- Africans into Creoles: Slavery, ethnicity and identity in colonial Costa Rica by Russell Lohse, and: Rivers of Gold, Lives of Bondage: Governing through slavery in colonial Quito by Sherwin K. Bryant
These two fine books showcase the centrality of slavery in corners of Spanish America not usually associated with the institution. Their findings thus challenge post-colonial myths that whitewash the history of slavery, discount its relevance for contemporary culture, and deny its brutality. Both studies also embody the theoretical and methodological sophistication that has come to define the study of African slavery in Latin America.
Russell Lohse’s book reinvigorates what Kristin Mann has called the “Africanist-creolist impasse,” a debate concerning whether the Middle Passage ushered in the creation of an African-American culture or served as the conduit through which captives transplanted African culture to American soil. Lohse takes Mann’s cue and investigates the relationship of both Old and New World influences among African-diasporic populations in “specific historical contexts” (3). Ultimately, he finds an exceptionally rapid process of Creolization at play. Lohse means by this that the enslaved population was predominantly American-born by the mid-seventeenth century, and that slaves contributed to the development of a Creole culture that integrated Indigenous, Spanish, and African influences.
These demographic and cultural realities were shaped in turn by the colony’s peripheral position vis-à-vis broader Spanish American and Atlantic networks of exchange. Before a brief cacao export boom, which peaked in the early eighteenth century, Costa Rican elites could scarcely compete for the coveted saltwater slaves shipped to Panama (and ultimately Peru) in exchange for Andean silver. Consequently, Africans arrived (through legal and illicit trade, or sheer happenstance) in an irregular and circuitous fashion that randomized the population. Since no ethnic group formed a plurality of the enslaved population, none sufficed as a crossgenerational alternative to the colony’s emerging syncretic culture. Slaves were widely dispersed, performed myriad labor roles and were generally held in small numbers. Brought in roughly equal numbers, enslaved men and women were also distributed unevenly across the colony, which impaired the development of slave families, encouraged interracial unions and accelerated cultural mixture.
Lohse frames his analysis of Costa Rica’s “specific historical contexts” against the African origins and trans-Atlantic crossings of the enslaved over the course of the book’s opening three chapters. In keeping with recent trends, he reconstructs the routes that linked West Africa to Costa Rica, detailing the ethnic and political complexities that continually shaped the traffic. He likewise follows the lead of earlier historians by distinguishing waves of African arrivals, including the largely acculturated black auxiliaries who accompanied the Spanish conquistadors and the “rapidly creolizing charter generations” (53) that arrived in the colony prior to the cacao boom. Some slaves, Lohse surmises, may have sustained affective bonds with shipmates (carabelas). More usually, slaves were accompanied by their owners over the last stretch of their harrowing journey, foreshadowing the “unusually close relationships” (82) between masters and slaves that defined slavery in Costa Rica.
Most memorably, the first chapter introduces the ill-fated voyage (1708–10) of two Danish slave ships, the Christianus Quintus and the Fredericus Quartus, whose captains plied the Gold and Slave Coasts of West Africa for human cargo only to see the survivors marooned on the Caribbean coastline of Costa Rica following a crew rebellion. Some 671 captives reached what Lohse calls a “violently contested area,” an imperial frontier metamorphosed by the pressures of conquest, slavery and intermittent raiding by the English and bellicose tribes (34). The fate of the ships is deeply significant for early Costa Rican history and Lohse’s project. On the one hand, the unanticipated appearance of hundreds of Africans in a land accustomed to piecemeal shipments “contributed to a ‘re-Africanization’ of Costa Rica’s enslaved population” (86). On the other, the incident generated an exceptional documentary trail that...