Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

by Aline Helg

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After Brazil and the United States, Colombia has the third-largest population of African-descended peoples in the Western hemisphere. Yet the country is commonly viewed as a nation of Andeans, whites, and mestizos (peoples of mixed Spanish and indigenous Indian ancestry). Aline Helg examines the historical roots of Colombia's treatment and neglect of its Afro-Caribbean identity within the comparative perspective of the Americas. Concentrating on the Caribbean region, she explores the role of free and enslaved peoples of full and mixed African ancestry, elite whites, and Indians in the late colonial period and in the processes of independence and early nation building.

Why did race not become an organizational category in Caribbean Colombia as it did in several other societies with significant African-descended populations? Helg argues that divisions within the lower and upper classes, silence on the issue of race, and Afro-Colombians' preference for individual, local, and transient forms of resistance resulted in particular spheres of popular autonomy but prevented the development of an Afro-Caribbean identity in the region and a cohesive challenge to Andean Colombia.

Considering cities such as Cartagena and Santa Marta, the rural communities along the Magdalena River, and the vast uncontrolled frontiers, Helg illuminates an understudied Latin American region and reintegrates Colombia into the history of the Caribbean.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807875872
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 10/12/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,069,763
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Aline Helg is professor of history at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She is author of the award-winning Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 1886-1912.

Read an Excerpt

Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835

By Aline Helg

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2004 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-2876-9

Chapter One


In 1789 the archbishop-viceroy of New Granada, Antonio Caballero y Góngora, remarked that "disorder" was the fundamental problem of his jurisdiction, centered in Santafé de Bogota. The most fertile valleys were underpopulated and in desperate need of a labor force, whereas the infertile deserts, vast forests, and steep mountains provided refuge for numerous unsubdued Indians as well as "criminal and fugitive men who fled society to live without law or religion." The "disorder of the viceroyalty," he believed, originated in the conquest, when the Spaniards did not attempt to colonize and populate the land but to exploit its resources using indigenous labor. As a result, the inhabitants concentrated in areas already populated by Indians, to which slaves were added, leaving huge regions almost unoccupied. No other region of New Granada was more characteristic of this pattern than the three Caribbean provinces of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Riohacha, where Spain failed to control the frontiers and backlands inhabited by "savage" Indians and runaway free people of color.

Indian Nations

The Caribbean region of New Granada had no secure boundaries. The approximately one thousand miles of seashore extending from the Gulf of Uraba to the Guajira Peninsula were easily accessible to foreign corsairs, smugglers, pirates, and invaders. In the 1690s the Scottish attempt to establish a colony in the Darién and the successful seizure of Cartagena by a French fleet under the command of Admiral Jean Bernard Louis Desjean Pointis had fully exposed the vulnerability of the coast to sea attacks. Since then, Spain sought to increase control by adding new fortifications and by forming in 1775 a matrícula de mar (navy register) to expand the coast guard. Despite these efforts, Dutch, British, and French smugglers and corsairs still called in, even near Cartagena. Understandably, during the Haitian Revolution, news that rebellious French slaves and free men of color were deported to Caribbean shores or escaped by sea alarmed New Granada's authorities. With the threat of a slave revolt from the sea, the Caribbean region seemed all the more uncontrollable.

Likewise, the borderlands remained unguarded. The Guajira Peninsula, in the east, was the unconquered territory of some 30,000 Wayúu (or Guajiro) Indians, who periodically attacked settlements in Riohacha Province. In the west, the territory was almost entirely controlled by sovereign Indians: the Embera in the south of the Sinú and San Jorge Valleys, and an estimated 10,000 Kuna (or Cuna) in the region of the Atrato River and in the Darién. The mountains of the Sierra Nevada, between Riohacha and Santa Marta, belonged to three indigenous groups: the Arhuaco, the Kogi, and the Arsario. Until the mid-eighteenth century, the Andean Cordillera between Riohacha and Ocaña comprised several areas held by the Motilón, whereas the hilly region east of the Magdalena River was the stronghold of about 10,000 Chimila Indians. According to a concerned New Granadan official, indigenous defiance of Spain meant that these regions gave refuge to "other Indians already converted and to licentious people, who, in order to escape the punishment they deserve for their crimes, take refuge in the barbarians and induce them to greater restlessness." Moreover, it meant that these regions tended to favor Spain's enemies and actively participated in contraband. This was particularly the case with the Kuna in the west and the Wayúu in the east, both of whom had intense commercial relations with the British from Jamaica and the Dutch from Curaçao.

In 1761, for instance, Spanish military engineers Antonio Arévalo and Antonio de Narvaez y la Torre explored the Gulf of Uraba, accompanied by a translator and ten black men. They found ample evidence of an alliance between the Kuna and the British against Spain. Several communities traded cacao and tortoise shells for clothes, arms, and ammunition from the British. One cacique had reportedly received the title of captain and a golden scepter from the governor of Jamaica. Another traveled in a pirogue flying the British flag. When the engineers offered the Kuna caciques Spanish royal titles to land and the salaries of captains of Indians, most of them refused these inducements on the grounds that the British had told them that Spain's aim was to take over their lands. Similarly, on the coast of Riohacha, the Wayúu engaged in trade with the British from Jamaica and the Dutch from Curaçao. They bartered lumber, dyewood, salt, cattle, and mules for arms and ammunition. Such exchanges showed not only the importance of the commercial ties of Indians with Spain's rivals but also their will to militarily defend their lands.

Rochelas and Palenques

Weakened by unconquered Indians on the periphery, the vast territory of Caribbean New Granada situated within the frontier was far from operating as an integrated unit. Unlike central New Granada, which is divided by three high-peak cordilleras, the coastal region is mostly fertile tropical lowland, except for the Sierra Nevada and the arid Guajira Peninsula. A complex network of rivers runs from the center of the viceroyalty to the Atlantic Ocean, the most important of them being the Magdalena River, which meets the Cauca River near Mompox and flows into the Caribbean Sea near Barranquilla. Two other waterways are the San Jorge River, which runs through the southern region between Ayapel and San Benito Abad before flowing into the Cauca River, and the Sinú River, on the west of the Cauca, which flows into the Caribbean Sea north of Lorica. The Atrato River linked the gold-producing Chocó to the Gulf of Uraba. However, neither the Magdalena nor any of the other rivers were easily navigable; moreover, the Atrato flowed through the territory of the Kuna, who continuously attacked boats and travelers. Although well connected to the Caribbean Sea, neither Cartagena nor Santa Marta, the two largest port cities on the coast, had direct access to the Magdalena River, the viceroyalty's main waterway. Besides the rivers, a few trails connected colonial towns and villages, but periodic floods and rain rendered them precarious. Most tracks to the coast cut through the territories of unsubdued and occasionally unfriendly Indian nations. Not surprisingly, with such an embryonic communications system, the backlands situated beyond Caribbean New Granada's cities, villages, and haciendas fully escaped the supervision of colonial institutions.

Thus, in addition to the Indians in the unconquered nations, until the 1770s an estimated sixty thousand people lived out of the reach of the colonial state and the Catholic Church, scattered in small illegal settlements called rochelas, established in the forests, hills, and swamps along the rivers, and in isolated huts housing nuclear families. As these men, women, and children did not leave their own testimonies, their conditions can only be roughly sketched on the basis of reports written by their adversaries during the Bourbon era. According to one of them, Spanish lieutenant colonel Antonio de la Torre y Miranda, who in the mid-1770s led expeditions against such communities in the hinterland west of Cartagena:

[The arrochelados] are the descendants of the military and naval deserters, of the numerous stowaways who without license or job passed to these dominions, of the black male and female slaves who ran away or escaped from the justice of their masters, and of others who, having committed some homicides or other crimes sought shelter from their excesses by dispersing in order to free themselves, some from punishment, others from servitude, having among them many Indian men and women who, mixed with mestizo, black, and mulatto women, propagated an infinity of racial mixes (castas) difficult to verify.

Ten years later, another of their conquerors, Franciscan friar and veteran army officer Joseph Palacios de la Vega, also stressed that the arrochelados along the San Jorge, Cauca, and Nechí Rivers south of San Benito Abad formed a predominantly male, mixed population of Indians, zambos, blacks, and mulattoes among whom the boundaries of race and original status were difficult to establish. Nevertheless, some rochelas were more racially homogeneous, notably those formed by Indians who had fled the pueblos de indios (segregated indigenous villages) to which they had been forcibly assigned in order to return to their own ways of life in adjacent forests. Other rochelas, founded by African runaway slaves and their descendants, were predominantly black.

Life on the margins of the colony allowed arrochelados to form sexual unions and families that displayed little observance of the Catholic norms, especially monogamy and the interdiction of consanguineous unions. To his great dismay, Antonio de la Torre reported that in the mangrove swamps near Cartagena men and women spent the night together fishing in small boats: "From such a disorderly and brutal mixture of the two sexes, which in some cases extended to daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law, some family kinships were formed that were so intertwined that it would be difficult for the most consummate Theologian to sort them out." For his part, Palacios de la Vega lamented that, in the rochelas he destroyed, it was common for mothers to have children from several fathers and for men to live with several concubines concurrently. The Bourbon conquerors often were appalled to find arrochelados drinking alcohol and dancing to the rhythm of drums, their bodies barely covered below the waist, in complete sexual proximity. According to La Torre, these dissolute mores, together with the unusually high fertility levels of the region's women, explained why families of arrochelados were so large. It was not exceptional, he claimed, for a father having two or three unmarried daughters to end up with twelve or fourteen illegitimate grandchildren-a household of more than thirty persons. But limited concern for the Catholic norms did not mean that most rochelas were egalitarian and peaceful communities, despite the fact that they did not own slaves. According to Palacios de la Vega, some were characterized by internal violence and abuse, especially against women and children. Most women, he asserted, had been kidnapped and forced into multiple concubinage by male arrochelados, who exploited their children's labor and kept them unbaptized. Nevertheless, several colonial reports claimed that arrochelados lived a life of idleness and earthly pleasures because nature generously provided all the fruits, starchy food, game, and fish they needed. Seemingly, their only struggle was against the voracious insects, and their only industry was to make illegal liquor or pan gold for contraband. Bishop Diego de Peredo of Cartagena alleged that in the plains of Tolú the laziness of arrochelados led them to steal a lot from each other, whereas La Torre claimed that women "had never performed any [work]."

No doubt, these reports magnified the immorality and brutality existing in rochelas to justify conquest, even when Palacios de la Vega's description of domestic abuse and men's kidnapping of women and girls is not at odds with the picture of male violence against women and children observed in other frontier societies. Moreover, the extensive destruction of arrochelados' homes and crops by La Torre and Palacios de la Vega contradict their own statements of idleness. Closer to the reality of the arrochelados, though gender biased, was their portrait by French traveler Gaspard Mollien. In 1823 he described the scattered nuclear families established along the Magdalena River as busy settlers growing corn, root vegetables, and fruits in a hostile environment characterized by isolation: "The life of the inhabitant of the Magdalena is not idle. Alone, he takes care of everything, he does not expect any help from society; he must be at the same time an architect, a hunter, a fisherman, a skillful worker.... He never rests." However, by Mollien's own admission, "Man cannot live alone," and subsistence farming was impossible without the contribution of a wife and children. Together, they grew food crops, planted and harvested corn, fished, and produced lard. Whereas men hunted, women and children tended the poultry, ground the corn, and prepared the meals. In addition, they continuously faced disease, natural disasters, and dangerous reptiles and insects. In such conditions, few newborns survived, few adults reached old age, and most families comprised only a father, a mother, and two or three children. Mollien concluded, not without some racial and climatic determinism: "One does not live long with the evils from which these people suffer, and which are common to all mixed races in the tropics." Similarly, the arrochelados' failure to observe Catholic baptism, marriage, burial, and communion, often lamented by colonial officials, resulted largely from the lack of priests serving outside cities and the most important villages. Some ministers charged expensive fees to perform the sacraments that many arrochelados simply could not afford. Thus, arrochelados generally did not get married in church, often neglected to have their children baptized, and sometimes buried their dead in the woods.

In addition to rochelas, several palenques had existed since the early seventeenth century, when heterogeneous groups of Kongo, Angola, Arara, Mina, and Karabalí runaway slaves formed them around Cartagena, in the lower Cauca River, and in the vicinity of Valledupar and Riohacha. Although by the 1690s many palenques had been destroyed by military expeditions, some became officially recognized as peaceful hamlets of free blacks. For example, the 1780 census returns for the village of Santa Catalina, between Cartagena and Barranquilla, included two haciendas and one palenque comprising three households and thirteen dwellers. More well known is Palenque de San Basilio, near Cartagena, to which the bishop of Cartagena granted the status of an autonomous black community in the 1710s, after all attempts at conquest had failed. In exchange for a general pardon and freedom, the palenqueros agreed not to shelter new runaway slaves and not to accept any white residents except a Catholic priest. In 1772 Cartagena's Bishop Diego de Peredo noted that they "keep to themselves without mixing with other peoples," speaking "a particular language" (derived from the Bantu family). They governed themselves autonomously in all political, military, and administrative matters and were accountable solely to the province's governor in Cartagena. The only outside authority in the community was the priest, who administered to 396 parishioners as well as 90 slaves from adjacent haciendas.


Excerpted from Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835 by Aline Helg Copyright © 2004 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

This work, based on a truly impressive array of archival materials and often obscure printed sources, is significant not only for its coverage of a major but understudied region of a likewise major if understudied Latin American country, but also for the contribution that it makes to the larger field of Afro-Latin American studies. It delves into historical examples of popular culture and popular resistance, and it has the further potential to illuminate important questions in Colombian history as a whole, including the origins of national sentiment or the lack of it.—David Bushnell, author of The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself

An impressive study. . . . It is of interest to anyone concerned with Colombian history, Caribbean history, or the history of racial difference and political struggle in the Americas. Highly recommended.—Choice

Helg has produced a fine work of Atlantic history. This well-researched book provides a wealth of information on one of the region's least known areas. . . . It deserves a wide readership.—Colonial Latin American Historical Review

[A] meticulous and vigorous study.—American Historical Review

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