Slaves, Amerindians and poor whites

By Marion O’Callaghan,
Monday, May 14 2007

AfricansIt seemed an ordinary enough church until someone pointed me to the angels.

“It is the only church in Latin America,” he said proudly, “with black angels.”

I hadn’t thought of it before. I had seen a black and miraculous Jesus, a black Virgin-Mother, but never black angels. Here the cherubim who worship God day and night, were black. I tried to disentangle symbol from what may well have been only a vapse portrayal by some artist. We were here in the heart of Peru’s cotton farms and-since they go together-in the heart of Afro-Peru although neither the words Afro-Peru nor Black Peru describes the people in the villages and homesteads which stretched beyond the church.

Here the cotton farmers at the edge of Peru’s desertic landscape, were poor. So were the descendants of once proud Incas. They were all poor. All were dispossessed. In this our ethnic-charged period of history, each group sought an identity rooted in a past, often fabricated. For Incas this past was inseparable from land. Now and again some archaeologist unearthed a bit of pottery, a burial site, the buried remains of some settlement. Some anthropologist pieced together the structure of power, the religious symbols of a society disrupted and then destroyed.

Once upon a time the church was constructed by the large plantation owners. It is these who, emerging at the end of the 18th century and into the first half of the 19th century, imported and sometimes smuggled in African slave labour for their cotton fields. The land had been confiscated from the Amerindians.

The Indigensta Movement

Here the plantation is both the dispossession of the Amerindians and the land worked by the unpaid labour of African slaves. Some former Peruvian government in one of the many land reforms which puncture the histories of Latin American countries, had distributed the land of the former vast cotton plantations. Landlessness, which had marked freedom from slavery, has been replaced by the proud ownership of a handkerchief of cotton land. This has certainly partially stemmed the drift to Lima — one of the most overcrowded of crowded Latin American cities.

By the same token the distribution of land has increased the likelihood of conflict between African Peruvian and Amerindian Peruvian. Indeed the “Indigensta” movement by underlining the rights of indigenous peoples, has not only served to mobilise these against the continuing grab of land, of mining interests and of forests, it has also served to fan conflict between those declared indigenous, and the African former slaveless exotic and less protected.

Both groups are poor. It is interesting to note that one of the demands of some African groups in Latin America, is for the declaration of certain land areas as “African ancestral lands.”


The similarity of poverty is best seen in Bolivia. There, in the countryside of Mamma Coca and desperation, are the descendants of Maroons, ie, runaway slaves who set up settlements away from master-slave society. These Maroons in Bolivia are, with the exception of the physical characteristics of hair, shade and bone structure, indistinguishable from the Aymara or the Quechua near to whose villages they live. These former slaves will dress like their neighbours, eat the same food, speak the same language, recognise the same symbols and keep the same customs. They will have the same relationship to Central Power.

The question of Maroons is not only Bolivia. Suriname’s Maroons, once called “bush negroes,” are in continuing conflict with the other former slaves who have now acceded to power in Suriname, and in conflict with Amerindian groups. Nor has Independence — and therefore a large measure of black political power-been any kinder to these bush negroes than white and Dutch power once was. Conflict is perhaps not as sharp today, but only 15 years ago I have seen the burnt out patches where villages once stood, and visited the refugees who had fled taking refuge in that settlement in Cayenne once meant for Blessed Anne Marie Javouhey’s slave lepers.

Yet the “bush negroes” have gone back to Suriname, leaving only the haunting questions as to the existence of African slave solidarity.

The greatest dispersal

We easily forget it. The dispersal of Africans during the 400 years of trans-Atlantic slavery, was the greatest and longest lasting forced removal and transfer of people in the history of mankind.

Whenever cotton was grown in the Americas, whether in Peru or in the USA, or for a while in Antigua, there were African slaves. Wherever there was king sugar from Cuba to Brazil, there were African slaves—and I leave aside the displacement within Africa which would accompany the break-up of village family units for sale abroad. In addition to sale abroad, there was the rise of powerful African countries based on the sale of slaves and increasingly themselves major owners of slaves. Only to indicate here the complexity which any demand for reparations must take into account. Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, all have their pockets of descendants of African slaves.

It is not only those Africans, direct descendants of those who first came to X or Y country.

In Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, there are also the descendants of Jamaicans. Bajans and sometimes Trinis who came as extra workers on plantations, canal or oil, and stayed. These may be English speaking and have been slotted in as a distinct group with incipient conflict both with Amerindian groups and the older African former slave group.

It is difficult to see how any demand for reparations for African groups in areas where these are minorities within what are practically Amerindian societies, can be practical or successful without some prior settlement with Amerindian groups. Unless this larger issue of the relationship to political and economic power of the majority Quechua, Aymara or else who are also poor and also dispossessed is settled, reparations to former African slaves can only exacerbate conflict.

Abolition and Portugal

It should be noted that Brazil is not quite in the same category as Spanish America. Brazil was Portuguese and Portugal had a particular historical relationship with Africa and with African slavery and a particular relationship to Britain. After the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807, and under considerable pressure, on February 19, 1810 Portugal signed a treaty of alliance and friendship with Britain. In this treaty, among other things, Portugal agreed to cooperating with Britain “in the cause of humanity and justice” to bring about a gradual (my underlining) abolition of the slave trade throughout her territories while preserving the right of Portuguese in her African territories to “purchase and deal in slaves.”

Even with this proviso, Portugal was dissatisfied. At the Congress of Vienna, Portugal obtained an annulment of this agreement, replacing it with the promise to prohibit the slave trade only to the North of the Equator.

This protected the trade between Brazil on the one hand and Angola, the Congo and Mozambique on the other.

In spite of the “most favoured nation” treatment which Britain managed to obtain from Portugal in 1810 and which opened Brazilian ports to British goods, and in spite of an agreement signed between Portugal and Britain in 1817 which gave reciprocal right to search the warships flying Portuguese or British flags, it was not until December 10, 1836 that the slave trade was abolished in the Portuguese territories and not until 1850 that it was abolished by law in Brazil.

The development of Portugal

The slave trade had been particularly important for the development of Portugal. Portugal was a small country with a population, according to the 1527 census, which varied between one million and 1.4 million. Portugal had launched into trade in skills and spices with the East, the conquest and development of Brazil, the developments within Portugal which would support both her Asian and her American expansions, and the development of her naval power.

There was no way that this could have been done with one million to 1.4 million Portuguese from whom it is reckoned that Portugal dispatched abroad approximately 2,400 men annually as administrators, missionaries and overseers. Slaves were therefore crucial to the development of Portugal. By the 16th century it was reckoned that one-tenth of the population of Portugal’s cities were slaves while in the rural areas slaves had been drawn from China, India, North Africa and Africa to do the hardest agricultural work.


It was not only within Portugal. The development of Brazil depended more on slavery than did any other country in the Americas with the exception of the Caribbean. Portugal’s triangular trade was with Brazil. This development of Brazil in turn depended on Portugal’s control of the slave trade from Angola, Mozambique, the Congo — where she fought with the troops of the Belgian King — and Cape Verde. The problem for Portugal was that Brazil had become independent of her long before Brazilian independence was declared. To put it bluntly, Portugal risked becoming a client state of Brazil. This added to Portugal’s desire to hold on to her African “territories” and therefore on the slave trade.

There is one postscript to be added. After abolition and from 1850 onwards, Brazil obtained its cheap labour from Northern Portugal. These Portuguese borrowed their passage from plantation owners and were then indebted to them for the rest of their lives. Their conditions of work on the plantations were only marginally better than that of slaves.

This is only the beginning of the complexity with which any system of reparations will have to confront if reparations are not to be only confined to after all the wealthiest and most powerful Blacks-those of the USA.

And more to come.

Reprinted from:,57104.html

Also Read:

Apologies, Memory And History
By Marion O’Callaghan, Monday, May 7 2007

2 thoughts on “Slaves, Amerindians and poor whites”

  1. O’Callahan’s comments on Portuguese and non-English slavery in the west is quite instructive. What Portugal did in Angola is even more instructive. When Angola, after a long struggle with Portugal, obtained its independence, a number of white business people, almost everyone, left. Fled to South Africa or Mozambique. They shiped all they could, and held a wrecking party in the middle of Luanda the night before independence. Every vehicle not worth shipping, was driven into the center of town and crashed against others to make a huge pile of debris. Typewriters and adding machines in businesses like banks, were wrecked.
    Independence Day was of course a holiday. The next day when the banks opened, Angolans found that they had a pencil and paper banking system, where everything had to be written out longhand, and a massive clean-up operation in the middle of town, where nothing could move due to piles of debris.

    Those who are inclined to think that European nations are well meaning towards non-white nations should think on this, especially as it relates to Portugal, an impoverished bit of desert-like land clinging to the Iberian Peninsula. It continued to exist because of its rich colonies of Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Goa.Territories far larger than Portugal, from which it drew resources for its own benefit, like other colonial powers. What they could not take, they smashed to bits. Rapine and destruction- the history of African exploitation by the west. A story needing to be retold again, lest we forget.

  2. The “Tangential comment ” guys would probably get me for this, but I think this information is worth sharing. Prof. Rex Nettleford’s speech before the United Nations, on the observance of the 200th anniversary of the Atlantic Slave Trade, is carried in the June issue of Everybody’d magazine( a journal published in New York, for Caribbean people. I had not seen it on this site, so I searched for it at, and it is carried by the Caricom Secretariat’s website, as are other significant speeches made by distinguished Caricom people on that occasion. I post this here so that others who want a deeper perspective on that issue, maybe able to search and read further. Also, the June 2007 issue of the Smithsonian( had an interesting piece on the slave trade, based on the arrest and conviction, and subsequent hanging, of an American slaver in 1862. Both pieces are worth reading, but neither comes as a one page summary. They are long.

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