- Landscapes of Freedom: Building a Postemancipation Society in the Rainforests of Western Colombia by Claudia Leal
Let's start by saying this is a beautiful book! It looks beautiful, it feels beautiful, and it is beautifully written. It also stands out from a growing body of literature on race in Colombia, which mostly deals with the contemporary moment of race relations in the country, the political mobilization of a black social movement, or the unfolding tragedy of forced displacement in the Pacific lowlands. Writing about the same region, the author instead delves into the past, intent on critically examining the transition period from slavery to freedom in the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. She does so with an admirably clear vision and structure, deploying impressively detailed archival material to sustain her arguments. There is some serious scholarship at work here, which can be placed in the fields of environmental and social history, as well as geography and agrarian studies.
The book is organized around two key concepts and parts – extractive economy and racialized landscapes. It makes sense to foreground both. The former signals the initial interest the region held for Spanish colonizers who began to exploit the auriferous deposits along the Pacific river basins: "gold [End Page 187] mining started a long-lasting dependence on the natural supply of resources for the functioning of a market economy" (p. 227-28). Yet while economic gain was initially produced through enforced labor during slavery times, gold mining also became the foundation for a free black society after emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century, when free blacks continued to mine for gold, but did so in conditions of relative autonomy. This is one of the central and fascinating claims in this book, which the author sustains with ample documentary and archival evidence. After emancipation other extractive resources came to play an important part of the experience of freedom. The extractive economy diversified and included the tapping of rubber and collection of vegetable ivory nuts (tagua). As Leal summarizes, "two very different political economies of extraction – one characterized by labor coercion, the other by autonomy – came to define the lowlands before and after the mid-nineteenth century" (p.228). What both periods had in common, though, was the dependence on nature as a means of production; it provided the raw materials that were to be extracted directly, unlike agriculture or industry, which display a more mediated dependence on nature.
The second concept – racialized landscapes – is fascinating in that it offers a spatial sensibility to how the Pacific lowlands as we perceive them today have evolved over time as a result of the intimate relationship that the free black population built with it. The population patterns so ubiquitous in the Pacific river basins today – with wooden houses built on stilts along the river levees – are a direct result of the post-emancipation move when free blacks began to leave the gold mines and settle along the river banks, erecting first huts, then more elaborate housing, which over time turned into hamlets and villages. Leal stresses these accomplishments while pointing out the racialized undertones and outright racism that are found in literate men's accounts (sic – yes, these were always men) at the time. White travelers in the region regularly remarked on its oppressive heat and humidity, which they portrayed as a source of the cultural backwardness of its black inhabitants.
One of the central claims in this book is that the history of the Pacific coast rainforest region in Colombia reveals an unusual postemancipation trajectory, in that the experience of freedom for the formerly enslaved black population was characterized by high levels of autonomy. This autonomy was linked to the particular geography of this large, remote and sparsely populated region, in which free blacks had plenty of space to settle along the banks of the many rivers that...