Mar 20, 2008

Reviewed Books: Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835; Black Society in Spanish Florida

Landers, Jane
Black Society in Spanish Florida
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999

Helg, Aline
Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004

The process of developing the history of marginalized groups is rarely a simple task, and historians interested in researching groups underrepresented by traditional historical narratives are challenged by a paucity of sources, textual limitations, and the increased likelihood that members of the studied group might be illiterate. Jane Lander’s Black Society in Spanish Florida and Aline Helg’s Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835 each seek to extract the history of peoples of African descent in specific New World contexts, and both authors succeed in their efforts to widen the range of historical discourse on the African Diaspora. Both texts also consider the lives of New World Africans against the backdrop of the ideals of the Enlightenment and within the context of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Frank Tannenbaum’s thesis – which posited that Spanish legal traditions and – in particular, Catholicism – created a more humane form of slavery in Latin America than in Protestant North America - is never far from the discussion in Black Society in Spanish Florida. Landers argued that a “more appropriate place to test Tannenbaum’s original thesis would be an area like Spanish Florida and its frontier, where competing slave systems coexisted in a more or less equal level of development prior to the evolution of monoculture and chattel slavery.” While Landers avoids direct argument in favor of a more nuanced approach to the Tannenbaum debate, her research supports the idea that Africans in colonial Florida fared better than their counterparts in colonies like the Carolinas and Georgia. Landers argued that blacks in Spanish Florida were well aware of the legal protections afforded them by converting to Catholicism. Conversion to the Catholic faith, she noted, “offered significant tangible rewards” to blacks in Spanish Florida, including educational opportunities and legal protections to families, few of which were available to black Protestants. Yet she leaves open to interpretation whether the ameliorated conditions for Africans in Florida were the result of the more benign nature of Spanish culture, or whether these black Floridians simply benefited from advantageous regional politics between the Spain, Britain, and the United States.

Founded just north of St. Augustine in the 1730s, Fort Mose was the first free black community in North America

Helg is less concerned with historiographical debates about the relative merits of competing systems of slavery than she is with the nature of Afro-Caribbean consciousness in late colonial and postcolonial Colombia. Helg noted that Colombia has the third-largest population of African origin in the Western Hemisphere, after Brazil and the U.S. The Caribbean coast and the Pacific lowlands are the regions with the highest percentages of people of African descent. Helg argued that the “two-century old tradition of presenting Colombia as a mestizo nation has greatly contributed to black Colombians’ invisibility.” An Afro-Caribbean consciousness did not develop in Colombia, argued Helg, because of such factors as territorial fragmentation, a well-established clientage system, political competition between urban centers, the lucrative nature of smuggling, and the presence of a vast frontier that offered “viable alternatives to rebellious and free-spirited individuals.” The specters of the Enlightenment the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution, argued Helg, were the primary reasons for the efforts by the Crown to restrict slave imports, as colonial elites feared the arrival of revolutionary contagion in the form of rebellious slaves and incendiary ideas.

Both authors considered the role of free blacks and enslaved Africans in the development of the regional economy. Landers argued that free blacks served as a “ready pool of workers” for the Spanish government, and a number of black entrepreneurs carved out commercial niches for themselves in post-British Spanish Florida. Some free blacks also owned black slaves, and Landers argued that their master-slave relationships were not significantly different than their white counterparts. Helg argued that Colombia remained an economic backwater for much of its history, and that the Bourbon reforms “prioritized bullion, tax revenues, and military defense, not agricultural production or modernization.” Officials and landowners in Colombia, unlike their counterparts in Spanish Florida, seemed unable to find ways around the restrictions on the importation of slaves, and Helg quoted a colonial governor who complained in 1804 that “not a single bozal [African-born] slave has entered [New Granada] in seven years.”

Helg and Landers each noted the rise of racialized categories and divisions of labor in Florida and Colombia. Landers noted that a two-tiered system of slavery developed in Florida, as bozales did the backbreaking labor, while ladinos tended to work in domestic and skilled positions. Helg noted that such positions of manual labor as carpenters and masons were the sole province of persons of black and mixed ancestry, while more skilled professions – such as tailors, barbers, shopkeepers, and bakers – were populated almost exclusively by whites, with a just handful of persons of mixed ancestry occupying these lines of work. Such racialized social hierarchies are in keeping with the spread of pseudo-scientific racism espoused by the likes of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers like Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus and British colonial administrator Edward Long.

Left: Colombian river pilots, also known as bogas, on the Magdalena River

The importance of African women in economic and social milieus of Florida and Colombia received attention in both texts. Black women in Spanish Florida, argued Landers, “acquired a legal personality and social opportunities significantly better than their counterparts in Anglo settlements.” Landers held that these women used the social, religious, and political systems to “ameliorate their conditions and achieve a variety of goals.” In particular, argued Landers, the cited case of Nancy McQueen – a domestic African slave who initiated a series of legal actions against her owner - “underscores Spanish commitment to the principle of access; even an illiterate slave woman could get repeated hearings and engage the court and her powerful and wealthy owner in a case lasting more than seven years.” Spanish courts, acknowledged Landers, typically “deferred to the person of higher status,” thus mitigating some of the power that African women possessed in the colonial court system.

Helg found some of the same legal tendencies in Colombia, noting that free and enslaved African women “resorted to the law (notably the Código Negro) to redress injustices.” Even when these legal actions failed to achieve their objectives, argued Helg, free and enslaved African women who navigated the court system at the very least contributed to “making authorities more sensitive to their human rights.” While the Spanish tradition of the extension of legal rights to slaves and persons of color predates the Enlightenment, the dedication that colonial administrators showed to following legal procedure in both Colombia and Florida reflects the influence of such innovative Enlightenment legal theorists as Cesare Beccaria.

Both authors excelled in bringing long-ignored aspects of the African Diaspora to wider audiences, and each historian depicted the lives of Africans in Spanish America within the wider context of post-Enlightenment ideals. Helg’s Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, however, gets a bit bogged down by the author’s insistence on using the historical narrative as a basis for modern political debates. Helg occasionally drifts into political activism in the text, and her laudable efforts to demonstrate continuity between the historical plight of Afro-Colombians and their late twentieth-century counterparts somewhat stretches the credibility of the author's argument. Landers, meanwhile, erred on the side of understatement, and readers will have to closely scrutinize Black Society in Spanish Florida for evidence of any overt political bias. Yet both of these works cover a significant amount of new ground, and scholars of the African Diaspora will find each of these texts to be a necessary addition to their libraries.