In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Black Experience in Colonial Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Edited Collections
  • Primary Sources and Translations
  • Conquest
  • Northern South America
  • Chile
  • Bolivia and the Rio de la Plata Region
  • The Colonial Caste System and Casta Paintings
  • Independence

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

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Latin American Studies The Black Experience in Colonial Latin America
Ben Vinson, Greg Graves, III
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0038


Between the 1490s and the 1850s, Latin America, including the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Brazil, imported the largest number of African slaves to the New World, generating the single-greatest concentration of black populations outside of the African continent. This pivotal moment in the transfer of African peoples was also a transformational time during which the interrelationships among blacks, Native Americans, and whites produced the essential cultural and demographic framework that would define the region for centuries. What distinguishes colonial Latin America from other places in the Western Hemisphere is the degree to which the black experience was defined not just by slavery but by freedom. In the late 18th century, over a million blacks and mulattos in the region were freedmen and women, exercising a tremendously wide variety of roles in their respective societies. Even within the framework of slavery, Latin America presents a special case. Particularly on the mainland, the forces of the market economy, the design of social hierarchies, the impact of Iberian legal codes, the influence of Catholicism, the demographic impact of Native Americans, and the presence of a substantial mixed-race population provided a context for slavery that would dictate a different course for black life than elsewhere. Thanks to the ways in which modern archives have been configured since the 19th century, and the nationalistic framework within which much research has been produced in the 20th and early 21st centuries, the vast literature examining Latin America’s black colonial past focuses upon geographic areas that correspond roughly to current national and regional borders. This is a partial distortion of the reality of the colonial world, where colonies were organized rather differently than what we see today. However, there are a number of valid reasons for adhering to a nationalist-centered framework in the organization of this bibliography, not the least of which is being able to provide crucial background material for exploring how black populations contributed to the development of certain nation-states, as well as for understanding how blacks may have benefited from, or been hurt by, the break between the colonial and nationalist regimes. Overall, the body of literature surveyed here speaks to several scholarly trends that have marked the 20th and early 21st centuries—the rise of the comparative slavery school, scholarship on black identity, queries into the nature of the African diaspora, assessments of the power wielded by marginalized populations, racial formation processes, creolization, and examinations of the sociocultural structures that governed colonial and early national life.

General Overviews

Perhaps as a result of the overwhelming geographical expanse of the region, few single- or dual-authored works of general synthesis exist for blacks in colonial Latin America; a notable exception is Rout 2003. Some books treat wider subject matters than others. In general, such works develop specific historiographical or theoretical arguments that intend to alter the broader research parameters of the field. The wider-reaching nature of these works necessarily compels them to incorporate case material from a variety of regions to help sustain larger arguments. One of the key early works that precipitated tremendous research into the nature of Latin American slavery, colonial society, and race relations was Tannenbaum 1947, Slave and Citizen. Tannenbaum’s ideas about comparative race relations in the Americas (and the relative benevolence of Latin American racial systems) were significantly challenged by Hoetink 1973, spawning a flurry of new research. A critical subfield, evaluating the impact of the Latin American caste system upon ideas about race and racial mixture, was crystallized by Mörner 1967. Mörner’s work, which essentially defined Latin America as a “caste society,” helped trigger the caste-versus-class debate, which continues to today, providing a theoretical framework for discussing how blacks integrated into colonial and early national societies. In terms of synthetic works, Klein and Vinson 2007 offers a comprehensive, snapshot view of the fruits of the comparative slavery school, partly established by Tannenbaum. Among the best general surveys of the black colonial experience is Rout 2003. Wheat 2016 also deals with the black colonial experience, but contends that neither a “sugar-centered framework” nor one focusing on the labor in silver mines accurately explains how Africans came to play such a vital part in the colonization of the Caribbean. Wheat’s book highlights the overlapping African and Iberian worlds and how transnational networks, coupled with the decline of the indigenous population, forced African migrants to assume the role of “surrogate colonists.” Landers 2010 hones in on the overlapping worlds of Florida, Saint-Domingue, and Cuba. The text analyzes notable Atlantic Creoles to examine black agency in the Age of Revolution. These individuals, who Landers contends were not restricted by slavery or confined by geography, were highly mobile and expertly navigated the instability of the age in their attempts to achieve and define liberty. Meanwhile, an outstanding look at the linguistic contribution of blacks is Lipski 2009. The majority of good surveys on the black presence can be found in edited collections, of which several exist in the larger literature. By and large, these volumes feature nuanced case studies and broad-reaching introductions that help orient readers with extensive historiographical background and penetrating questions into the state of the field. Finally, a superb overview of the key literature and questions that helped launch the field of Afro-Latin American studies is Bowser 1972. Although that work is somewhat dated, the research agenda Bowser outlined is remarkable in the degree to which it has remained influential in shaping the trajectory of more modern works.

  • Bowser, Frederick P. “The African Experience in Colonial Spanish America: Reflections on Research Achievements and Priorities.” Latin American Historical Review 7.1 (Spring 1972): 77–94.

    Traces the study of blacks from the 1940s into the 1970s. Emphasizes slavery, the analysis of comparative legal systems, the survival of African ethnicities and culture, black assimilation, black cultural legacies, and slave resistance. Useful for quick overviews of the literature prior to 1970 and for evaluating how research has subsequently progressed.

  • Hoetink, Harmannus. Slavery and Race Relations in the Americas: Comparative Notes on Their Nature and Nexus. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

    Foundational study examining the relationship between slavery and race relations. Disagrees with scholars who view modern race relations as derivative of slavery. Attempts to disprove Frank Tannenbaum’s work (see Tannenbaum 1947 for comparison). Argues that discrimination is inherent in all multiracial societies and that the acceptance of blacks by whites is not a natural phenomenon.

  • Klein, Herbert S., and Ben Vinson III. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Surveys major trends in slavery for virtually every colony in Latin America, including Haiti and the Dutch Caribbean. Strong on Brazil. Examines free-black life, slave resistance, and certain cultural influences. Great for general readers, undergraduates, and advanced scholars. Contains a useful bibliographic essay. Spanish version available through the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

  • Landers, Jane G. Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

    A well-researched study of individuals like Georges Biassou of Saint-Domingue, the black Seminole Abraham, and Big Prince Whitten. Documents their efforts to use revolutionary upheavals in the 18th and early 19th centuries to secure individual freedom and influence political events. Emphasizes the mutability and adaptability of the protagonists.

  • Lipski, John M. A History of Afro-Hispanic Language: Five Centuries, Five Continents. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Surveys early contact between Africans and Europeans; traces African influences in Portuguese and Spanish linguistic patterns, grammar, and literary production. Features Afro-Hispanic texts from the 16th through the 20th centuries. Examines (in limited detail) Afro-Hispanic musical influences. Useful online appendix accompanies the text, enabling readers to access primary documents.

  • Mörner, Magnus. Race Mixture in the History of Latin America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967.

    Seminal study into the character of colonial Latin American societies. Examines black populations alongside other racial groups. Challenges the myth that Latin American societies were better sites of race relations given their unique historical development. Strong on assessing church and state policies, as well as racial interactivity within caste hierarchies. Undergraduate friendly.

  • Rout, Leslie B., Jr. The African Experience in Spanish America. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2003.

    One of the earliest works of grand synthesis. Explores the contribution of blacks to virtually every country and colony in Latin America; also traces their legacy into the modern period. Addresses slavery, freedom, institutional participation, and to some extent, cultural legacies. Highly readable. The most recent edition includes an updated (although limited) bibliography. Originally published in 1976.

  • Tannenbaum, Frank. Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. New York: Knopf, 1947.

    Credited as being foundational for comparative slavery studies and for refining approaches used to examine Latin American socio-racial systems. While newer scholarship has updated many of the book’s arguments, several core points remain influential. Explores questions of freedom, liberty, justice, law, and morality. Highly readable and good when paired with contemporary texts.

  • Wheat, David. Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570–1640. Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 2016.

    Contends that the “Africanization” of the Spanish Caribbean occurred almost two centuries before the ascendency of large sugar plantations. Highlights the transnational dynamics of the emerging Luso-African-Atlantic, which linked Upper Guinea, Angola, major Caribbean ports, and adjoining rural areas. The first half of the text analyzes this transnational network and its repercussions on the Spanish Caribbean. The second portion highlights how Africans and their descendants played vital roles in defining the socioeconomic and cultural elements of the Spanish Caribbean.

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