Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean

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Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean

The process of slave emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean was protracted and tortuous, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the Haitian Revolution, an event with profound consequences for slave regimes everywhere in the New World, and finally coming to an end with the abolition of Brazilian slavery in 1888. During that century, slavery was more pervasive than ever before in terms of the number of slaves working in the Americas, while also being more vulnerable given the rise of abolitionist movements, the spread of antislavery sentiment, and the numerous military and political crises that gave slaves opportunities both to escape enslavement and to take up arms against the institution. A comprehensive discussion of all the twists and turns in Latin American and Caribbean emancipation is impossible in these pages. Instead, this brief entry will offer a broad description of the forces that set the stage for emancipation and highlight them with specific examples from several countries, such as Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and Jamaica. Though there was great variation in slave regimes and in the pressures leading to slavery's destruction across this geographically, economically, and politically diverse region, one overarching typology of slave emancipation will suggest the varieties of experience: on the one hand, emancipation via anti-colonial rebellions, on the other emancipation through the legal process of abolition, keeping in mind that this division was not hard and fast and that in some cases both causes were at work in the same country.

Anticolonial Rebellion and Slave Emancipation: Haiti and Spanish America

African slavery was one of the central and most venerable institutions of the European empires in the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese had turned early to the African slave trade, already flourishing in late medieval Europe, as they staked out colonies in the New World during the sixteenth century. While the sugar plantations of northeastern Brazil (Pernambuco and Bahia) were important destinations, so too were the great mining colonies of the Spanish empire, Peru and Mexico. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, other European rivals forced their way into the region, particularly the Caribbean. The British and French, and to a lesser degree the Dutch, created rich plantation economies in colonies like Barbados, Jamaica, and Saint Domingue (Haiti). Spain, too, eventually

turned to the production of sugar through the use of slave labor, transforming Cuba and Puerto Rico into major producers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Slavery was thus widespread and well entrenched in the Americas by the late eighteenth century. Any challenge to the colonial status quo would thus involve some challenge to slavery as well. This nexus was immediately apparent in the Haitian Revolution.

By the late eighteenth century, the French colony of Saint Domingue, on the western end of the island of Hispaniola, was the largest producer of cane sugar in the world. A small white population, divided between great planters and smaller property owners, shopkeepers, and professionals, ruled alongside a towering slave population, largely African-born (Dubois, 2004). There was also a significant population of people of color, in many cases freed by European fathers and at times well prepared to take a predominant position in the colony through education and the inheritance of wealth, though they found their prerogatives increasingly curtailed in the second half of the century. Many free people of color were planters in their own right, though usually of coffee as opposed to sugar. Others filled positions in the colonial militia or the maréchausée, the gendarmerie dedicated to tracking down runaway slaves. They were accustomed to bearing arms and identified strongly with the dominant colonial culture.

When revolution broke out in France in 1789, the gens de coleur saw the new regime as a potential ally against the "aristocrats of the skin" who sought to disbar them from the full enjoyment of their liberty through racial discrimination, which had grown more onerous since mid-century. They found numerous advocates in France but also had to confront the vexing question of slavery and an abolitionist society, the Société des Amis des Noirs, founded in 1788 and dedicated to the gradual abolition of colonial slavery. By the later eighteenth century, more and more enlightened Frenchmen had come to see New World slavery as a gross injustice. They also saw it as a powder keg ready to explode at any moment.

Thus, at the inception of the French Revolution, the questions of race, slavery, emancipation, and citizenship were dramatically posed. When it became clear that the whites of Saint Domingue and their French allies would enforce white supremacy, several free colored leaderssuch as Vincent Ogéreturned to the colony and took up arms to force their claims. They were quickly defeated, horribly tortured, and executed, but new openings would present themselves as both the colony and metropolis were divided. While the dominant groups fought among themselves, slaves in the northern part of the colony apparently saw the opportunity to assert their own demands for freedom. Inspired by diverse African and European ideas of justice and freedom, a huge slave rebellion erupted in 1791 across the hinterland of the city of Le Cap and eventually spread to other parts of the colony.

Rivals saw in this colonial unrest a chance to advance their own cause. Both the British and the Spanish dispatched large forces to the Caribbean, hoping to incorporate the rich colony into their own empires. Spain, for example, from the adjoining colony of Santo Domingo, supported Toussaint-Louverture, a well-educated former slave who, according to legend, was a reader of the Abbé Raynal, a philosophe who had predicted the violent destruction of New World slavery by a black Spartacus.

Ultimately, Toussaint defied his Spanish patrons. In 1793 he switched his allegiance from Spain to France in exchange for the legal abolition of slavery, ratified by the revolutionary government in France in 1794. For the next several years, he was the de facto governor of the colony, which he successfully defended for France against the Spanish and English. In 1802 France sought to restore slavery in its colonies. Though the French were successful in their other Caribbean colonies and able to capture Toussaint, other rebel generals like Henri Christophe and Dessalines defeated a large European expedition and proclaimed the independence of the new nation, Haiti, in 1804.

By 1804 there were two independent nation-states in the Americas: the United States and Haiti. The fate of slavery was a crucial issue in the fight for independence and the consolidation of the new regimes. The United States reasserted the privileges of slave owners, though in the face of significant internal opposition. Haiti wiped out the colonial planter class and asserted the priority of slave emancipation. The wars of national liberation in the Americas always involved conflict over the survival of slavery, but the outcome was far from uniform. The same would hold true in the colonies of the Iberian monarchies a few years later.

If the French Revolution of 1789 and the ensuing struggle for dominance in different corners of the Atlantic opened the way for the destruction of slavery and colonialism in Saint. Domingue, it had a similar impact on Spain's American empire. Information about the Haitian Revolution circulated throughout the Atlantic world, inspiring would-be rebels against the established order, despite the efforts of planters and government officials to silence it. Moreover, events in Europe continued to exert important and unpredictable influence. When France invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, the empires of Spain and Portugal suddenly found themselves thrown into profound crisis. The invasion had differing effects on slavery in the two empires. The Portuguese court embarked for Rio de Janeiro under British escort and remained there until 1822. With Rio as the new capital of the empire and the protection of the hegemonic economic and naval power, Brazilian ports enjoyed greater freedom, urban and plantation slavery boomed, and political order reigned, at least in the short term.

In contrast, a political vacuum opened in Spain and its overseas empire. The Spanish court fell captive to the French, and the country was submerged in a violent resistance to the occupying force between 1808 and 1814. The overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy led to an acute crisis of political legitimacy in the colonies. Many patriots saw this as the moment to fight for independence; in doing so, they unintentionally shattered the colonial social order from the Río de la Plata in the south to Mexico in the north.

Slaves and slavery figured centrally in the independence struggle (Andrews, 2004). Both loyalist and patriotic forces mobilized slaves to fight on their sides during the protracted wars for independence. Loyalists could draw on old precedents by promising freedom in exchange for a term of military service. Such a compromise had existed throughout the colonial period and recognized the basic legitimacy of slavery as an institution in Spanish America, while also honoring the mechanisms for acquiring freedom enshrined in Spanish law since the Middle Ages. Throughout the nineteenth century, from the first wars against Venezuelan patriots in 1809 to the final wars against Cuban patriots between 1868 and 1880, Spain was able to attract military recruits from the slave population, trading freedom for service to the king and nation, as it had done throughout the old regime. Patriot armies often tried to strike a similar bargainmany of their initial leaders were slave owners themselves, such as Simón Bolívar in Venezuela and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes in Cubayet found it harder to defend the persistence of slavery in the context of liberal and republican aspirations, the breakdown of traditional forms of order, and the spread of the language of liberation.

From all corners of South America, where slavery was most widespread and where the battles were fiercest, slaves flocked to patriot armies, using the language of national liberation to forward their demands for liberty. Free people of color also saw great promise in the revolutionary movements. For example, the Afro-Colombian population of Cartagena de Indias, long the major depot for the slave trade to Spanish America, enthusiastically supported the uprising against Spanish rule with the hope of achieving political equality under the new regime. Many were inspired by the spread of knowledge of the Haitian Revolution. Demands for equality and some vision of racial democracy pervaded revolutionary and postcolonial Spanish America as popular groupsslaves includedmobilized for independence and embraced liberal and republican ideologies. Under such conditions, efforts to formalize racial inequality as the Spanish colonial regime continued to do or to reinvigorate bonded labor were virtually impossible. Revolutionary leaders had to capitulate. Simón Bolívar, who led the struggle for independence in South America admitted: "It seems to me madness that a revolution for freedom expects to maintain slavery" (quoted in Blanchard, 2002, p. 514). With the important exception of Brazil, all Latin American states abolished slavery once they threw off colonial rule, though in most cases they compromised by granting freedom to slave combatants and passing gradual emancipation laws that extinguished slavery in countries such as Peru, Venezuela, and Colombia by midcentury.

Cuba offers a slight variation to this process. The colony did not rebel against Spain in the 1810s and 1820s as most of the empire did. Rather, given the huge growth of

the slave population (Cuba became by far the largest slave society in Spanish American history), local elites decided to collaborate with the metropolis. The first movement for independence came only in 1868. As in other parts of the Spanish America earlier in the century, leaders such as Céspedes had to address the question of emancipation, his hand forced by the slaves who fled their masters to join the insurgency against Spanish rule. Once more, antislavery and anticolonialism were conjoined, national independence holding out the promise of liberty and racial equality. In this case, however, Spain responded with its own emancipation laws, finally abolishing slavery altogether in 1886. Nonetheless, the fights against colonial rule and racism would remain fused in the Cuban independence movement for the rest of the century (Scott, 2000).

Abolitionism and Emancipation in the British West Indies and Brazil

We can see that even where anticolonial rebellions forced emancipation for many of the enslaved in Haiti and Spanish America, including Cuba, that the legal process of emancipation was still important. The French metropolis confirmed the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue in 1794 (though confirming a right already effectively claimed by many of the enslaved themselves after the uprising of 1791); Spain passed laws that emancipated many Cuban slaves in the later nineteenth century to counter the anticolonial insurgency; and in independent Spanish America, some slave combatants claimed freedom for themselves, but many slaves were emancipated only later in the century under the auspices of laws passed by the new states. However, the importance of rebellion stands out when we look at other Caribbean and Latin American slave societies where governments, both colonial and national, exerted considerable control over the pace of slavery and emancipation.

Such was the case in Brazil and the British Caribbean colonies. In the latter, emancipation was legislated in stages by the metropolitan parliament under significant pressure from popular antislavery movements that arose in the later eighteenth century, inspired by nonconformist sects such as Quakerism and by conflicts over the nature of work and property in an emerging market society (Davis, 1975; Drescher, 1999). The strategy of British abolitionists was gradualist; they demanded first the suppression of the slave trade to the British colonies, a measure passed by the parliament in 1806. Again in the face of widespread popular demands, the parliament passed an emancipation law that took effect in 1834, though with the major restriction that freed slaves must serve an apprenticeship with their former masters. This qualification of liberation set the tone for the struggles over the limits of freedom that would follow final emancipation in 1838 (Holt, 1992).

Brazil, like the United States, was an independent New World country that held out persistently against the forces of emancipation unleashed in the later eighteenth century (Conrad, 1972). The major American importer of African slaves during the long history of the Atlantic slave trade, Brazil relied heavily on slave labor in most sectors of the economy (the extent of which is hinted at by the French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret in his renderings of daily life in mid-nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro). Upon achieving independence from Portugal in 1822, largely without armed violence, the new country experienced a boom in slave imports to the Northeastern sugar regions. By midcentury, slavery was also on the rise in the southeastern coffee regions of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

However, the supply of forced labor became increasingly tenuous. Under intense British naval pressure Brazil abolished the slave trade in 1850 (the British were also pressuring Spain to suppress the slave trade to Cuba and Puerto Rico). Planters in the southeast began to purchase slaves from the stagnant northeastern sugar regions, but a crisis loomed. In 1871 the Brazilian government passed a gradual emancipation law that called for the very protracted abolition of the institution. But slaves and abolitionists eventually took matters into their own hands to expedite the process. Mass flight from plantations, organized efforts to obstruct the internal slave trade, and increasingly ebullient and defiant public demands for abolition ultimately led to final emancipation in 1888, a century after the unpredictable struggle to destroy slavery had taken root in the Atlantic world.

See also Coartación; Emancipation in the United States; Haitian Revolution; Slavery


Andrews, George Reid. Afro-Latin America, 18002000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Blanchard, Peter. "The Language of Liberation: Slave Voices in the Wars of Independence." Hispanic American Historical Review 82 (2002): 499523.

Conrad, Robert Edgar. The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 18501888. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Drescher, Seymour. From Slavery to Freedom: Comparative Studies in the Rise and Fall of Atlantic Slavery. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2004.

Holt, Thomas C. The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 18321938. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Scott, Rebecca J. Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor, 18651899, 2d ed. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

christopher schmidt-nowara (2005)