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The History and Historiography of Afro-Chileans in Colonial Chile

Mary K. Newman | University of Oxford


In 2012, fewer than 2,000 Haitians were living in Chile. By the end of 2020, government estimates suggested that upwards of 182,000 Haitian migrants called Chile home. This wave of immigration followed the 2010 Haitian earthquake, with Chile offering an apparently economically sound safe haven. However, more recently, a new wave of Haitian migration has begun, this time from Chile to other nations such as the United States, because of the extreme systematic racism faced by Black people in the South American country. Chile’s problem with systematic racism is certainly not news to the Afro-Chilean community, which was only legally recognised in 2019. Being Afro-Chilean was only included in censuses as a possible option in 2017. But Black people have been an essential part of Chile’s national history and identity since the Spanish conquistadors “discovered” the territory now known as Chile.

The Afro-Chilean flag created in 2020 which includes a reference to 'Ley 21.151', the law passed in 2019 recognising Afro-Chileans
The Afro-Chilean flag created in 2020 which includes a reference to 'Ley 21.151', the law passed in 2019 recognising Afro-Chileans

In 1535, the conquistador Diego de Almagro (1475-1538) left Peru on the first Spanish expedition into the land now known as central Chile. The expedition was a complete failure, with thousands dying either in the freezing Andes on their way south or in the endless Atacama Desert on their return to Cuzco. Many Africans were brought along on this trek as conquistadors, soldiers, or enslaved people. The contemporary chronicler Herrara estimates that around 150 Black people made the journey. We do not know how many survived. Among this number was the Black conquistador Juan Valiente (1505-53), originally from Senegal. Valiente would also accompany the next conquistador to journey south in 1541 and helped found the city of Santiago in 1546. Valiente is the best known of several Black conquistadors who participated in the colonisation of Chile, including Juan Beltrán de Magaña (1537-78).


In Chile, the history of Indigenous resistance to Spanish colonisation and Black history have long been intertwined. From the time of Valdivia’s settling of Chile (1540), the Spanish Empire and later an independent Chile would be engaged in the Arauco War against the Indigenous Reche-Mapuche. This constant state of war with the Indigenous peoples meant that the Spaniards lacked a native workforce to exploit. The slave trade would quickly follow the founding of the Reino of Chile, with two established routes to the isolated country: down the coast by ship or over the Andes from Buenos Aires. By 1558, approximately twenty per cent of the non-Indigenous Chilean population was either African or an afrodescendent.

The period between 1580 and 1640 saw the highest importation of enslaved peoples into Chile. By 1600, the number of Africans and afrodescendents had risen to almost 30% of the non-Indigenous population. This was following a particularly violent period of the Arauco War, in which the Spaniards suffered significant losses in both cities and lives. In the 1614 text, Desengaño y reparo de la Guerra del Reino de Chile [Disappointment and repair of the War of the Kingdom of Chile], Alonso González de Nájera proposed killing the Indigenous rebels and replacing the population with enslaved peoples imported from Brazil. This plan failed, however, because of the Spanish-Portuguese war (1640-68). The failure of this plan, however, did not stop the growth of the Afro-Chilean population, with 33% of the population of Santiago in 1633 recorded as African or afrodescendent.


However, the white elites of Santiago grew increasingly paranoid, concerned that this Black population would side with the Indigenous population and rebel against the Spaniards. In 1647, a Black man called Marcos Alondo was sentenced to death because he had been called the “son of the king of Guinea”, thus presenting a possible challenge to Spanish colonial dominance.


The Afro-Chilean population remained a key part of Chilean society well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Spanish America transitioned into Latin America.


This 1820 portrait of Bernardo O'Higgins (a leading figure in the Chilean War of Independence) was painted by the Afro-Peruvian artist, cartographer, and soldier, José Gil de Castro (1785-1850), who spent a significant period living in Chile and fighting in the Chilean War of Independence. In 1816, he was appointed Grand Master of the Guild of Painters. His portraits have produced some of the most enduring images of the public figures involved in the various wars of independence in Latin America.
This 1820 portrait of Bernardo O'Higgins (a leading figure in the Chilean War of Independence) was painted by the Afro-Peruvian artist, cartographer, and soldier, José Gil de Castro (1785-1850), who spent a significant period living in Chile and fighting in the Chilean War of Independence. In 1816, he was appointed Grand Master of the Guild of Painters. His portraits have produced some of the most enduring images of the public figures involved in the various wars of independence in Latin America.

There were also significant black populations in a northern region known as Arica, which Chile annexed from Peru in 1880. In the city of Arica, the Black population, both enslaved (1,295) and free (985), outnumbered the white population (1,558) in 1793.

In 1811, the “Free Wombs” law was passed, which meant one could not be born into slavery. And in 1823, slavery was abolished. However, in practice, slavery did not disappear immediately following abolition.

Afro-Chileans also played a significant role in the battle for Chilean Independence (1810-23). Two-thirds of the soldiers of the Army of the Andes were Black. This army not only marched over the Andes, an impressive military feat but also won a decisive victory against royalist troops.


Illustrations of two Black soldiers from the 7th and 8th battalions of the Army of the Andes
Illustrations of two Black soldiers from the 7th and 8th battalions of the Army of the Andes



With Chilean Independence and the later War of the Pacific (in which Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia) came a boom in Chilean historiography as historians looked to define their nation’s identity. However, these new historians seemed set on erasing Afro-Chileans from Chilean history. This was a conscious effort by the white European intellectual elite in Chile to use history to service white supremacy by simply erasing anyone who challenged their dominance. This wave of historiography gave rise to the Chilean eugenics movement, with texts such as Raza chilena: Libro escrito por un Chileno i para los Chilenos [Chilean Race: A Book Written by a Chilean and for Chileans] (1904). Such works used the erasure of Africans and afrodescendents from Chilean history to then also erase them from Chilean identity.


But as well as producing explicitly eugenicist texts, these racist myths of erasure found their way into more mainstream history. In particular, two enduring myths established by this nineteenth-century wave of historiography have been used to erase Chile’s historic Black population. The first myth is that Africans and afrodescendents of the colonial period could not survive the Chilean climate and simply died. This myth is used explicitly by the eugenicist Palacios, who wrote Raza chilena. It is still being cited as fact by modern historians, particularly those looking at the south of Chile, such as Fernando Campos Harriet’s Historia de Concepción. In 2000, President Ricardo Lagos repeated this myth to claim that there were no Black Chileans at a preparatory meeting for the XIII International AIDS Conference. The second myth is that enslaved people were so expensive in Chile that the practice of Black slavery (as opposed to Indigenous slavery) was not economically sound. This is also used to claim that the enslaved people in Chile were treated better because they were seen as a “luxury”. Arguments about the expense of purchasing enslaved Africans in Chile have been repeated by one of Chile’s best-known modern historians, Sergio Villalobos, who has also denied the existence of Indigenous Chileans.


These myths have been repeated across modern Chilean history, literature, and beyond. Author Isabel Allende has repeated this invention of Chilean “purity” in her work Mi país inventado: ‘they did not bring African blood to Chile, which would have given us rhythm and heat’. In a piece about Chilean history, Allende not only repeats a racist myth but also ignores the actual contributions of Afro-Chileans to Chilean music and dance – the national dance, the cueca, is African in origin, brought to Chile by enslaved people in the colonial period.


This watercolour from c. 1890 shows two Afro-Peruvians dancing the zambacueca, which later became known as the cueca, the national dance of Chile.
This watercolour from c. 1890 shows two Afro-Peruvians dancing the zambacueca, which later became known as the cueca, the national dance of Chile.

The anthropologist Hernán San Martín, a good friend of the poet Pablo Neruda who also wrote about the history of Chile, writes that ‘to the contrary of what happened in the majority of the rest of America, the Black African almost did not contribute to our formation [that of the Chilean people]’. Here we see both whiteness used to argue for Chilean exceptionalism in the Americas, as well as the erasure of the Afro-Chilean contribution to Chilean identity.

As late as 2013, the website of the Faculty of Chemical Science and Pharmaceuticals of the University of Chile claimed that ‘the Black population was always very scarce [...] their elevated mortality [...] significantly lowered this number; their contribution to the race is no higher than 1%’. Not only does this claim not hold with the population data discussed above, but its appearance as a fact on the website of a national university, in a faculty concerned with population health, shows how racist historiography has penetrated popular knowledge and threatens medical care and scientific study.

In the last decade, however, scholars have established a nascent field of Afro-Chilean history, with work specifically aiming to counter the myths of erasure. Academics and activists have turned to the archives and oral history to recover the history of Afro-Chileans and, with it, a more accurate history of the Chilean nation and identity. This work has been led by Afro-Chileans, especially those from the Arica region, who have been fighting for recognition for decades. Furthermore, undergraduate and graduate students have produced theses using archival records of baptisms, for example, to examine the everyday lives of Afro-Chileans in the colonial period.


However, this research must go beyond the ivory tower and into schools and popular culture. As Afro-Chilean scholar, Marta Salgado said in an interview with BBC Mundo: ‘we’re not in the school curriculums. The Ministry of Education has done nothing to teach the Chilean population that there were enslaved Africans and, as a result, that there is a descendance [of said Africans]’.

The erasure of Afro-Chileans from the history books, and as a result, as Salgado describes, from the history textbooks and classrooms, has produced and sustained a mass historical amnesia. This amnesia not only looks to erase the existence of Afro-Chileans but all Black people who call Chile home, such as Haitian immigrants. As historians, we must vocally challenge this amnesia, centring the work of scholars such as Salgado.

 

All quotes have been translated from the original Spanish by the author.


Unfortunately, many of the best works, especially those produced by Afro-Chileans, are not available outside of Chile (and even within Chile, are limited to university libraries). Furthermore, much of the most recent research is only available as articles or dissertations.

  • Juan Eduardo Wolf, Styling Blackness in Chile: Music and Dance in the African Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019).

Mary is a PhD student in Spanish, working on the literature of the conquest of Chile. She is particularly interested in how race and gender were articulated against the backdrop of the Arauco War.


@maryknewman / www.maryknewman.com

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