Forced Migration, Slavery, and Freedom in Latin America

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, twelve million Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas. European empires created trade networks in Africa to facilitate the slave trade in their colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Slaves endured the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean and, those who survived, were forced to labor in plantations, mines, and households. The work was difficult, coercive, and often violent. Despite these harsh conditions, slaves strove to improve their lives and gain their freedom in diverse ways. They resisted their enslavement by running away and forming maroon communities, creating kinships and brotherhoods, and guarding their African identities and forming new ones in the Americas. Afro-descendants, both free and enslaved, contributed in invaluable ways to the creation of new societies in Latin America.

European empires occupied many ports along the Atlantic coast of Africa to engage in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Trading posts such as Cape Verde and Elmina were especially important because of their strategic locations. Europeans interacted within trade networks of African kingdoms, bartered for slaves through exchanging goods and currencies, and constructed trade relations among international empires. Once Europeans obtained slaves in their trading along the African coast, they forcibly transported them across the Atlantic Ocean in the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. Slaves arriving in Latin America often came from areas represented in this 1787 map of the southern half of Africa, such as Congo, Benguela, Angola, Loango, and Mozambique. This map reflects the intricate slave trade networks that European empires constructed on the western coast of Africa and the diverse ethnic origins of slaves arriving in the Americas.

The Portuguese empire imported the highest number of slaves from Africa among all the countries engaged in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Thus, Brazil was the destination for the majority of slaves imported to the Americas from Africa. Once in Brazil, many slaves labored on sugar fazendas (plantations) geared toward export-based markets and their work was difficult, demanding, and coercive. In response, some slaves ran away and formed maroon communities, known as quilombos in Brazil. In this manuscript of an alvará (proclamation), the Portuguese king comments on slave prices, rations, and various aspects of slavery in eighteenth-century Brazil. The declaration also describes crimes of fugitive runaway slaves, the sentencing process, and the roles of slave jailers. The alvará reflects the efforts of slaves to escape from slavery, and the response of the Portuguese empire.

Johann Moritz Rugendas was a German painter. He traveled the world for the better part of his life, and his interest in natural history brought him to Brazil in 1821. He remained there until 1825, traveling and recording his impressions of Brazilian geography, society, and culture. Across the Americas, African slaves were identified with a series of designations referred to as “ethnonyms.” Scholars debate whether these designations were African ethnicities, European inventions that attempted to classify the peoples they encountered and exploited, or a combination of both. In nineteenth-century Brazil it was possible to find different types of ethnonyms.  Some referred to broad regions in Africa, specific slave ports of embarkation, or actual African ethnicities. This plate portrays slaves from the wider regions of Congo and Angola, in West Central Africa, and the port of Benguela.

Although slavery was a de-humanizing practice that entailed the commoditization of people, Africans had diverse histories and cultures. To some extent, African cultures were not completely unknown to Europeans. From the beginning of the trade, Europeans identified slaves with a series of designations referred to as “ethnonyms.” There is a strong academic debate about whether these designations were actual African ethnicities, European inventions attempting to classify the peoples they encountered and exploited, or a combination of both. In nineteenth-century Brazil it was possible to find different types of ethnonyms: they either referred to broad regions in Africa, specific slave ports of embarkation, or actual African ethnicities. The slaves depicted here were taken from the region that Europeans called Mozambique, and the peoples from there were identified by their characteristic facial marks.

Although slavery in the Iberian world was originally a legal institution from the 15th to 17th centuries, with the decimation of the native population of the Americas and the expansion of a plantation economy, slavery began to be associated almost exclusively with African ancestry. Children of afro-descendant enslaved women automatically became slaves. Afro-descendants born in the Americas were called creoles, in the British colonies; criollos in the Spanish world; crioulos, in Brazil; and créoles, in the French world. This illustration puts a face to those born in captivity in nineteenth-century Brazil.

John Atkins was a British royal naval surgeon. In February 1721, Atkins sailed from Spithead (now Portsmouth) for the coast of Guinea with the Swallow and the Weymouth. They visited Sierra Leone, Wydah, Gabon and Elmina before setting sail for Brazil and the West Indies. In April 1723, the vessels returned to England and Atkins invested his time in writing books. A Voyage to Guinea was first published in 1735.This book contains valuable information about slavery in different locations of the Atlantic World, the natural history of the Gold Coast, and the cultures of African peoples.

Slave traders and masters considered slaves were property and commoditized them into chattel with fixed prices. By doing so, slave traders and masters ignored slaves’ personhood and often disregarded their kinship and community relationships. Slaves feared the dissolution of their family structures when they were sold, and mothers, fathers, and children were subject to separation based on the discretion of their owner or trader. This manuscript from Cuba provides information on the sale of slaves between a slave trade company and Marcelina Barthe Lescaille. Important information such as the names, ages, and prices for each slave are present. For example, the slaves in this exchange include a young woman, age 22, and her daughter, Clara, age 4. Most of the slaves are referred to as "mulata" or "criolla" indicating that they were of mixed race or born in the Americas. This manuscript reflects an example of kinship networks in slave trading in Cuba.

James Henderson was a British diplomat who traveled to Brazil between 1819 and 1821. While in Brazil, he visited Rio de Janeiro and Pernambuco. From the beginning, his intention was to describe every aspect of Brazil: its history, geography, government, economy, society, and culture.The vivid illustrations offer a view of the many activities slaves engaged in, both in urban and rural Brazil, and their interactions with others. His work provides us with a glimpse of slaves’ lives in nineteenth-century Brazil. The illustration portrays two black men, arguably slaves, steering a canoe with a white couple, accompanied by a black woman, also a slave, and two babies.

Free Afro-descended women played important social and economic roles in Latin America as skilled artisans and property owners. This image in Henderson’s “History of the Brazil” offers a glimpse into the lives of free Afro-descended women in nineteenth-century Brazil. In the image, a free woman operates a shop in an urban marketplace with baskets of food and artisan goods. She interacts with women in the marketplace and appears to barter with them. This image reveals the important roles that free African-descended women occupied in nineteenth-century Brazil as active members of a property owning mercantile and artisan class.

In urban areas, slaves often worked in households and as skilled laborers, such as blacksmiths, tailors, and bakers. Owners in cities often used slaves as status symbols to reflect their wealth and social standing. Henderson depicts an image of urban slavery in “A Brazilian Sedan Chair.” The scene reflects a type of labor domestic slaves experienced in urban areas in nineteenth-century Brazil and illustrates issues of class, gender, and race.

Since sugar fazendas, or plantations, were often large developments that functioned as parts of an export-based agricultural system, masters organized the layouts of their plantation in order to monitor slave labor. The slaves’ quarters and the master’s house on the plantation were often separated to indicate separate spheres based on race, enslavement, and labor. In addition, the plantation house represented a form of control; it was often centrally located and allowed masters to easily monitor slave labor on the plantation. Henderson depicts the rural setting of a Brazilian sugar plantation near Pernambuco. In the image, a man approaches the house of the plantation owner, a large building with an ornate entrance, several rooms, and what appears to be an attached chapel. The image reflects the master’s house and how it served as a central area to control slave labor.

The Portuguese empire concentrated much of its slave labor in Brazil on export-based production. Sugar, gold, and diamonds were among the top export-based production materials. On sugar fazendas, or plantations, slaves labored in physically demanding tasks to produce vast amounts of sugar to export to international markets. This image in Henderson’s “History of the Brazil,” depicts the technology and difficult labor required to produce sugar on a fazenda. For example, in this image slaves attend to a rotating sugar processing wheel while an overseer monitors their work with a whip in his hand. This image reflects the coercive labor system slaves worked under and the abuse inflicted by overseers and masters.

Not all forms of slavery in the Americas were plantation slavery. In the case of nineteenth-century Brazil, forced labor was pervasive throughout society; slaves engaged almost every activity imaginable, from artisans to domestic chores, or other primary economic activities. In his travels to Brazil between 1819 and 1821, British diplomat James Henderson aimed to describe every aspect of Brazil and offered a comprehensive view of the many activities in which Africans and Afro-descendants were employed. This image depicts a group of slaves moving a cargo of goods in a trade house.

Domestic slaves performed difficult and complex household labors like cleaning, cooking, greeting guests, caring for their masters’ and mistress’s children, attending to their masters and mistresses’ needs, and more. In this image, Henderson depicts a white upper-class woman resting in a chair being fanned by her female slave. The scene reflects an elite or upper-class household in a room adorned with fine furniture. On the floor beside the slave’s mistress and her domestic slave is a small African child, likely the child of the female slave.

Brazil was the only Latin American country to successfully maintain a monarchy for almost a century after achieving independence. The preservation of the monarchy went hand in hand with the protection of an elite planter class and, consequently, slavery. This close ties between the monarchy and slavery are reflected in the fact that the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the last in the western hemisphere, preceded the fall of the monarchy by only a few years. Although slavery was not exclusively a practice of the elite, this document presents important information about the slaves of the Brazilian royal family.

In 1870, Spain decreed the gradual emancipation of all slaves in its possessions, among them Cuba. The Moret Law declared free all children of slaves born after September 18, 1868. This measure was also extended to all slaves of 60 years of age.  At the same time, slave ownership evolved into Patronato, or legal apprenticeship, with defined powers: slave labor was regulated, the condition of the slaves improved, hours of labor were fixed, and any punishment was regulated according to law.This manuscript lists valuable information regarding the patrocinados or “apprentices,” such as age, ethnicity, and clase, or race. Patrocinados were afro-descendants on the path to freedom who had to serve with a patron for a number of years before actually being freed.

Spanish officials provided detailed information about slaves in the Patronato or apprenticeship system in Cuba. In these examples from the Registro de los patrocinados (record of apprentices) from 1883, officials recorded the slaves’ names, ethnicity, age, clase (race), and detailed information about the slaves’ former masters. For example, on page 7, the Registro lists slave owner Álvarez D. Miguel as the former owner of Nicolás, Pablo, and Isabel, who were criollos (born in the Americas), José who was originally from Puerto Rico, and José who was brought from Africa. The Registro also included information about special skills or occupations of the slaves. For example, all of the slaves’ skills belonging to Álvarez D. Miguel were listed as campo(field workers). Other classifications of skill sets included zapatero (shoemaker), doméstico (domestic), and panadero (baker).

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Slave labor on plantations in the nineteenth century was often channeled towards export-based international markets. Common exports from Brazil and the Caribbean included sugar, coffee, indigo, rice, and tobacco. The labor was intensive, difficult, and coercive. Slaves produced large quantities of sugar and coffee, especially on Brazilian and Caribbean plantations whose exports were destined for international markets in Europe and the rest of the Americas. These manuscripts from the Woodhall Plantation in Jamaica provide a glimpse into Atlantic export trade, plantation production, and the slave labor required. The author records information regarding shipments of coffee sent to London such as insurance premiums, duty, dock charges, certificates of damage, and advertising fees.

Forced Migration, Slavery, and Freedom in Latin America