Afro-Latin America: 1800 – 2000
Book Review by John Rocco Roberto



Authored by George Reid Andrews
304 pages, 15 illustrations and 3 maps.
Oxford University Press, New York; 2004  
$19.95 soft, $29.99 hardback
ISBN # 0-19-51233-6


From the first page of the Introduction George Reid Andrews sets the tone of his latest work, Afro-Latin America: 1800 – 2000.  The book looks at the Latin-American world focusing on the mostly overlooked fact that the African population of Central and South America far exceeded in numbers its North American counterparts.  “During the period of slavery,” Andrews writes, “ten times as many Africans came to Spanish and Portuguese America (5.7 million) as to the United States (560,000).  By the end of the 1900s, Afro-Latin Americans outnumbered Afro-North Americans by three to one…[making it] obvious that we need histories of Latin America’s Diaspora comparable to those of the United State’s African Diaspora.  This book is an effort to provide such a history.”  

Andrews then continues to expound on the problem of  “how…do we know who in Latin America is of African ancestry and who is not?”   Explaining the problems previous historians and social scientists have had with relative terms such as “black,” or “brown.”  For the purposes of his book, Andrews simply states that for his study, “any individual described…as black…or brown, or mulatto will be considered…to be of known African ancestry.”

The book is divided into six chapters, beginning with a section of Maps before the Introduction and ending with Population Counts, a Glossary, End Notes and a detailed Bibliography.  Each chapter covers a specific topic and time period, and is presented is a straightforward narrative format.  The first chapter presents an overview of Afro-Latin America in 1800.  In describing the diversity of the population Andrews points out that one could find in the region, “slaves working at the lowest level of the urban economy, slaves and free blacks working as independent street vendors, free black men entrusted with arms and wearing the king’s uniform, and a free black man officiating as a Catholic priest.”    He also goes on to describe how these displaced people kept their culture alive.  “Slaves’ acceptance of Christianity,” Andrews states, “did not necessary imply their abandonment of African religion…as slaves added Christian saints and deities to African pantheons and even invested them with attributes of African gods.”

The second chapter describes The War for Freedom, 1810 – 1890, and concentrates on the effect the liberal revolutions of the late 1700, early 1800s had on the region.  “The Atlantic revolutions affected Latin America not just by the force of their example but by their geopolitical impact as well.  Just as the American Revolution indirectly triggered its French counterpart, so did the French Revolution indirectly trigger the independence struggles in Latin America.”   Andrews focuses on the impact of the Haitian Revolution, and while not considered by the author as part of Latin-America (being a French colony), the rippling effect it caused impacted the fight for liberty throughout the region.  The “bitter civil wars [that] would rage on in much of the region…as in Haiti…would provide Spanish American slaves with opportunities to escape slavery and to fight for their emancipation.”   Andrews then describes the conflicts brought about by the colonial powers against their mother countries in the fight for freedom, and how slaves used these fights to gain their own liberty.  Beginning with the Hidalgo rebellion in Mexico in 1810, and continuing through the fighting between rebels and royalists in Venezuela, to multiparty wars in Uruguay, Andrews explores the opportunities these “revolutions” gave slaves to cast off their oppressive lives and declare war on their former owners.  One example of this is provided in the description of the rebel uprising in Chile of the 1820s.  Joining the bands of guerrillas that had sprouted throughout out the countryside Andrews describes how, “fearing for their lives, hacendados and plantation owners…fled their estates.  In their absence, those slaves who remained behind converted their living quarters into liberated territory, in which slaves began to exercise a certain measure of self-determination over their lives.”

In chapter three, The Politics of Freedom, 1810 – 1890, Andrews describes the struggles by former slaves to end the Caste system.  In claiming citizenship, and building a Middle Class, Andrews also describes how these new found “citizens,” found themselves taking part in sometimes bloody uprising as, “liberal parties” in their attempts to out maneuver their conservative counterparts, “drew support…[from] middle- and lower-class nonwhites, who had suffered social and political exclusion on the basis of…their class [and racial] status.”   The fourth and fifth chapters, Whitening, 1880 – 1930, and Browning and Blackening, 1930 – 2000, explore the regions struggle to cope with its mixed racial heritage.  “In all the countries of the region, writers, politicians and state planners wrestled with the problem of Latin America’s racial inheritance.”   For the peoples in nations such as Venezuela, Cuba and Brazil, the answer to their “blackness” was simple (and based on 300 years of pro-slavery rhetoric); encourage an infusion of “white” settlers into the regions to “Europeanize Latin American societies.”   

To achieve this Andrews points out, it was not only necessary to encourage white settlement of the region, but also transform the physical nature of the region itself.  In that respect downtown areas of major cities were to be torn down, only to be rebuilt based on their European counterparts.  It was hoped that this “modernizing” of the cities, complete with sewage and water systems, electrical power, trolley lines, subways and multi-storied buildings, would encourage “the present blacks…to constitute themselves as civilized peoples.”   However these efforts met with failure, and as Andrews points out in the latter chapter, the end of the export boom after the 1930s became of time of nation building and economic moderation.  “Instead of denying and seeking to obliterate the region’s history of racial mixing,” Andrew writes, the new national identities, “embraced it as the essence of being Latin American (cultural browning).”

In the final chapter, 2000 and Beyond, Andrews asks the question “what new challenges are likely to confront Afro-Latin Americans?”   The answers are not simple ones, and depend, according to the author, on social/economic, as well as democratic concerns.  How it affects the people of Afro-Latin America mostly depends on what segment of the black population one is talking about.  As Andrew himself puts it, “the consequences of growth will be very harsh…for the black peasants,” who to this very day, still “face the loss of their land to large, highly capitalized…enterprises.”

Andrews ends his work with a comprehensive Appendix listing the “Population Counts” from 1800 until 2000.  Used in conjunction with the three maps at the front of the book, the Appendix helps illustrate the growth and assimilation of the African population.  In support of his narrative, Andrews provides hundreds of endnotes, broken down to correspond with the book’s introduction and six chapters as well as a comprehensive bibliography, listing all of Andrew’s sources.  In addition the 15
illustrations serve to help the reader visualize “Afro-Latin Americans” as real people.

Overall Andrews accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do.  In tackling this subject, Andrews provides the first history of the African Diaspora in Latin America from emancipation to the present.  By bringing into the light the struggles of “blacks” within Latin America, Andrews fills a void that dearly needed to be filled.  By covering Spanish America, Brazil, and the Caribbean, Andrews brings to the public how African-descended people fought their way out of slavery and how once free, they helped shape, and responded to the political, economic, and cultural changes that built the democracies of their societies.  If there is any criticism of this work however, it has to be that Andrews tried to squeeze too much information into 300 plus pages, and one gets the feeling that some information was cut to accommodate the page requirements.  Later chapters seem to skip around the region a bit too much, not concentrating on the details of events after emancipation was won.  It may have been better if he had broken his tome into two volumes.

As the economies of both North and South America are brought ever closer by Globalization, the history of America’s closets neighbors, and the largest “African” population in the Western Hemisphere, needed to be told.  Franklin W. Knight of Johns Hopkins University can best sum up the importance of this work, “This highly accessible, magisterially authoritative account fills a long-standing void in the bibliography for Latin American Studies, American Cultures and the history of the Americas in general. Insightful, intellectually provocative, and engagingly written, this book should find a wide audience among both specialists and non-specialists.”  


Review © 2005 John Rocco Roberto/Visagraph Films International.

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