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  • Afro-World:African-Diaspora Thought and Practice in Montevideo, Uruguay, 1830-2000
  • George Reid Andrews (bio)

Were one to sit down to compile a list of the great cities of the African diaspora, Montevideo, Uruguay, would not be one of the first names to come to mind. Yet during the period of Spanish colonial rule, thousands of Africans arrived in the city, brought on slaving vessels from Africa and Brazil. By 1810, the population both of Montevideo (9,400) and the larger colony of the Banda Oriental (an estimated 30,000) was one-third black and mulatto. Two centuries later, as a result of large-scale European immigration during the 1800s and early 1900s that proportion had fallen to 6 percent, with Afro-Uruguayans numbering approximately 180,000 people in a national population of 3 million.1

Despite the small size of the country's black population, its members generated a rich variety of civic, cultural, and social organizations, the activities of which were recorded in a succession of newspapers produced by and for Afro-Uruguayan writers and readers.2 Because of an unusually well developed system of public education and correspondingly high levels of literacy in the country, between 1870 and 2000 Afro-Uruguayan journalists produced at least 25 monthly and biweekly periodicals. In terms of number of titles produced, the black press in [End Page 83] Uruguay was larger than in any other Latin American country except Brazil; per capita (i.e., in relation to the size of the black population), it was far and away the most active anywhere in the region.3

Though focused primarily on events in Montevideo and the smaller cities of the interior, those newspapers provide abundant evidence of their writers' and readers' close attention to a larger Afro-Atlantic diaspora. As a busy port exporting meat, wool, and cereals to Europe, the Caribbean, and other destinations, from the mid-1800s onward Montevideo was a cosmopolitan city in close contact with economic, political, and intellectual trends throughout the Atlantic world. While its mainstream newspapers featured stories from Europe, North America, and Latin America, the black newspapers supplemented those stories with news of the African diaspora. Diaspora news was also communicated by another form of community organization, the black Carnival comparsas. Beginning in the 1860s, these groups performed candombes, tangos, milongas, and other song and dance forms at the annual Carnival celebrations in February and March. The lyrical and musical content of those songs, and of the more elaborate musical reviews that the groups produced in the 1900s, provides further evidence of Afro-Uruguayans' sense of connection to an Afro-Atlantic world and of how those connections evolved over time.

As we will see, the black newspapers and comparsas looked to different parts of the African diaspora at different moments, in response both to local needs and conditions in Uruguay and to developments in other countries. During the 1800s Afro-Uruguayans paid greatest attention to their counterparts in Montevideo's sister city, Buenos Aires. During the 1900s their frame of reference expanded to include Brazil, Cuba, the United States, and even Africa, a region with which the first generations of Afro-Uruguayans had felt little direct connection. As they observed and reflected on the experiences of people elsewhere in the diaspora, Afro-Uruguayans found in those experiences models of social, political, and cultural mobilization that provoked sympathy, admiration, and at times action aimed at reproducing their achievements. By the late 1900s, diaspora consciousness was both broadly defined (geographically) and deeply rooted in Afro-Uruguayan community life. [End Page 84]

Africa, 1830-1890

The homeland of the diaspora was, of course, Africa. As in other Latin American port cities, Africa was very much present in nineteenth-century Montevideo, both in the form of enslaved and free Africans and of the mutual aid societies, based on members' African ethnic identities, that they created.4 In the early 1830s, the African nations' occasional legal representative, Afro-Uruguayan lawyer Jacinto Ventura de Molina, listed thirteen such organizations active in the city. Six derived from West Africa—the Ausá (Hausa), Carabarí (Calabar), Minas-Maxi, Moros, Nagó y Tacuá (Yoruba), and Santé (Ashanti)—five from the Congo and Angola—Banguela...


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