Race War and Nation in Caribbean Gran Colombia, Cartagena, 1810–1832

Race War and Nation in Caribbean Gran Colombia, Cartagena, 1810–1832

American Historical Review
Volume 111, Number 2, 2006
pages 336-361, 44 paragraphs

Marixa Lasso, Associate Professor of History
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

During the Age of Revolution, nations in the Americas faced the quandary of how to reconcile slavery and racial discrimination with the enlightened and liberal ideology of citizenship. Would slavery be abolished? Would all free men, regardless of race, enjoy the equal rights of citizenship, and if not, how would that exclusion be justified within an ideology that proclaimed the equality and brotherhood of humankind? From 1810 to 1812, patriot movements across Spanish America answered the last question by declaring legal racial equality for all free citizens and constructing a nationalist ideology of racial harmony—what contemporary scholars call the myth of racial democracy. In Mexico, the rebel leader Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed the end of racial distinctions: “Indians, mulattos or other castes … all will be known as Americans.” In Venezuela, the 1811 constitution decreed the derogation of “all the ancient laws that degraded the segment of the free population of Venezuela heretofore known as pardos [free blacks and mulattos] … [and] restored all the inalienable rights that are accorded to them as to any other citizens.” Farther south, the revolutionary junta in Buenos Aires repudiated colonial caste laws and condemned the “prejudices responsible for the degradation to which the accidental difference of color condemned until now a part of our population as numerous as it is capable of any great enterprise.” By the time the wars of independence ended in 1824, the constitutions of all the nations in Spanish America granted legal racial equality to their free populations of African descent, and a nationalist racial ideology had emerged that declared racial discrimination—and racial identity—divisive and unpatriotic. In contrast, nineteenth-century nationalism in the United States centered on ideologies of manifest destiny and white supremacy. What explains this difference?

This essay argues that the revolutionary wars were crucial for the construction of these different national racial imaginaries, and that any historical analysis of comparative race relations in the Americas needs to take into account the important role of anti-colonial struggles in the formation of racial identities. The literature on nationalism and the Age of Revolution has made us aware of the importance of this period in shaping national identity. However, we still do not have a comparative study that explores why societies with similar colonial pasts of slavery and racial prejudice developed such divergent racial national imaginaries during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This is partly because of the tendency of U.S. and Latin American historians to assume that the colonial pasts of their regions naturally led to their modern racial identities. Yet as David Brion Davis already noted in 1966, “differences between slavery in Latin America and the United States were not greater than regional or temporal differences within the countries themselves … negro bondage was a single phenomenon, or Gestalt, whose variations were less significant than underlying patterns of unity.” Thirty years later—after summarizing the scholarship on U.S. and Brazilian slavery—Anthony Marx similarly concluded that there is little in the two countries’ colonial pasts that warrants their dissimilar histories of modern race relations. Indeed, when one colonial experience is set against the other, the divergent national racial imaginaries of the United States and Latin America seem less natural. Although this essay is not a comparative analysis, it examines the construction of Colombian racial identities against the background of the United States’ experience to argue that racial democracy was neither inevitable nor a colonial legacy…

…One of the most fascinating aspects of Colombia’s declaration of racial equality for all free people was how fast it became a core element of Colombian patriotism, particularly considering that in the last decades of colonial rule there was little in the attitudes of white Creoles that foreshadowed the crucial role that racial equality would play in patriot nationalism. Most white Creoles were little inclined to renounce their traditional racial privileges and strongly opposed the Bourbons’ minor reforms in favor of people of African descent. Pardos‘ claims for a greater degree of social inclusion were usually supported by peninsular officers, who prized pardos‘ economic and military contribution to the crown and contrasted their obedience and loyalty to the arrogance and discontent of white Creoles. Most elite Creoles did not share Spanish bureaucrats’ view of pardos. In Cartagena, white Creoles fought against the crown’s decision to grant black militias the corporate legal privileges of the military. They bitterly resented losing jurisdiction over an important segment of the urban population, and they worried about the effect that their diminished powers of social control would have on established social hierarchies. White Creoles also opposed the attempts of wealthy pardos to enter professions barred to nonwhites. One of the most eloquent examples of their opposition was the Caracas town council’s memorandum against the 1795 publication of the Gracias al Sacar, a legal procedure that permitted people of African descent to buy their whiteness. The council argued for the “necessity to keep pardos in their current subordinate status, without any law that would confuse them with whites, who abhor and detest this union.” According to the town council, the crown decree was the result of false and evil-intentioned reports from Spanish officers in the Americas who did not care about the interests of Spanish American subjects (españoles americanos). A particularly sore point for Creoles was the Spanish notion that American whites were rarely free from racial mixing, which justified the blurring of racial distinctions in the American colonies. According to the viceroy of New Granada, Cartagena’s white militiamen were “blancos de la tierra [local whites], who in substance are mulattos a little closer to our race.White Creoles dreaded this notion, because it created a distance between them and peninsular Spaniards, further emphasizing their increasingly disadvantageous position. Indeed, white Creoles understood Spanish support of pardos as a sign of contempt toward them, and considered it to have been invented “to de-authorize them under the false pretense that it serves the interest of His Majesty.”

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