An Overview of Black History

Compiled & Edited by Phillip True, Jr.

20. South America and the Caribbean

by John Henrik Clarke

In South America the slave revolts were most successful in Brazil and other areas where there were large areas of thick forest and wooded hills. Many Africans escaped the auction blocks and headed for the forests and hills where they were able to form separate African communities. These escaped Africans were later referred to as "Maroons."

The large number of Africans imported into Brazil came from diverse tribes in Africa, but under the pressures of slavery, they managed to settle their cultural differences and work together for liberty. Scattered communities of these escaped Africans existed throughout the America, not only in the swamps and forests of Brazil but also in the hills of Haiti and Jamaica in the Caribbean.

Africans in Brazil established two separate states, Bahia and Palmares. The Bahia slaves surrendered under military pressure from the Portuguese. Palmares, however, existed for at least 110 years, until 1695. It remained a rough-hewn African republic, until other Europeans living on the edge of Palmares helped the Portuguese government lead a superior military force to the area, destroying the state. The heroic stand the Africans took in defense of their state is a proud page in the story of how Africans pursued liberty away from home.

In other parts of South America, in the countries now called Guyana and Surinam, there was an uprising in the area of Berbice that became known as the "Berbice Revolt." These revolts were referred to as the "Bush Negro" rebellions. The important thing about the revolts mentioned here is that they occurred before the American Revolution. Therefore, these Africans in the Americas led the first revolts against tyranny in the New World.

The Caribbean Islands, like the plantations of South America, were incubators for revolts by slaves pursuing liberty in the New World. Because of the need for slave labor in the plantation system, coupled with the economic recovery of Europe after 1492, slavery was most harsh on islands that produced the largest economic benefits for Europeans.

The first revolt of African slaves, where the record is clear, occurred in Cuba in 1527, but most of the organized revolts started on the islands of Haiti and Jamaica. The greatest Caribbean revolts in pursuit of liberty took place in Jamaica, prior to the Haitian Revolution. The Jamaicans fought longer and harder than the Haitians, but they failed to gain their independence because the British had a small internal force in Jamaica. There were also numerous mulattos who had not decided where their loyalties lay. The mulattos did not join in the African revolt because they assumed that they would be fighting against their white fathers.

The Africans in Haiti were able to gain their independence and establish a free state because France, which had many other military entanglements, did not have a sufficient number of able troops to send to Haiti and put down a revolt.

The South American and Caribbean revolts in pursuit of liberty were successful partly for reasons of geography but more importantly because of African cultural continuity. Many slaves who were captured in the same general area, i.e., West Africa, maintained their African religion, language, and cultural continuity. In the United States, however, slaves were generally bought in small lots and resold by the end of the week. Families and cultural continuity were broken to such an extent that after a month in the United States, many slaves could not even identify other slaves who arrived with them on the same boat.

The revolts by slaves in South America and the Caribbean started 100 years before 1619, when slaves formally arrived in the British colony that became known as the United States, and before the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620.


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