that run through them all seem particularly worth noting here. One is the ubiquity of the African presence in Spanish America. The other is the diversity of the black experience in those colonies.

That experience can be traced chronologically through the articles in this issue. It is largely expressed as African involvement in Spanish colonial development. The omnipresence of people of African descent among Spaniards in their colonies is (not surprisingly) linked to labor demands in the articles, which collectively suggest that Spaniards used African labor in every conceivable form everywhere they endeavored to settle. Demands for armed labor, for example, began with the Conquest and continued as the Spanish colonies fell under threat from European rivals (Restall, pp. 175-99; Herrera, p. 251).

Then, as Spaniards and Africans developed complex settlements and colonies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, labor demands grew more extensive and diverse, as did the black experience. Wherever Spaniards developed mines, for example, they sought to use black labor, including in Ecuador (Lane, pp. 238-45) and in Guatemala (Herrera, pp. 247-48, 260-61). Brockington shows that, despite the (temporarily) fortifying effect of coca, personnel requirements at Potosí could not be met by a demographically devastated and "increasingly unreliable Indian labor pool" (p. 210). African slaves, therefore, were used to supplement and often oversee native workers, not only in the mines but also on cattle and agricultural enterprises in the Mizque region that is Brockington's focus.

Spanish households in the Mizque region also kept black slaves as domestic servants (Brockington, p. 214), a phenomenon well-known for most of Spanish America but worth emphasizing as a part of colonial life even at the level of modest households in so-called fringe regions (Lane, p. 227; Herrera, p. 259). Whether domestic slaves or of a different status and category, people of African descent tended to develop trades or skills either at their own initiative or under Spanish supervision; as the articles below suggest, there were probably more skilled black workers in Spanish America than unskilled (Restall, pp. 190-92; Lane, pp. 231-32, 237-38; Herrera, pp. 258-63; Vinson, p. 272-74).

Finally, in the eighteenth century, many of these patterns seen developing in the early period had become fully fledged and deeply rooted. In Mexico's Costa Chica, for example, the importation of black slaves and subsequent migration of free black workers onto agricultural estates gradually turned the region's estancias into "free-mulatto townships" (Vinson, p. 282). [End Page 168]

A further dimension of the ubiquity of Blacks in Spanish America was the control dynamic inherent to the Spanish...


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