Africans in Peru

The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1650-1860


Emilio Contreras – 

Africans-in-Peru1In Latin America, Africans played a major role in the formation of society. Still, their history is not as well known as it should be. From 1492 to 1900, a total of 12 to 20 million Africans were taken from their homeland and imported to Latin America, and of those, 10 to 12 million survived the middle passage and made it to the Americas to work as slaves. I aim to write a “macro” narrative of Africans in Latin America in a comparative context, with a focus on Peru. The borders of Peru have changed in the nineteenth century, so my analysis focuses on the areas in the North Andes that were part of the Viceroyalty of Peru during the colonial era but are no longer within the borders of Peru. Themes I will be exploring include the enslavement of native peoples versus the importation of Africans. I will also consider the economic factors that dictated demand for their labor, as well as the various industries that demanded them. In addition, I will consider when the importation of Africans began in Peru, why they were brought when they were, as well as the distinct “phases” of the importation of African slaves in the early colonial period versus the mature colonial period when plantation slavery takes off. I will also analyze comparative race relations, mainly with whites and indigenous people. Finally, I will analyze some contemporary issues and how they trace back to colonial phenomena.

The history of black Africans in Latin America begins with its conquest by Spanish conquistadores. From the very beginning of the encounter between the two “worlds,” Africans were brought to the Americas as auxiliaries to the conquering Spaniards. In fact, Francisco Pizarro brought Africans to Peru in 1527 to help conquer the natives. When the Spaniards were first conquering the native peoples and establishing their own society in the Caribbean and throughout the Americas, Africans were brought to help facilitate that process. As the Spanish consolidate their control over the native Tainos in the Caribbean, they bring Africans as their auxiliaries and as skilled workers to Hispaniola, then to Cuba, and then to all of the islands in the Caribbean.

Afro-Peruvian worker

The first phase of African slave importation began in 1493 with Columbus’ second voyage to the Caribbean, and continued approximately to the mid-seventeenth century. By “first phase” I mean roughly the first century after the conquest when Africans are brought to the Americas as auxiliaries of the Spanish, as skilled workers, and to replace natives who have died. I will then use the term “second phase” to refer to that time period after about 1600 when plantation slavery takes off in the Americas and when Africans will then be brought directly from Africa to the plantations mainly as unskilled agricultural workers. The importation of Africans began slowly, with slaves being brought as individuals or in small groups. Black slaves were few in number, and were used mainly for skilled labor and as auxiliaries. They worked as servants, craftsmen, and even supervisors of native laborers as the Spanish conquer the native Taino in the Caribbean and exploit them for their labor. This process of conquering native peoples and exploiting them for their labor will carry over onto the mainland from Mexico to Central America to Peru. In the early colonial period, the biggest economic activity was mining silver and gold, which required vast amounts of tough, unskilled labor. African slaves were not typically used for hard labor due to the abundance of native labor (only after natives die of overwork and disease are Africans brought as “replacement labor”). There was no reason for Europeans to invest in an expensive African slave for hard labor when an indigenous person could be made to do it for free through the encomienda system, or “mita” as it would called in Peru after the Spanish conquer those areas in 1532. African slaves imported during the first phase, that is, before plantation slavery “takes off”, were “hispanized” quickly, meaning that they become acculturated in the Spanish-speaking direction rapidly. The few Africans imported during the first phase of importation were cut off from their native cultures at home, and had to speak Spanish to everyone. The Africans at this time essentially became Spaniards (in fact, native peoples called Africans the “españoles negros”). Over time, the presence of blacks would result in acculturation, Africans adopting European customs; and in many areas where there were more Africans, transculturation, that is, the flow of culture both ways and the formation of new cultures that incorporate both (or all three if there was a strong indigenous presence). This first phase of slave importation was not self-perpetuating because an increasing number of “hispanized” natives, mulattos, and mestizos could do the work that Africans had once been imported to do. Though the Africans in the first phase would “melt away” into the dominant Spanish society, becoming part of the larger Spanish-dominated but increasingly multi-ethnic Spanish-speaking world, their arrival laid the foundation for the Afro-Latino identity in Latin America.

During the second phase of slave importation, from the mid-seventeenth century to the late nineteenth, when the demand for tropical export crops like sugar, coffee, cacao, and tobacco took off internationally, Africans began to replace indigenous peoples as laborers and to be brought in massive numbers. Many factors contributed to the catastrophic decline of indigenous populations, including disease, warfare, and labor demands. In the coastal areas of the tropical regions, a 90% decline was not uncommon. In addition, labor-intensive crops like sugar cane, coffee, cacao, and tobacco took on a greater role in the world economy, creating a greater demand for labor. Landowners had always asked the crown for subsidized shipments of slaves in mines and plantations, but now the need was much greater. African laborers replaced those natives that had provided unskilled labor as that pool of native laborers died or escaped deeper into the tropical rainforests to escape the harsh working conditions, and that Africans had supervised before. At the same time, “hispanized” natives and mestizos began to fill the role of skilled laborers that Africans had once held in Peru and in the rest of the Latin American cities. The importation of African slaves increased dramatically during the second phase. During this period, there would come to be over six million black slaves laboring in Latin America, roughly four million in Brazil and two million in Spanish America. Because of this huge demand for their labor, Africans in this period had a much stronger presence than ever before. In some areas, Natives and Blacks combined outnumbered white Europeans, and in many areas such as the Caribbean (Haiti for example), Blacks alone outnumbered white Europeans and Natives. The second phase of slavery ended with the abolition of slavery in Peru in 1854 under President Ramón Castilla. In some areas like Cuba and Brazil, it would not end until 1886 and 1888 respectively.

Ramón Castilla, President of Peru

It was in this second phase of slave importation that the well-known Atlantic triangular trade network emerged. Iron, guns and liquor were brought from Europe to Africa in exchange for slaves; African slaves were brought to the Americas in exchange for tropical crops; and cotton, sugar, coffee, cacao, and tobacco were brought from the Americas to Europe. It is also in this period when the notion of “passages” in the importation of African slaves developed. The first “passage” was from their native homelands (all of the West coast of Africa and well into the interior), where they were first captured as prisoners of war and as the demand for their labor grew, then they became “commoditized”, to the coast to be sold to slavers. Slaves in Peru usually came from Angola, Senegambia, and Sierra Leone. The second, or “middle” passage, was the voyage from Africa to an American port city whether it be Charleston, South Carolina; Havana, Cuba; or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The middle passage was the most brutal, and up to one in seven slaves died crossing. Finally, the third passage was from an American port city to plantations, their eventual destinations.

Economic conditions and trade demands in Peru dictated the different applications of African labor in different industries. In colonial Peru, silver mining was by far the largest source of wealth for the Spanish crown. The mining of silver and gold was the dominant economic activity of the time, and drove domestic demand as well. In fact, this mining was so important to this entire region, that it drove economic activity and was the “engine of economic growth.” Extracting and refining precious metals required massive amounts of unskilled labor as well as lots of skilled labor. In early colonial times, African slaves were used for skilled labor, with the Natives providing the bulk of the unskilled labor through the mita, that institution that the Spanish conquerers imposed on the Quechua and Aymara-speaking peoples to exploit their labor. This was true even in mining; Africans were often employed in the refining of ore or even as supervisors for mining crews composed of indigenous laborers. Slave owners delegated their duties to African supervisors while themselves living away in the city, essentially becoming absentee masters. In the region of Barbacoas, Africans were used as “capitanes de cuadrilla, or work gang captains.” Africans slaves were expensive investments to the Spanish mine owners, so many owners chose to rely instead on natives, who were coerced into labor but were not chattel slaves. However, disease, labor demands, malnutrition and other factors caused a severe decline in indigenous populations. At the same time, labor-intensive crops such as coffee and cotton began to be grown on a larger scale in Latin America, especially in the tropics and along Latin America’s coasts. Africans began to fill the role that the native peoples had played before, as hard laborers, especially as coastal natives in most countries including Mexico and Peru died after repeated waves of epidemic disease.

The geographical distribution of Africans in Latin America played a large role in the shaping of society. When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, they began mining on the coastal lowlands, and spread up into the highlands. Native populations suffered everywhere, but especially in the lowlands. As agriculture, especially sugar and coffee, took off in Peru; and plantations in the lowlands increased the demand for slave labor. The coastal areas of Peru became densely populated with Africans, while the highlands, where most indigenous peoples were and where plantations could not succeed, remained mostly indigenous. Africans replaced the essentially nonexistent coastal natives (the mortality rate of coastal natives was the highest), while coexisting with indigenous peoples in the highlands. Though never a majority, Blacks came to compose up to thirty percent of the population in the Peruvian lowlands at one point (film “Black in Latin America”). The experience of a black slave in Peru also depended on whether it was an urban or rural setting. Blacks working in an urban context usually worked as skilled laborers or domestic servants. It was possible for a person of African ancestry to become a jornalero, basically a freelance worker. Overall, urban society was relatively fluid, and provided afro-latinos an opportunity to rise on the social ladder. In the countryside, where African slaves were more likely to live and work on a plantation, the status of a slave was more rigid and the conditions harsher. At first black slaves helped run estancias and supervise native laborers, but eventually took on the role of laborer themselves. Needless to say, their opportunities for social mobility compared to urban slaves was much more limited (if it existed at all).

African descendants in Peru

Given the different reasons why Africans were brought to different regions of Peru to fulfill different labor needs, relations between blacks and native peoples were complex. When Africans were first brought to Latin America, legend has it that the natives attempted to scrub the skin of the Africans, attempting to scrub off their blackness. To the indigenous peoples, Africans were foreigners just as much as Europeans. Still, in mining areas, blacks and natives interacted frequently, and even intermarried. The workforce became increasingly mixed with the increased importation of African slaves. Eventually, there would be “black and red”, or joint African and indigenous, rebellions. One of the best documented of these is the series of uprisings in Vilcabamba, a lowland district south of Cuzco. Beginning in 1602, an indigenous man named Francisco Chichima led two thousand slaves and an unknown amount of natives up against the Spanish unsuccessfully. In their shared history and over the course of many generations, indigenous peoples and those of African descent interacted and transculturated to a great extent, forming a new identity, an “Afro-Peruvian” identity.

Blacks had a more complicated relationship with whites. White Europeans were the ones that imported Africans, and were the ones that owned the businesses in which they worked, whether it was mines or plantations. As in most of Latin America, class and race went hand in hand. Prejudice and legal restrictions were both major limitations on the upward mobility of blacks. Even when free, Blacks could not hold office, join the priesthood, or join guilds. Colonial society had a rigid hierarchy that determined where people lived and the nature of their family connections. During the first phase (and before plantation slavery took off), Blacks had a fair amount of freedom above enslaved natives, but with increased importation of African slaves, laws began to become harsher. Whites began to fear a “black and red”, combined African and native, uprising against them. Laws became more restrictive. For example, in 1688, mixed-race mining crews were outlawed, and a ban was placed on African-descended caciques, native headmen, which suggested natives and blacks were forming cross-cultural marriage bonds. In colonial society, “whiteness” was prized and seen as more desirable, whereas the mixing of non-whites was considered to be a step in the wrong direction. The legal system may have been an obstacle in the upward mobility of blacks, but ultimately it was money that made the most difference in social status, “money whitens” as is often said. African slaves could be freed upon their master’s death out of charity, or even buy their own freedom. In the colonial period, there were even “certificates of whiteness” that wealthy non-whites could buy to become legally white.

Early Afro-Peruvian Culture

With the end of the slave trade in Latin America, the African population was absorbed into a dominant indigenous or the increasingly growing mestizo population (and here we have to say that the process of mestizaje, or racial and ethnic amalgamation, comes to incorporate peoples of African ancestry as well.) In some areas where the African population was much larger and there were fewer indigenous people, it was the other way around. Either way, the mixing of these populations resulted in a new cultural identity. Transculturation, “culture flowing both ways within the larger Spanish or Portuguese-speaking or Catholic framework”, from European, indigenous, and African cultures shaped the overall cultural identity of Latin America. Music and dance in the region have both indigenous and African roots. Some examples are the Rumba in Cuba and the Fandango in coastal Mexico. Language was also shaped in this way, with oral traditions reflecting mixed heritage, like Creole in Haiti, which is essentially French with some African vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Syncretism in Latin American society also resulted in a blend religious traditions. For example, Santería is a mix of African deities with Catholic iconography that comes out of of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. The blend of heritages in Latin America’s history resulted in completely new cultural identities, and I say identities in plural because though they have much in common, a Haitian Creole identity is quite distinct from an Afro-Brazilian identity, which in turn is quite distinct from an Afro-Peruvian identity.

Three hundred plus years of colonialism from the conquest of millions of Natives to the massive importation of millions more Africans had a profound effect on Latin America, and those legacies of colonial society remain strong today. As recently as 2011, the government of Peru issued an official apology to Black Peruvians for the “abuse and discrimination” they have endured since the Colonial period (film, “Black in Latin America”). Plantation slavery in Peru, for example, left a legacy of racism, locking many Afro-Peruvians into a world of exclusion and poverty and leaving their descendants in the modern era, numbering about 2 million today (film “Black in Latin America”), with the much more difficult task of doing away with racism and negative stereotypes. In Peru today, there is a television program entitled “El Negro Mama”, translating roughly to ‘the stupid Negro.’ This show depicts a caricature black character behaving stereotypically as an ignorant buffoon, in the style of the minstrel show in the United States. Though the days of slavery are long gone, the legacy of this brutal institution has not been completely done away with. One hundred and fifty years after the abolition of slavery, many families are still working on the same lands they did as slaves. Huge inequalities still exist in Peru as well, falling along racial lines. In fact, though Peru is now becoming wealthy in the same way as in the colonial era, by mining, this new mining boom is benefitting the already wealthy disproportionately. Like in the colonial era, the people providing the labor for this mining boom are the ones most impoverished and with the least resources. Peru has made some gains in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (mainly by providing educational access), but still has much further to go. In the Black town of “El Carmen,” only 27% of Afro-Peruvians finished high school and that only 2% finished college (film “Black in Latin America”). Blacks in Peru (as well as highlands Natives) continue disproportionally to suffer from poverty with very limited resources with which to escape it, roughly in the same ways and along the same lines as in its colonial past.

Africans in Peru
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