- A Hemispheric Approach to African Influences in the Americas
The subtitle of Andrew Sluyter’s latest book reveals the book’s main theme and the scope of his research. Looking at the influence of Africans in the establishment and consolidation of cattle herding in New Spain (Mexico), Louisiana, Barbuda, the Pampas (Argentina and Uruguay), and Cuba, Sluyter engages with what Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, in his Puritan Conquistadores: Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550–1700 (2006), calls a hemispheric approach. At the same time, Sluyter explores the Atlantic connections that made cattle herding an area influenced by African skills and ideas ranging from casting lasso to “bottomless buckets” (a water-hoisting device). This is an important book that engages with the recent historiographical debate on the African contribution not only to the culture of societies in the Americas but also to knowledge, technology, and diet. Here the role of Africans and their descendants is not limited to music genres such as jazz, or festivals such as carnival or candombe, but is seen as a constitutive part of colonial economies and societies. As Sluyter states: “Production systems were so fundamental to the environment and social relations of the colonies that their consequences persist to the present” (p. 2).
Sluyter’s contribution will be regarded as a work as influential as Jane Lander’s Black Society in Spanish Florida (1999); Judith Carney’s Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2001); or Walther Hawthorne’s From Africa to Brazil: Culture, Identity, and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600–1830 (2011). His argument is that some Africans, mainly from the Senegambia region in Africa, were familiar with cattle raising and herding skills in their homelands. When enslaved, they transferred their knowledge, as well as adapted it, to the local circumstances they encountered in new territories. African influences are more visible in some cases than in others, such as the establishment of cattle ranching in sixteenth-century Mexico or the use of rock-walled stock wells in Barbuda. In Veracruz, for example, ship records and parish records reveal the large number of Senegambian slaves there in the sixteenth century. [End Page 577] Most came from regions with large populations of pastoralist groups who specialized in herding animals. In Barbuda, however, the African presence and influence was noticed not in numbers but in the widespread use of stock wells similar to those employed in Senegambia, where access to water was as challenging as in Barbuda.
This study stresses the importance of African skills and knowledge as integral elements of the herding system in the Americas. Sluyter demonstrates how this knowledge was appropriated by Europeans and their descendants, creating the basis for wealth accumulation in parts of the New World. This is particularly evident in the case of the balde sin fondo or “bottomless buckets,” that allowed the expansion of ranching into areas with limited access to water such as the Pampa regions of South America. Devices similar to this were employed in the seventeenth century in the Sahara and the Sahel, as well as in vast Asian territories from India to Persia. These devices, which worked as a water hoist employing a skin bag open at both ends, made it possible for pastoralists to move their herds to drier lands not used for agricultural purposes. Senegambians probably introduced the technology in the Pampas. However, the Spaniard Vicent Lanuza tried to register the water hoist as his invention, denying African agency and making an effort to profit from the technology. Sluyter presents sufficient historical evidence to indicate a link between the technology employed in cattle fields in the Pampas and the Upper Guinea Coast in Africa. He argues that, through transfer and adaptation, Africans actively participated in the entire cattle-herding economic system, from methods of water access to forms of food preparation, from production to consumption. Sluyter’s study is methodologically innovative, and his hemispheric approach challenges old interpretations of the origins and evolution of cattle herding in the Americas.
Challenging Arnold Strickson’s...