Slaves and Caudillos in Venezuela’s Independence War, 181030

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 1:50 PM
Salon 3 (Palmer House Hilton)
Frédéric Spillermaeker, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales
Francisco de Miranda, Venezuela’s first patriot leader, initially mooted the idea of mobilizing slaves during the Independence Wars that began in 1810. De Miranda thought to offer freedom to those fighting for Independence. Monarchists Francisco Rosete (1812) and José Tomás Boves (1813), however, were the first to successfully recruit fighting slaves. Republican memoirs describe the enslaved rebels as savage barbarians and were seen as the first caudillos. In Venezuela, the ‘black legend’ about caudillos’ violence began with slaves in the nationalist armies, leading to a criminalizing discourse that surrounded the issue of enslaved soldiers in Venezuela’s independence movement. In 1816, at the urging of Haitian President Alexandre Pétion, Simón Bolívar ordered his patriot generals to arm enslaved people, as not doing so might have forced him to declare full emancipation.

During the Age of Revolutions the actions of slaves-turned-citizens in the Caribbean drastically transformed conceptions of race. The Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 comprehensively demonstrated that slaves were not simply rebels, as they had invariably been since the beginning of slavery, but also revolutionaries who threatened the structure of colonial systems and oftentimes rebels within the political revolutions of the age.

Within this revolutionary paradigm, however, it is vital to consider slaves’ own agendas and claims. Why did the slaves first fight with royalists? What were their wartime tactics and aims? Did the royalist and patriot leaders merely use them only for their own selfish purposes? Using archival military records gathered in Colombia, Venezuela, and Europe, this paper argues that within Venezuela’s independence struggle, a combative racial discourse emerged between slaves and their masters in both royalist and nationalist camps. Enslaved soldiers proved not only fully aware of the paradigms of the independence struggle, but also desperate to ensure their own place in discussions of nation-building and statehood.