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The Americas 59.3 (2003) 347-378

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"To Honor the Ashes of their Forebears":
The Rise and Crisis of African Nations in the Post-Independence of Buenos Aires, 1820-1860*

Oscar Chamosa


During most of the nineteenth century, more than fifty organized African nations existed in Buenos Aires with the official name of African Associations. They were also known by the popular names of tambos, tangos and, later on and more loosely, of candombes. 1 Beginning in 1822, the provincial government chartered ten African Associations with the goal of encouraging the emancipation of slaves by appealing to mutual aid and self-reliance. Along the way, the African Associations were expected to pay for the education of the recently emancipated freemen, delivering them from illiteracy and turning them into self-governing citizens of the new republic. To the dismay of liberal politicians, the African Associations defied government expectations and chose more autonomous directions. The purpose of this article is to analyze the interplay of government officials and candombe leaders in an attempt to reveal the internal organization of such associations. Although Buenos Aires was never a major destination of the African diaspora in the Americas, the rare quality of the records produced by the local police department, in charge of looking after the African nations, sheds light on a phenomenon of hemispheric dimensions.

The African nations in the Americas have become an arena of contention between the two different schools of diasporic studies. While the "creolization" school emphasizes the New World specificity of black culture, the "African retention" school argues that black culture in the Americas can be [End Page 347] entirely traced back to Africa. 2 Part of the difficulty may be defining the African nations themselves. They were neither modern nations nor what scholars recognize as pre-colonial African ethnic groups. By studying the development of the African nations in nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, this article attempts to participate in the ongoing debate about those institutions, understanding the African Nations in the Río de la Plata as contingent associations created to deal with conditions unknown in the African countries of origin. In this conception, the nations were a cultural and social novelty and not a transposition of African traditions, but at the same time, the nations actively claimed African ancestry, thereby spiritually connecting their uprooted members with a lost motherland.

During the post-Independence period, the African Associations of Buenos Aires had to negotiate a clash between their traditional forms of sociability and the exigencies of the independent republic. Amidst endemic post-Independence political instability, most of the original candombes broke apart and new nations were born from the older ones. The original ten African Associations chartered in 1825 started to split, increasing the number of candombes to more than fifty by 1835. George Reid Andrews has called attention to this process in his book The Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires. Andrews suggests that this process weakened the black associations and the black community as a whole, as African leaders failed to overcome the logic of ethnic division encoded in the system of nations. 3 Inverting the terms of that insight, this article will argue that the system of nations per se was not responsible for the splitting. On the contrary, the nation system was itself a mechanism that helped people of diverse backgrounds to socialize in viable communities.To explain the splitting, this article builds on Pilar Gonzalez-Bernaldo's argument that the liberal elite of Buenos Aires sponsored civic associations in order to model the emerging society on the modern Western concept of citizenship, discouraging associational forms with roots in the colonial past. 4 In the case of the candombes, the Buenos Aires government created a tension between two different forms of sociability that in the end drove those associations into disruption. I would expand this thesis to argue that it was not only the introduction of modern forms of sociability but also [End Page 348] the very contentious nature of...


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