Histories of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade typically focus on those enslaved in the North American colonies and often overlook its Southern counterpart. However, those enslaved in North America during the colonial period were a minority; only 6% of Africans were taken to the East Coast of North America between 1500 and 1870. Slave imports from Africa were overwhelmingly taken to South America and the Caribbean. Although the Southern United States is renowned for its past brutality towards the slave population, those enslaved in areas such as Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia experienced a much harsher reality.
Yet, not unlike North America, slavery existed in South America even before African slave importation transformed the region’s landscape. After Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas in 1492, much of South America was divided between the Spanish and the Portuguese with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. When the Europeans arrived in South America, they enslaved the native inhabitants and used them as a free labour force to work on their mines and the cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations that were being developed. Moreover, shortly after the European colonisation, natives of these regions rapidly decreased in number.
The Europeans that came to America brought with them diseases that the natives were unaccustomed to, which has been described by some as the ‘Columbian Exchange’. Diseases such as measles, influenza, mumps, typhus and small pox were detrimental to the Indian inhabitants of South America. Such diseases had a profound effect on native mortality during this period, yet historians are not quite sure of the exact figures of devastation it caused. However, it has been estimated that in the Americas as a whole, the native Indians were numbered at 50 million in 1500. By 1600, after 100 years of forced labour, colonisation and disease, they numbered a mere 8 million. By 1650, some estimate that 90% of the native population had died. The colonisation of South America was therefore devastating to Indian inhabitants, and this loss has been described as one of the largest demographic disasters in human history. It was then when the Europeans of South America turned to Africa for a new labour force to be the new backbone of their agricultural economy.
With the majority of Africans being placed in the South American Spanish and Portuguese colonies, they largely transformed the societies they were enslaved in. Treatment and conditions of the newly imported African slaves varied from place to place but, as aforementioned, in places such as Brazil they experienced a level of brutality even worse than in the Southern states of North America. This was due to the view that slaves were expendable and replaceable. For instance, in Bolivia, the life expectancy of an African slave working the mines as a mule was a mere two months. Yet, contrastingly, Africans in Latin America were very diverse in their economic, social and demographic conditions. Not all Africans arriving in South America were enslaved, and some experienced greater freedoms than those in the North American Colonies. For example, some areas allowed slaves to marry, and in others they were even taught to read and write. Paradoxically, Brazil, whilst holding a reputation for brutality, also had the highest number of slave marriages in the Colonial period.
Today, the descendants of the Africans enslaved during this period still have a profound effect on the landscape of Latin America. Indeed, the largest African population outside of Africa exists in Brazil. They have had considerable influence in shaping the societies of Latin America. As in the United States, the Africans shipped to South America in the colonial period brought with them many customs, religions, and traditions which contribute to the culture that exists in these countries today. This can be seen most clearly when looking at religion. Religious faiths that emerged from Africa and that still exist today – for example, Shango in Venezuela and Brazil – are no longer just confined to people of African origin. Literature and the arts have also experienced great influence from Africa. Many poems and novels of Latin America show elements of African styles or concepts, which further demonstrates a far reaching cultural exchange. Whether these descendants of both free and enslaved Africans exist as a majority or minority in Latin America today, their influence in these societies is still very much present.