In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Christopher Schmidt-Nowara of Tufts University reveals how the institution of slavery came to an end in Latin America.
Christopher Schmidt-Nowara is a professor of history and the Prince of Asturias Chair in Spanish Culture and Civilization at Tufts University. His research interests include the history of slavery and emancipation in the Hispanic world and the history of politics and ideas in the Spanish empire. In 2011 he published, Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.
Dr. Christopher Schmidt-Nowara – Latin American Slavery
The last Latin American countries to abolish slavery were Cuba in 1886 and Brazil in 1888, more than twenty years after emancipation in the United States. As in the U.S. South, slavery experienced resurgence in Cuba and Brazil in the nineteenth century. Cotton in the U.S., sugar in Cuba, and coffee in Brazil were the slave-worked commodities that found markets in the industrializing global economy. While the growth of plantations in Cuba and Brazil paralleled the U.S., these societies differed because they relied on the transatlantic slave trade. Slavers carried more than 2.7 million African captives to Brazil and Cuba until the suppression of the traffic in the 1850s and 1860s.
How did slavery finally come to an end? Warfare was a decisive factor in weakening it throughout Latin America, including Cuba and Brazil. The Spanish-American revolutions, which led to the independence of Mexico, Central America, and much of South America in the 1820s, saw the involvement of enslaved men and women in the military struggles. One of the hard-won trade-offs for their service was freedom for themselves and, often, their families. Upon achieving independence, new republics such as Venezuela, Peru, and Argentina passed gradual abolition laws that slowly brought slavery’s extinction..
Cuba remained a Spanish colony but experienced its own independence war beginning in 1868. Once again, slaves took part in the struggles and claimed their freedom. Though slaveholders defended their interests, slaves’ actions helped to undermine slavery. In contrast Brazil was an independent monarchy, ruled by planters. Its war against Paraguay in the 1860s involved thousands of enslaved soldiers and provoked doubts about Brazilian slavery’s future. By the 1880s, a radical abolitionist movement spread throughout Brazil, encouraging slaves to flee plantations. Mass civil disobedience forced the government’s hand, bringing emancipation to Latin America’s last, and largest, slave society.