Race, or The Last Colonial Struggle in Latin America

This post is a part of our “Race and Revolution” series.

By Jason McGraw

Latin America has long captivated outsiders for its seeming absence of a black-white racial binary, fluidity in racial self-ascriptions, and racially-mixed populations.  Latin American elites, for their part, willingly adopted this sense of exceptionalism, and for much of the twentieth century the region gained a reputation as home to so-called racial democracies.[1]  Yet over the last 30 years, scholars and activists have documented the region’s pervasive anti-black and anti-Indian sentiments and its lack of social mobility for people of African or indigenous descent.  Societies once heralded as racially democratic are now exposed for their rampant racist exclusions and inequality, which are often accompanied by fervent disavowals of racism.[2]

Even as challenges to the myth of racial democracy deserve plaudits, they have arrived with some of their own blinkered assumptions.  Like earlier pro-racial democracy polemics, recent critical antiracist scholarship often relies on static notions of culture and ahistorical understandings of Latin America.  But what would happen if we pushed back the timeline and examined politics, as well as culture?  How would our understanding of Latin America’s racial orders change if we looked at its nineteenth-century revolutionary upheavals?[3]

Because I can’t cover the entire region or the last two centuries in this blog post, I’ll focus on Colombia, the country I have studied most closely, and on important turning points in the nineteenth-century politics of race.  What I hope becomes clear is that both the older myth of racial democracy and increasingly acknowledged racial inequality, each perceived in its own way as an unchanging truth, owe something of their existence to nineteenth-century revolutionary struggles.

Colombia, like most Spanish American republics, won its independence in the 1820s and had abolished legal slavery by mid-century.  Those two events—political independence and slave emancipation—are fundamental to understanding the remaking of racial ideologies in Latin America.  During the wars of independence (1810-1825), indigenous, African-descended, and mestizo (mixed-race caste) soldiers fought in patriot and royalist armies alike.  Upper class creole men of Spanish ancestry composed much of the military and political leadership and, once Spain was vanquished, led the newly-independent republics.  These elite creoles, individuals like Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Santander, were liberal in their outlook, yet at best ambivalent, and often deeply hostile towards a continued public role for plebeians who had fought for independence.  And while they inaugurated rights-based constitutional orders in Colombia and throughout the hemisphere, creole leaders made certain that men of education and property controlled the new republics.  The primacy of property, including property-in-person, effectively short-circuited demands for immediate abolition in Colombia.  Whereas Mexico, Central America, and Chile abolished slavery in the 1820s, other Spanish America republics, including Colombia, hesitated.

Yet despite the power of propertied classes, appeals to abolition and revolutionary republicanism circulated widely.  More important, enslaved persons took it upon themselves to self-emancipate by flight into the Pacific and Caribbean coastal frontiers.  These individuals often followed earlier generations of cimarrones (fugitive slaves) into de facto freedom zones far removed from centers of official power.  Between 1820 and 1850, Colombia hemorrhaged two-thirds of its enslaved population, despite the government’s anti-abolitionist policies.  This was a slow, grinding thirty-year war of attrition against legal bondage waged, due to the dithering of ruling groups, by the enslaved themselves.[4]

By the middle years of the nineteenth century, as fugitives hollowed out institutionalized slavery, a new generation of liberal and democratic political leaders took up the cause.  In Colombia, this young leadership was composed of men like José María Samper, a preeminent and somewhat romantic liberal ideologue.  Once this new generation gained political power (in Colombia, in 1849), one of its first goals was the immediate abolition of slavery.  The young liberals found the political costs of ending slavery reduced by a widespread public consensus around abolition.  Yet this consensus would have gained little traction without the efforts of the enslaved to self-emancipate over the previous decades.  With only minor opposition, the Colombian congress passed a law of final abolition, which went into effect on the first of January 1852.  On that day, the remaining 16,000 enslaved Colombians won their legal freedom and simultaneously gained full citizenship rights.

Seen from the vantage of race, the destruction of slavery carried important unintended consequences.  By pushing the burden of emancipation onto the enslaved themselves, the mid-century liberals fashioned new and unanticipated meanings out of abolition.  For liberal leaders, legalized bondage was a colonial legacy akin to exclusive economic privileges, aristocratic honors and titles, and entailed ecclesiastical power.  They viewed slavery as a legacy of Spanish rule, one that the independence generation had failed to overthrow.  The new generation of liberals still believed in the primacy of property, unless it took the form of a monopoly.  Slavery to them was a racialized monopoly, and abolition became an anti-monopolist catchword.

Racial difference, then, was for mid-century liberals and democrats the last colonial struggle.  Abolishing slavery and the other forms of dependence, which they feared also stemmed from racial difference, meant abolishing race as a category with any weight in the law or public life.  Officials tried to make good on this belief by extending citizenship rights to freed-people at the moment of emancipation.  Legally speaking, slave emancipation converted the racially subjugated into full citizens free of the burdens of race.

The conflation of slavery with monopoly power and racialized dependence explains the differing fates of people of African descent and indigenous people after independence.  As anthropologist Peter Wade notes, native peoples in Latin America have remained a racial Other since colonial times, whereas African-descended peoples became “ordinary citizens” of their respective countries.[5]  This racialized distinction hinged on indigenous peoples’ real or presumed corporate control of entailed lands often dating back to Spanish crown titles or earlier.  The abolition of black slavery, on the other hand, destroyed colonial-era corporate power and caste distinctions—according to liberals.

The mid-century moment of abolition and utopianism did not last.  Plebeians who had mobilized for war and self-emancipation since the independence struggle continued to arm themselves in conflicts over control of the republic.  Partisan violence featured in annual elections, and Colombia experienced major civil wars on average once a decade after 1850.  Other Latin American republics endured similar violent politicking and internal strife.  For liberals like José María Samper, the armed mobilization of plebeian populations proved unbearable.  Over the ensuing decades, Samper’s politics moved steadily to the right, until he came to see slave emancipation itself as the problem.  Instead of abolishing racial differences, ending slavery had unleashed racism—of blacks against whites.  Liberals-cum-reactionaries concocted an early version of “reverse racism” to critique the continuing public role of citizens of color.  Manuel Briceño, Samper’s conservative colleague, claimed in 1878 that “the liberal party expedited the law that abolished slavery and launched the blacks against their masters, and if it is certain that they cured that cancer in a single blow it is also certain that they unleashed hatred between two races.”[6]  Ending the colonial legacy of slavery had, according to Briceño, Samper, and other former liberals, spawned new forms of racism.  The only solution imaginable to reactionaries at the end of nineteenth century was to restrict political rights in order to rid public life of working people, the poor, and especially men of color.  By 1900, nondemocratic authoritarian regimes ruled in Colombia and elsewhere in the hemisphere.

Latin American myths of racial democracy and the realities of racial inequality, far from unchanging cultural phenomena, both owe their existence to these nineteenth-century political struggles.  The wars of independence and slave emancipation nurtured beliefs in a race-less citizenship.  The subsequent overturning of democratic citizenship rights subverted any efforts to build more egalitarian societies.  No outcome was a given, and every political path after independence carried with it unintended outcomes.  Racial ideologies, far from static, were transformed by political change.  Nonetheless, the utopian vision of emancipation as demolishing the last vestiges of the colonial caste system, and the deepening inequalities in the ensuing authoritarian era, survive today as legacies of this older history.

Jason McGraw is associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington and author of The Work of Recognition: Caribbean Colombia and the Postemancipation Struggle for Citizenship (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).  You can follow him on Twitter: @JasonPMcGraw

Title imageSimón Bolívar emancipa los esclavos de Colombia [Simón Bolívar Frees the Slaves of Colombia], Luis Cancino Fernández, Venezuela, 19th century .

Further Reading :

Andrews, George Reid, Afro-Latin America: Black Lives, 1600–2000 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

Blanchard, Peter, Under the Flags of Freedom: Slave Soldiers and the Wars of Independence in Spanish South America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

Echeverri, Marcela, Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolution: Reform, Revolution, and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780-1825 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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

Twine, Francine Winddance. Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997).


[1] Frank Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas (New York, A. A. Knopf, 1947).

[2] Edward Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Peter Wade, Blackness and Race Mixture: The Dynamics of Racial Identity in Colombia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993); Charles Hale, Mas Que un Indio (More Than an Indian): Racial Ambivalence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2006).

[3] For historical works on Latin American racial ideologies, see Jeffrey Gould, To Die in This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880-1965 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998); Alejandro de la Fuente, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in Twentieth-century Cuba (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[4] See McGraw, The Work of Recognition: Caribbean Colombia and the Postemancipation Struggle for Citizenzhip (Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 22-24.

[5] Wade, Blackness and Race Mixture, 36.

[6] Quoted from McGraw, The Work of Recognition, 127.

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