Racial Demographics in the Western Hemisphere

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Racial Demographics in the Western Hemisphere






Africans, Europeans, and Asians migrated to the Americas for a variety of reasons, and the volume, motives, and circumstances of this migration changed over time. In the Western Hemisphere, the majority of Africans were forced to work on sugar, coffee, tobacco, and rice plantations, as well as in mines, but there were a few free Africans who willingly made the journey. Europeans also migrated for different motives, including religious persecution, economic opportunities, or judicial condemnation.

The arrival of Europeans and Africans resulted in the near annihilation of the Amerindian population. The indigenous societies that originally inhabited the continent were displaced, massacred, or alienated from their land in order to accommodate the settlement of Europeans. Asians also came to the Americas, mainly in the nineteenth century. With the end of the transatlantic slave trade, plantation owners used Asian indentured laborers to replace slaves in Jamaica, Guyana, and elsewhere.

In many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, after the decimation of the local populations prior to the nineteenth century, Africans and their descendents constituted the majority of the population. Their influence was vital for the formation of various societies, from Canada to the Mexican highlands, and from the Peruvian Pacific coast to the Brazilian Atlantic shore. Slavery and its stigma became associated with the descendents of Africans, becoming a key issue in race relations in the Americas. From the fluid race classifications that occurred in Latin America to the more bipolar race perception that occurred in the United States, people’s skin color became associated with four centuries of slavery.

During the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, which occurred approximately from 1519 to 1867, it has been conservatively estimated that around 10 million

Table 1.
Total of Africans Disembarked, 1519–1867
SOURCE: Reprinted from Eltis et al. (1999). The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Africans arrived in the Western Hemisphere. Most of the slaves disembarked in the Americas, with 40.6 percent being shipped to Brazil. The territories under British control absorbed 29 percent of all African slaves, while Spanish America imported 14.3 percent. Around 12 percent of the total African slaves that were imported went to the territories under French subjugation. A smaller number, somewhere around 2.7 percent, ended up in the Dutch Americas, and about 1 percent went to Danish America. The majority of these Africans disembarked in the Western Hemisphere during the nineteenth century (see Table 1).


Following the European overseas expansion and conquest of the Americas, there were several waves of forced and free migrations to the Western Hemisphere (see Table 2). Estimates on the indigenous population of North America suggest that around the year 1500 approximately 4.5 million people lived in what is referred to as the mainland region of the United States of America in the early twenty-first century. Until the end of the seventeenth century, most of the immigrants who went to British America were Europeans (approximately 152,000 Europeans, compared to 22,000 Africans). This pattern changed in the first half of the eighteenth century, when the volume of European and African immigrants was almost equal. However, for most of the period, Europeans constituted the majority of the incoming immigrants. Sometimes, however, such as the period from 1740 to 1759, the number of African slaves imported into British Americas was up to twice the number of European immigrants.

In the eighteenth century, British North America received 522,400 African slaves. However, this number decreased significantly during the following century. By the eve of the American Revolution, less than 20 percent of the slave population was African born. Instead, most of the slaves were born in the Americas. From 1801 to

Table 2.
Estimated Migration to British America, 1620-1779
SOURCE: Adapted from Menard, Russell. (1991). “Migration, Ethnicity, and the Rise of an Atlantic Economy: The Re-Peopling of the British America, 1600[H5008]1790.” In A Century of European Migration, 1830[H5008]1930, edited by Rudolph Vecoli and Suzanne Sinke. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

1808, when the importation of new slaves was outlawed, 14,450 slaves (less than 1 percent of all the African slaves forcibly transported to the Americas during the nineteenth century) arrived in the United States. Unlike other slave societies in the Western Hemisphere, slave populations in the United States increased through natural reproduction rather than by the arrival of new slaves. The slave population of the United States increased from approximately one million in 1800 to more than four million by the 1860s (see Table 3).

In the territories of modern Canada, which were controlled by the British after 1759, most of the indentured laborers were whites from Ireland or Germany, despite the fact that African slavery was also a source of labor. Unlike other places in the Americas, African slave labor was utilized in urban centers and in domestic spheres. In New France, 1,132 African slaves arrived directly from Africa between 1628 and 1759. After that, traders did not import slaves directly from Africa, but did so either through the British colonies in North America or the French West Indies. However, most of the immigrants were still Europeans. By the mid-eighteenth century, 96 percent of the inhabitants of Montreal were classified as whites, while Amerindians and blacks represented 3 and 0.7 percent of the population, respectively. Until the end of the American Revolution, there were relatively few blacks in the northern colonies. Their number increased only after the arrival of white loyalists fleeing the new American Republic, who brought over 2,000 black slaves to British Canada. Besides their slaves, Loyalists also brought with them 3,500 free blacks. These new immigrants, both whites and blacks, settled mainly in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where local Amerindian populations had also been established. In addition,

Table 3.
African American Population in the United States
YearsNumberPercent of total population
SOURCE: Adapted from Time Almanac 2005, Needham, 2004, p. 377.

a wave of runaway American slaves migrated to Canada beginning in the 1790s. Most of them headed for Ontario, where a 1793 act guaranteed the freedom of any former slave entering the province. By the time of the American Civil War, it is estimated that about 30,000 blacks had found their way to Canada, establishing themselves near the American border, in places such as Chatham, Toronto, London, Windsor, St. Catherine, and Hamilton. The black population of Canada did not increase substantially again until the 1960s, when immigration restrictions, based on color and origin, were removed.

In Mexico, a smaller white immigration and a larger Amerindian population contributed to the idea that it was a nation composed solely by Spaniards and Amerindians (and their descendents). The local population of the territory now known as Mexico was estimated to be at least 4.5 million by the time of the Spanish Conquest. African slaves arrived with the first Spaniards and were employed in the exploitation of the new territory. In the 1500s and 1600s, it was estimated that the number of blacks was double the number of whites in Mexico. By the 1650s the African slave population was estimated to be around 35,000. On the other hand, it is estimated that there were thirty Amerindians to every black and white combined. The result is that African descendents are almost invisible in the modern population of Mexico. African and Amerindian labor were employed together in mixed farming enterprises, urban activities, and domestic tasks. Given its large local population, European settlers used local labor, which was cheaper than African slaves. This resulted in a decline in the number of African slaves over time, and by the end of the eighteenth century there were only 6,000 in Mexico.


In the Caribbean and Latin America, a small number of white settlers controlled a large slave population, and modern societies still reflect this dichotomy. Unlike British North America, race classification was very fluid, which led to race distinctions that were very arbitrary and ambiguous. Cultural ascriptions, such as hairstyle and dressing, contributed just as much as physical appearance in classifying someone as being white or black. The legacy of slavery played a major role in defining people’s classifications and shaped the way nations were created in the Caribbean.

The British and the French Caribbean each accounted for about one-fifth of the total slave trade to the Americas. This trade supplied plantation economies with cheap labor. In the eighteenth century, Jamaica and Saint Domingue were the largest plantation economies in the region and the principal destination for most African captives. In the nineteenth century, Cuba emerged as the main destination for African slaves.

Slavery is intrinsically associated with Jamaica, though the slave boom only took place after Jamaica fell into British control in the 1650s. Many Amerindians died in the first decades of contact with the Spaniards due to harsh conditions and diseases introduced by European settlers and later by African slaves. By 1611, a century after the Spanish arrived, 558 slaves were present in Jamaica, one for every Spanish settler. During the first two centuries of Spanish occupation, there were no major plantations established on the island and the number of African slaves never exceeded 1,000. Under British control, however, the transatlantic slave trade expanded. In 1661, six years after the British invasion and occupation of the island, the number of immigrants started to increase. It is estimated that there were 3,000 whites and 500 blacks on the island at that time. In 1673, however, the number of blacks exploded, and 55 percent of the total population of 17,272 was classified as black.

The 1673 census indicated the presence of approximately 7,768 whites and 9,504 blacks in Jamaica. In 1690, however, the black population was three times larger than the white (10,000 whites and 30,000 blacks). African slaves from the Gold Coast, the Bight of Benin, and modern-day Nigeria were exported to Jamaica to work on the sugar plantations. Jamaica became a major British port in the transatlantic slave trade, and it served as a commercial transshipment center for ships going to British North America.

Table 4.
Population of Cuba, 1774–1877
YearsSlavesFree BlacksWhitesTotal
SOURCE: Adapted from Knight, Franklin. (1970). Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

In 1713 there were approximately 7,000 whites and 55,000 blacks. By the early 1730s blacks represented 90 percent of the total population, and by the end of the 1730s the white population increased to 10,000 people, while the number of black slaves jumped to 100,000.

The slave trade and the introduction of sugar plantations changed Jamaican society, imposing a strict hierarchical division in which race played a major role. A small number of white settlers regulated labor and controlled the slave population. Even when slavery was abolished in 1833, freeing 800,000 slaves, a strict racial hierarchy continued to inhibit the political and economic achievements of blacks, and power remained in the hands of the white elite. Between 1834 and 1845, more than 4,000 European indentured servants migrated to Jamaica, mostly from England, Ireland, Germany, and Scotland, in an effort to replace slave labor. Up to 10,000 African indentured servants were also recruited between 1841 and 1867. Between 1845 and 1930, more than 20,000 Indians and 6,000 Chinese migrated to Jamaica as indentured or contract workers seeking a better life.

Similarly, in Cuba, the local population was quickly decimated after the arrival of the Spaniards. The first shipment of slaves disembarked in Cuba in 1526, but it was not until more than two centuries later that a massive African migration took place. The slave imports expanded first with the British occupation of the island (1762–1763) and exploded after the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). In the fifty years after the Haitian Revolution, an estimated one million slaves landed in Cuba (see Table 4).

African slaves who arrived in Cuba came from different parts of Africa; estimates indicate that no single part of Africa supplied more than 28 percent of arrivals to Cuba. In addition to Africans, an estimated 150,000 to 250,000

Table 5.
Population of Barbados, 1655–171 5
YearsWhitesBlack Slaves
SOURCE: Reprinted from Dunn, Richard. (1972). Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 16241713. New York: W. W. Norton.
1680 38,782
1696 42,000

Chinese indenture laborers were taken to Cuba between 1847 and 1887.

The situation was different in Barbados. Since the beginning of its occupation, white settlers established plantation economies on the island. Tobacco plantations came first, then cotton and sugar, which required large numbers of highly regimented enslaved workers. In 1655, 23,000 whites and 20,000 blacks lived on the island (see Table 5). In 1673 the number of whites decreased slightly to 21,309, while the number of blacks jumped to 33,184. The growth of the black population was associated with the economic shift to sugar plantations and the increased demand for African slaves. In 1684 approximately 19,568 whites controlled a black population estimated at 46,602.

First called La Isla Espanola, the island of Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), was the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean. It was considered the “Pearl of the Antilles,” by the French. By the end of the eighteenth century, the more than 450,000 black slaves on the island produced half of the world’s sugar and coffee, plus indigo and cotton. Some 40,000 white settlers and 30,000 free people of color also lived on the island. The enslaved Africans came from diverse backgrounds. Before 1725, most of the Africans who landed at Saint Domingue came from the Bight of Benin, and were mostly Adja speakers. From 1725 to 1750, half of the slaves who disembarked in Saint Domingue came from Angola. From 1750 onward, different African regions supplied slaves to this Caribbean island. In 1791, slaves rose up to free themselves from bondage, and after thirteen years of war, Haiti became a free country.


Only a few settlements were established in Central America. The presence of only a small number of mines and the existence of only small-scale agricultural production prevented a large importation of African slaves. Initially, the Amerindian population fulfilled the labor requirement. However, the number of African slaves increased when the Amerindian population started to decline. In many parts of Central America, the number of slaves was so small that descendants of Africans were not visible by the 1800s, because many had integrated with the local population. They became virtually indistinguishable from the mestizo (descendants of Amerindians and Europeans). After emancipation, the expansion of infrastructure and the establishment of plantations attracted impoverished blacks from the Caribbean islands. They contributed to the construction of bridges, railroads, and channels, but employment was temporary and social integration was extremely difficult.

By the early nineteenth century, blacks and their descendents made up as much as 17 percent of the population of Costa Rica. More African descendents arrived by the end of the nineteenth century to work in the banana fields, but they remained marginalized and segregated from mainstream society. In 1992 the black population of Costa Rica was estimated at 2 percent.

In Honduras, the first slaves arrived in 1540, at the beginning of Spanish presence. In 1545, approximately 5,000 slaves were imported to carry out domestic tasks or labor on small farms. Yet the number of slaves never attained the proportion of the Caribbean island settlements. As was the case in Costa Rica, by the early twentieth century, plantations geared towards the external market attracted the immigration of workers, mainly free blacks from West Indies. Estimates of African descendents in Honduras varied from 1.8 to 5.8 percent of the total population.

Panama had the largest black community in Central America. Since the arrival of the Spaniards, Panama grew in importance because it offered the narrowest land route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. At first, Spaniards relied primarily on Amerindian labor as porters to transport goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. However, in less than fifty years following the arrival of the Spanish, hard labor and diseases decimated the Amerindian population, which was estimated at being more than a half million by the late fifteenth century. In 1610, some 1,057 whites, 294 free persons of color, and 3,500 slaves lived in Panama City. By 1625, blacks numbered 12,000 in Panama City. By 1789, there were 22,504 blacks, representing 64 percent of the total population of 35,920 persons in the Province of Panama. In exchange for the support for Panama’s secession from Colombia, the U.S. government received the right to build a channel unifying the Atlantic and the Pacific. By the early twentieth century, about 44,000 blacks had arrived in

Table 6.
Brazilian Population Demographics, 1819–194 0
YearsWhiteMulattosBlacksAsiansTotal Population
SOURCE: Adapted from Reis, João José. (2000). “Presença Negra: conflitos e encontros.” In Brasil: 500 anos de povoamento. Rio de Janeiro: IBGE.; Skidmore, Thomas. (1993). Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
1819  1,081,174 3,598,132
18723,787,2894,188,7371,954,452 9,930,478
18906,302,1985,934,2912,097,426 14,333,915

Panama, mainly from Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad, to work on the Panama Canal.


At the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, an estimated 2 to 5 million Amerindians lived in what has become Brazil. The growing Portuguese presence after 1530 changed the lives of the Amerindians who lived along the coast. From the early sixteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century, almost 4 million African slaves arrived in Brazil, the largest number of slaves in any colony in the Americas.

By the early seventeenth century, the establishment of sugar plantations had accelerated the importation of slaves, and by the eighteenth century, the expansion of the mining economy in Minas Gerais had had a similar effect. By the end of the eighteenth century, Africans and their descendents in Brazil represented the majority of the population in the four major regions of the colony: Minas Gerais (75%), Pernambuco (68%), Bahia (79%) and Rio de Janeiro (64%). Only in São Paulo did whites constitute a larger percentage of the population than blacks (whites were 56% of the population).

The transfer of the Portuguese Crown to Brazil in 1808 led to a high demand for cheap labor to attend the court that was installed in Rio de Janeiro. The expansion of coffee and sugar plantations also contributed to this demand. As a result, the demand for slaves continued until 1850, when the slave trade was finally abolished. Slavery lasted in Brazil until 1888.

For more than 300 years, the societies of the Western Hemisphere depended on the forced labor of imported Africans. No other social institution surpassed slavery in its demands on all aspects of social organization and intergroup relations. Force, both military and moral, was the ultimate factor in its survival. Once established, slavery required its primary victims, Africans, to do its bidding without question or recourse, and its European advocates and managers had to be more vigilant about its continuation than about their own liberties. The abolition of slavery as an institution did not, however, mean the immediate end of the values and attitudes that shaped it, or of the consequences that flowed from it.


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Dunn, Richard. 1972. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713. New York: W. W. Norton.

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Reis, João José. 2000. “Presença Negra: conflitos e encontros.” In Brasil: 500 anos de povoamento. Rio de Janeiro: IBGE.

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Vecoli, Rudolph, and Suzanne Sinke, eds. 1991. A Century of European Migration, 1830–1930. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Mariana P. Candido
Paul E. Lovejoy

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Racial Demographics in the Western Hemisphere

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