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Red de Revistas Cientficas de Amrica Latina, el Caribe, Espaa y Portugal

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Milagros Denis
Resea de "Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth Century Puerto Rico" de Luis Figueroa, "La esclavitud
menor: la esclavitud en los municipios del interior de Puerto Rico en el siglo XIX" de Mariano Negrn Portillo
and Ral Mayo Santana y "Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico" de Guillermo Baralt
Centro Journal, vol. XXI, nm. 1, 2009, pp. 236-245,
The City University of New York
Estados Unidos
Available in: http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=37721248012

Centro Journal,
ISSN (Printed Version): 1538-6279
The City University of New York
Estados Unidos

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CENTRO Journal

Volume xx1 Number 1

spring 2009

review essay

The Problem of Slavery

in the Puerto Rican Society
Milagros Denis

Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in

Nineteenth Century Puerto Rico
By Luis Figueroa
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005
304 pages; $55.00 [cloth]

La esclavitud menor: la esclavitud en los municipios

del interior de Puerto Rico en el siglo XIX
By Mariano Negrn Portillo and Ral Mayo Santana
San Juan: Centro de Investigaciones Sociales, UPR, 2007
152 pages; $10.00 [paper]

Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico

By Guillermo Baralt [Translated by Christine Ayorinde]
Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2007
190 pages; $26.95 [paper]

[ 236 ]

[ 237 ]


Studies on race and racial exclusion cannot be conducted without assessing the
socioeconomic strategies used by the institutions that were established to maintain
the social order. Throughout history, racism has changed and evolved, yet it has
remained a dominant and pervasive force in virtually every society. In Puerto Rican
society racism is subtle and has being trivialized by proclaiming that the islands
history is based on a long tradition of mestizaje (Blanco 1985 [1942]). The claim that
the island is a colorblind society is another way to disguise a problem that finds
its roots on the islands colonial history and in slavery. It has become a shameful
episode, which as Godreau et al. (2008) put it is thorny and problematic topic for
nation building projects.
In the Puerto Rican context, race is characterized and defined as a phenomenon
of non-racist racism. While the Puerto Rican government declares the absence of
institutionalized racist practices, the conditions of Afro-Puerto Ricans contradict
this position. For instance, in the folkloric traditions of the 1940s and 1950s,
only those with European ancestry were privileged as constitutive founders of the
new nation. The newly projected images and rhetoric coincide with the massive
implementation of modernization in Puerto Rico in which dramatic changes took
place in the economy and society (Denis 2005). These changes affected the working
class, which was comprised mostly of African descent people positively and negatively.
Comparable to Latin American scholarship, in Puerto Rico the history of slavery
reflects a tendency of being tamed and limited. The history of slavery is asGodreau
et al. pointed outinstrumental in the reproduction of national ideologies of
mestizaje. In finding a solution to the socioeconomic disadvantages that are
characteristic among the Afro-Puerto Rican population, the history of slavery is
instrumental (Daz-Quiones 1985). But what kind of historical interpretations
should one refer that can be useful for public policy making or to understand
the dynamics in a society that everyday is turning even whiter, and blackness is
suppressed and rejected? How a historian or a social scientist can use those sources
that mostly focus on slavery as an economic institution and silence the human
aspect of the enslaved? How educators and intellectuals can shift the paradigms
of a colorblind society without underestimating relevant research on slavery in
Puerto Rico? Perhaps in this context one might apply a very critical judgment to
that information. It is ones responsibility.
This essay revisits the history of slavery in Puerto Rico using Slave Revolts in Puerto
Rico (translated from Spanish), La esclavitud menor and Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom
in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico. This essay also analyzes specific aspects on the
treatment of slavery, resistance and emancipation that are addressed in each one of
the books reviewed. Furthermore, in this narrative is used the mentioned texts to test
what historians and social scientists have pointed out somewhere else that a better
understanding of the history of slavery help us to elucidate the roots of contemporary
racial inequality and related racial identities (Godreau et al. 2008).
The most recent publications on the topic of slavery in Puerto Rico, Slave Revolts
in Puerto Rico (translated from Spanish to English), La esclavitud menor: la esclavitud en
los municipios del interior de Puerto Rico, and Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in NineteenthCentury Puerto Rico highlight some aspects that previous scholars have overlooked:
1) the degree to which slaves in Puerto Rico through rebellions and others
manifestations struggled to gain their freedom, 2) the individual and collective lives
of former slaves in the subsequent decades after the abolition of slavery, 3) and the
correlation between slavery and race in the Puerto Rican society.

Slaves Revolts in Puerto Rico, which its original Spanish publication dates back to
the early 1980s, represents a step forward in making accessible to a broader public
an influential study about how slaves in Puerto Rico resisted enslavement. In this
study the historian Guillermo Baralt sustains that the Haitian revolution was a
catalyst agent of all the insurrections and rebellions that took place in Puerto Rico
(chapter 1). The text focuses on the period from 1795 to 1873 covering the so-called
downfall of Haiti to the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico (1873).
In the late eighteenth-century Puerto Ricos sugar economy experienced a
radical change. As a direct consequence of the revolution in Haiti, an increase
in the sugar production forced the hacendados to acquire more labor force, that is,
enslaved Africans, in order to satisfy the demand for sugar products. This situation
brought about a significant increase in the African descent population on the island.
Since Spanish colonial times, blacks (free and enslaved) have been subjected to harsh
measures of surveillance and social control. During the period immediately following
the Haitian Revolution (18101850), the colonial government and the hacendados
took steps to prevent possible uprisings among the black population (Baralt 2007
[1981]; Moscoso 1995; Nistal-Moret 2000 [1984]). Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico shows
repeatedly how the Spanish colonial authorities implemented measures to suppress
the enslaved and free black population. An excellent example of this is seen in the
numerous decrees and edicts enacted by the Spanish governors right after the first
conspiracy erupted. This is from Governor Toribio Montes to the infamous Bando
de Prim, better known as the bando contra la raza Africana. This proclamation
was a code of conduct, which attempted to institutionalize racial control of blacks
whether or not they were free or enslaved. Moreover, it entitled the white Puerto
Ricans, particular the ruling elite to subjugate and discriminate against blacks.
This kind of persecution against people of African descent became the norm of the
day. It decisively influenced the racial discourse on the island.

Most of the Puerto Rican

historiography about
slavery has silenced the
agency of enslaved people
to resist a condition that
is not natural.
The subsequent chapters of the book demonstrate that slaves were informed,
well organized, and more importantly, they were part of a large network of enslaved
people who were fighting to be emancipated. The book executes an interesting
portrayal of what African Diaspora scholars call a culture of resistance
(Craton 1982; Okihiro 1986; Ohadike 2007). Most of the Puerto Rican
historiography about slavery has silenced the agency of enslaved people to resist a
condition that is not natural. It suggests that slaves rarely revolted (Daz Soler 2000
[1953]). Documenting about these events breaks with this silencing. Slaves Revolts
documents that as part of a culture of resistance slaves in Puerto Rico resorted on
the same strategies that other slave societies (including marronage, arson, and the
[ 238 ]

As comenz el forcejeo racial: The Abolition Dilemma

The abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico (1873) is a topic that is mostly focused from
the point of view of the planters and the colonial authorities. Again, one cannot deny
the relevant role that many of the abolitionists played in this ordeal. Furthermore,
one should highlight that in comparison to other slave societies, Puerto Rico placed
itself at the avant-garde of the liberal movement in the Spanish colonial Caribbean.
The Puerto Rican diputados disagreed with their Cuban counterparts in the Cortes
over the issue of the abolition of slavery. For Cuban planters, the abolition of slavery
was perceived as an econocide because when this proposal was introduced Cuba
was enjoying of a boom in its economy (Knight 1970; Ferrer 1999; Prez 2006).
For Puerto Rican Creoles, the abolition of slavery was a matter of finding a suitable
solution to the increasing number of a free labor force and also to calm down the
external pressure to end slavery (Curet 1985). However, this is not the way that
Nistal-Moret (1985) interprets this situation among the Puerto Rican Creole elite.
He points out to the fact that the big landowners in Puerto Rico were members of
the Conservative Party so supporting the abolition of slavery was not of the interest
for this segment of the ruling class.
In order to understand aspects related to the abolition of slavery and how it
impacted the islands economy and society, one must take a closer look to the
measures that the Spanish colonial authorities took, once again, to please the
planter class. The Moret Law (1870) and the Rgimen de Coartacin reflect the
terms related to the gradual abolition of slavery and it was a measure intended to
compensate the planters for the loss of their slaves.
For that purpose the Spanish colonial authorities, along with the planter
class, agreed in creating the general slave registry (registro general de esclavos).
This document was a census or physical inventory of slave property throughout the
different geographic regions of the island. The relevance of this document relies on
the fact that it provides information about the town, name, ownership, and other
quantitative data. More importantly, as it going to be discussed later in this essay,
the registro (registry) provides information about the ethnicity, skills, age, origin
(ethnicity), and marital status of the slaves.
In Negrn-Portillo and Mayo-Santanas most recent publication, La esclavitud
menor, the registry is utilized as the main primary source for the study. In this
particular instance, the authors shift their focus to the municipalities in the
interior of the island and reinforce other studies (Ayala and Bergad 2002;
Pic 1993, 1981; Bergad 1984) that highlight the significance of slave labor in the
economic activity of the region. The study is also a contribution to the scholarship
on slave labor in a region where its economy is not essentially based on the sugar
cane production. La esclavitud menor challenges the paradigm that establishes
that slave labor was relatively inexistent or less important in the economy of the
[ 239 ]


use of bomba dancing to organize rebellions). This type of information in the way
that is addressed in the text allows the reader to establish comparisons with other
slave societies. At the same time, it deconstructs the misconceptions that Puerto
Rico, in comparison to other systems in the Caribbean, slavery was relatively milder
(Tannnebaum 1992 [1946]; Flinter 1976 [1832]). In Puerto Rico the slave population
revolted. They caused fear and chaos. The white elite were afraid of blacks.
By rebelling, the slaves made the unthinkable and the unexpected. They broke
up the racial and class hierarchies imbedded in the islands colonial system.

interior (Nistal-Moret 1985) and much attention is given to the free white labor
force. In addition, the study provides data that shows the different levels of skills
that the slaves executed (men and women) in the haciendas. Another important
aspect of the study is the analysis of the slaves access to land before the abolition
of slavery. In this regard, La esclavitud menor, complements earlier research
(Pic 1993, 1981, 1979) that suggests that the new boom in the coffee production in
the interior of the island gave white peasants better access to land and ownership.
In fact, La esclavitud menor contends that after the abolition of slavery, the libertos
(former slaves) were given few or none alternatives after their liberation.
Then, this confirms previous research (Mayo-Santana and Negrn-Portillo 1997;
Figueroa 2005) that the few alternatives that the freed men were given forced
them to immigrate to other parts of the island or to accept the terms of the
apprenticeship system. In this sense, in Puerto Rico the transition from slavery to
freedom shares a similar pattern than other slave societies where there was not a
cohesive structural system to integrate the freed men and women into the society
(Scott 2005; Beckles 2004; Beckles and Shepherd 1996).

The study of NegrnPortillo and Mayo-Santana

deconstructs traditional
silences by showing that
direct confrontation of
ones racial selves alters
drastically the terms of
discussion or identity as
Puerto Ricans.
La esclavitud menor enables us to explore an aspect that has been subjected to debate:
the racial identity of el jbaro. This debate about the word jbaro is worth reflecting on
because jbaro in the true meaning of the word is a personfrom any particular color or
race who lives in a rural area or in the mountains, meaning a peasant. For instance,
in Puerto Rico, the first jbaros were the runaway (self-emancipated) Africans or
maroons, their descendants, and the communities that they founded in Loza,
Caimito, and Cangrejos, to mention a few (Sued-Badillo and Lpez-Cants 1986;
Mintz and Price 1985; Gonzlez 1980). As Negrn-Portillo and Mayo-Santana
point out in the study, the iconic figure of the white peasant has diminished the
socioeconomic role of the slave in the interior of the island (chapter 1). In fact, this is
the argument that Jos Luis Gonzlez discusses in El pas de cuatro pisos y otro ensayos.
In El pas de cuatro pisos, which was later translated into English, Gonzlez
used the metaphor of a four-storied country for Puerto Rican culture to explain
historical dilemmas of power, race, and class. In order to establish his ideas,
Gonzlez added that African and Afro-criollo cultures were the precursors of
Puerto Ricos national identity, which contemporary Puerto Rican intellectuals
[ 240 ]

Y los abandonaron a su propia suerte: The Post-emancipation Struggle

The difficulties that today black Puerto Ricans confront in achieving social
mobilization might be find its explanation by examining the precarious
conditions that former slaves encountered after the abolition of slavery.
In the first chapters of Slavery, Sugar and Freedom, the historian Luis A. Figueroa
outlines the distinctive patterns in organization of work among the slaves in
the municipality of Guayama. Overall, the book examines the dynamic from
slavery to freedom to free labor in the region of Guayama, which was one of
the most important sugar cane producers in the island. The historian draws
upon legal documents, such as the liberto records, apprenticeship contracts,
and other archival sources to establish that Guayama was not a typical Puerto
Rican municipality. The study gives voice to the emancipados in terms of their
agency in pursuing their freedom. In addition, the study demonstrates that in
terms of economic activity Guayama, along with the coastal municipalities of
[ 241 ]


associate with the jbaro. Gonzlez challenges the socio-historic discourse about
the symbol of the jbaro as the foundation of the Puerto Rican identity. He argues
that the association of jbaro with a white person is disputable; that the poor white
peasanttoday called jbarowho lived in the rural areas coexisted culturally with
the African Creoles and they were certainly a poor peasantry forced to adopt
a lifestyle similar to that of other poor people previously living in the country,
similar to the slaves lifestyle.
The study of Negrn-Portillo and Mayo-Santana deconstructs traditional
silences by showing that direct confrontation of ones racial selves alters drastically
the terms of discussion or identity as Puerto Ricans. It this sense chapter four of
the study explores the different level of racial and physical characterizations of the
slaves. The authors refer to their previous studies (1992, 1997) that discuss issues
of race, gender, color and class within the slave system. According to NegrnPortillo and Mayo-Santana, in Puerto Rico, La esclavitud menor offers important
information to understand how skin color has contributed to the dilemma of racial
identity among black Puerto Ricans. The data analyzed in La esclavitud menor,
suggest that there is a correlation between skin color and the task assigned to the
slaves (Tables 2124). Again, this trend can be interpreted in various ways. First,
one might suggest that the islands slave system shares similarities with other slave
societies where racial nomenclatures created hierarchies based on skin pigmentation.
For example, people of darker complexion are usually assigned to more difficult tasks
or they are mostly at the bottom of the society, while those of lighter complexion
have better chances to get better positions. According to Negrn-Portillo and MayoSantana, color hierarchies contributed to black Puerto Ricans to associate blackness
with slavery causing an identity crisis that forced them to distance themselves
from their black/African roots. In other words, the embracing of the mestizaje,
meaning blanquearse, was perhaps the only option to improve their chances into the
free society. Another way to put it is that a greater degree of whiteness facilitates a
better position in the society. This kind of rationale is going to be reflected in both
racial groups the whites and the blacks. For blacks slavery was a constant reminder
of their suffering and oppression and they are going to do whatever was necessary
to erase that stigma. The white Puerto Rican elite would ensure of keeping blacks
at the bottom. A very popular Puerto Rican saying that recites y a el negro hay que
manternerlo en su lugar perfectly gathers that attitude.

Ponce and Mayagez, experienced an accelerated increase in the sugar industry,

which was developed upon the large importation of slave labor.
For the author, the Bourbon reforms were instrumental to the transformations
and changes that took place in the period. He points out that the opening of new
ports, the easing of restrictions on slave imports, the creation of a land market,
and the granting of the Royal Cdula of 1815, contributed to a boost in the economy.
In this context, the book presents an important tool to further the argument of
how the royal reforms and the cdulas were an attempt to subordinate and diminish
the strong presence of the black population in the island. The Cdula de Gracia of
1815 was another of the series of decrees enacted during the Spanish colonial period
that affected the black population. This document was an attempt by the Spanish
Crown to reward the inhabitants of Puerto Rico for their loyalty to Spain during the
Wars of Independence in Spanish America. The document promoted free trade,
agriculture, and the migration of white and blacks.
The fact that the cdula promoted the migration of blacks and whites triggered
a noteworthy discussion. While Zenn-Cruz (1974) and Gonzlez (1980) have
argued that the cdula was a way to bleach the island, Kinsbruner (1996) voices
his opposition to the racial dimension of the cdula. He argues that the promotion
of migration was equal to both whites and blacks. He also noted that in terms
of the land distribution, white colonists received an additional allotment for each
slave equal to one-half of its own allotment. Although mulattos were of African
descent, they benefited from the system (via land allotments) if they owned slaves.
Thus, although the promotion of migration apparently was equal, the benefits
were unequal and they were conditions based on free people of color ownership
of slaves. Kinsbruner implies that there was an obvious tendency of giving
preferential treatment to white immigrants and even the free people of color might
be eligible, the Cdula did not proportion full benefits in comparison to whites.
The Cdula of 1815 was a strategy to secure to the white elite class its supremacy
as a ruling group. The migration of Peninsulares became a racial and technological
backup for a threatened white/Creole elite minority.
The last two chapters of Sugar, Slavery and Freedom could be used as
compelling evidence to this essays argument that post-emancipation period
as an event did not produce any immediate success to former slaves. On the
contrary, it aggravated a situation of extreme inequality in wealth distribution,
ownership and possession of land, and terms and conditions on the labor market.
In Chapter six the author makes an excellent analysis of the limited success
that former slaves had in gaining access to land. Based on the cases that the
author examined, the former slaves could not retain the land for long time.
More importantly, hardships of the emancipated people on obtaining land
prevented them to become self-sufficient, and it became an obstacle for their
peasantization. In Figueroas view, the stories of former slaves to acquire land
reveal the dynamics of proletarianization.
Patterns of residential settlement among former slaves are also discussed in
this chapter. One might find interesting to highlight that due to the limitation
of freed blacks to acquire land in more attractive places, they began to establish
their enclaves in barriadas or slums at the outskirts of the town. Documentation
consulted by Figueroa points out to the fact the designation of land for the
emancipated to build their houses was on the hands of the municipal council.
This situation suggests the development of a segregation system and that
[ 242 ]


In Puerto Rico slavery was part of the colonial structure. It shaped race relations.
When reevaluating the history of slavery in Puerto Rico, one should not be misled
by the apparent distinctions of this institution on the island. Yes, it was different,
but still it was a social disease. The publications discussed above test the hypothesis
that the measures taken by the colonial authorities and the planters after the
abolition of slavery have proven to be an example of the institutionalization of
racism on the island. These three publications balance the historiography of slavery
in Puerto Rico to the rest of the Caribbean.
La esclavitud menor contributes to the scholarship on the role of slave labor in
the interior of the island. It opens more discussion about the presence of African/
black in the mountains. Based on the study, the area had considerable enclaves of
slaves so the mountain was not a white emigrant domain. Slave Revolts in Puerto
Rico maintains its integrity of the Spanish version. It was about time that this
influential study was made available to English speaking public. There is so much
to draw from this publication but the essay limited its review to the slaves leading
role in pursuing their freedom.
The limitations of gaining access to land and decent contracts for free labor
reflect that the society and the colonial authorities were committed neither
to assist former slaves nor to reach a compromise to facilitate their transition
to freedom. The data discussed in Figueroas Sugar, Slavery and Freedom clearly
provides important evidence to the hypothesis on racial/class exclusion of
black Puerto Ricans. This exclusion began when Africans were brought under
enslavement and were maintained under such horrible conditions for hundreds
of years. So after the abolition of slavery, what was left for former slaves? What
choices did they have? Baralt and Figueroas research coincides on their analysis
of Creole elites efforts to restrict social activities among blacks. Still, today in
Puerto Rico, African ancestry people are struggling to maintain a place of respect
in the islands culture and national identity. The history of slavery is one of survival
and resistance. Today, Afro-Puerto Ricans struggle translates into contesting
marginalization and silencing from the islands national identity. The new research
about the history of slavery in Puerto Rico can contribute to target the issue of
race relations in the society.
[ 243 ]


although the same research also mentions that some of the former slaves
managed to establish in the townships, traditionally these enclaves were the
worst in the area. What this part of the study shows is that former slaves
did everything possible to be far from the plantations and begin a new life.
Their expectations were not different at all from other former slaves in the
Caribbean region who were seeking to better their lives.
Finally, the last chapter of the study offers interesting analysis of the social
tensions on the post-emancipation period. It also explores the various ways
that the colonial authorities implemented as measures of social control.
Comparable to other post emancipation societies in the hemisphere, in Puerto
Rico, the elites along the municipal authorities implemented measures to restrict
former slaves activities, such as moving around without proper documentation,
and even enjoying bomba and plena music. Still, with this repressive environment
freed men and women developed strategies of survival and resistance. As a very
popular saying recites, no se quedaron daos.


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