Black Militias in the Spanish Atlantic World during the Age of Revolution

AHA Session 213
Conference on Latin American History 57
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Superior Room A (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Renée Soulodre-La France, King's University College, University of Western Ontario
Ben Vinson, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

This session focuses on the impact of colonial black militias in Spanish America during the Age of Revolution and their transformations in the early years of national life. Imperial Atlantic warfare in the late eighteenth century and the wars of Independence in the first quarter of the nineteenth generated the consolidation and relocation of black armed forces along the Spanish Caribbean and mainland South America. While colonial militias were only open to free people of African ancestry, this situation was very different after the beginning of the Haitian Revolution when the Spanish monarchy entrusted colonial defense to militiamen of African descent, granting them military privileges or fueros. Around 1810, an expanded black presence in the armed forces was the result of both rebels’ and Spanish royalists’ need for allies and soldiers, which resulted in the weakening of the racial laws prevalent until then and in some cases gestures to outlaw slavery. After independence, blacks continued to be central to national armies and from those privileged military positions they negotiated their racial standing in the emergent nationalist discourse. This powerful momentum provides fertile grounds for comparisons across case studies from Central America, Colombia, and Uruguay, which this session gathers.

The papers in this session all explore the importance of militias for local black organization and reveal links between state needs of self-defense and the emergence of black citizenship in the Spanish Atlantic world. Recruitment of free and enslaved blacks into colonial militias and national armies provides a window through which to examine political change, social networks, subaltern politics, and identity formation. Miriam Martin studies the political culture and social organization of Spain’s black auxiliary troops in the eighteenth century. The story of their relocation from Saint Domingue to Central America illustrates how exceptional imperial priorities gave unprecedented negotiating power to black militiamen and their families. Marcela Echeverri focuses on the monarchical crisis in the southwestern region of New Granada (colonial Colombia) when the royalist army sought to expand its strength by integrating what previously had been an armed group of black self-defense in a free black community that emerged from a palenque. That alliance allowed the free blacks to gain concessions as a result of their mobilization in favor of the crown. Alex Borucki’s paper examines social networks and identity formation among black soldiers and the ties connecting these soldiers with white officers in early nineteenth-century Uruguay as these links tied black soldiers with the larger political turbulence which underwent the region. He asks whether vertical networks illustrate patron-client relations between black soldiers and white officers or they are evidence of subaltern politics emerging from military participation.

These papers, taken together with commentary by Ben Vinson, will find a broad audience among historians of the Americas with an interest in black militias in the Atlantic World, and among Latin Americanists interested in the social and political history of black populations. Renée Soulodre-La France, the panel chair, will enrich the panel as a historian of black loyalists in Canada and Panama.

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