African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Africans in Spanish America—Social Class and Economics

Social Class and Economics

Initially within the Spanish colonies there was a two-tier system of socio-economic divisions for people of African descent. This system consisted of bozales or unacculturated Africans who performed the back breaking labor of the mines, plantations, ranches and forests, and ladinos, free and enslaved hispanicized people of African descent who performed urban domestic work, artisan and lower-status economic jobs (e.g. tailors and masons) (Landers 1999:16). For bozales initially unfamiliar with the system of Spanish slavery, it would not take long for them to realize that slavery under the Spanish crown and within the colonies was vastly different from what was experienced in Africa (Guiter 2000). Bozales were often “seasoned” or made familiar with the climate and food of the Americas as well as how to work with Spaniards and understand the language, behavior and customs of the society. They were also the first to occupy the front lines in battle largely because of the mistrust felt toward them by the Spanish.

African Argentine Street Vendor.

Those Africans that were brought over to the Americas would become a source of much needed labor. One contributing factor to this increase was the belief that Native Americans could not perform the work demanded by the colonists due to disease, overwork, and warfare. Another factor leading to the increase in demand for African slaves was perceived African resistance to disease (the likes of yellow fever, smallpox and malaria) on three continents.

People of African descent eventually took on different occupations throughout the Spanish colonies. Some women sold food from their houses. Other people of African descent provided various types of skilled labor and were, among other things, blacksmiths, charcoal burners, carpenters, and musicians (Deagan and MacMahon 1995:23). Many were successful. Juan Merino was an African blacksmith from Havana who would eventually open his own shop and participate in the militia, occupying the rank of second lieutenant. Isavel de los Rios was a free black woman who sold spiral rolls or “rosquetts” and other provisions from her home as a means to better her economic situation.

This system provides an example of one way in which labor relations were facilitated in colonial Spanish America. Within this system slaves could work independently and live in individual houses (much like the oval shaped, thatch roofed houses previously discussed) based upon a formerly agreed upon amount that would be paid to their owners. This system allowed slave owners to avoid paying the additional expenses of food, clothing and shelter for their slaves. Some enslaved people used the system to their benefit and built houses that became very valuable properties. Some enslaved others. People of African descent in Cuba maneuvered the system so well that there was talk of expelling them to St. Augustine and taking over their properties (Landers 1999:16).

Counter Cultural Resistance

With any form of forced cultural change there is resistance. This was very much the case with African pioneers and their descendants in the Spanish colonies. With the increasing number of African arrivals came the potential for revolt. Scholars have begun to look deeper into the forms of resistance exhibited by Africans and their descendants. Kathleen Deagan believes that resistance was almost immediate as the African uprisings in South Carolina (1526) and Cuba (1530) suggests (1995). Various forms of resistance occurred frequently throughout Spanish America from the 15th through the 19th century.

What should not be instantly assumed with regards to the eventual enslavement of people of African descent is that it was inevitable. On the contrary, there were a number of options open to colonizers once the “demise of indigenous labor” hindered colonial development. Colonizers had the options of

  1. abandoning their efforts and going home;
  2. relying upon their own efforts to “exploit the resources of the colony;” and
  3. promoting indentured labor (Palmer 1996:79).

Many would ask why people remained enslaved. One limitation to resistance was the view held by some Africans that slavery was misfortune or a result of sorcery. This misfortune could be overturned only by a stronger, superior form of sorcery by the victim (Palmer 1996:87–88). Another view held by many Africans was that slavery was a result of circumstance. There were also controlling mechanisms which initially limited the scale of resistance. These controlling mechanisms included the use of the army, militia, and local patrols to suppress large gatherings; the use of the judiciary to establish and enforce laws that controlled social, economic and political areas of peoples lives; physical violence in the form of beatings and killings; psychological violence; and the forceful destruction of the family and marriages.

Church Yanga, Mexico.

As mentioned before there were, however, revolts by the enslaved which caused paranoia throughout the Spanish colonies. Just as there had been black conquistadors, there were what Restall calls black counter-conquistadors. As early as 1503 there were reports of cimarrones (maroon or runaway/fugitive societies) which caused the Spanish Crown to temporarily halt the importation of people for enslavement. Lynne Guitar, when addressing cimarrones on Hispanola, states that “[I]t is important to understand that neither the Indians nor the Africans ran away because they refused or were unable to change their ‘cultural forms’ but because they were flexible enough to change their circumstances and customs for a lifestyle they believed to be more acceptable, even if it meant moving to less hospitable parts of the island.” This sentiment also applies to cimarrones in North America. In addition to cimarrones, there were also pirates (of European as well African descent) who threatened the stability of the colonies (Landers 1999; Restall 2000). These types of resistance produced palenques, maroon towns, and Afro-Indian communities—some of which established sovereignty through peace treaties such as the Yanquícos of Mexico who founded the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros or Yanga.

For those enslaved against their will, resistance came in the many forms- running away, suicide, armed revolt, slowing down work, the emancipation of children by various methods, and infanticide are but a few examples. With the increase in the number of people of mixed racial heritage, there was also the potential to alter the balance of power in critical ways. The political engagement of Africans became an increasingly important variable as European powers fought for control of the Americas. The ability of these people to choose sides (by running away and joining militias for example) caused imperial policies to change with regards to how to administer colonial governments (Landers 1999:18). Resistance was a way in which lifestyles and circumstances could be changed by people adversely affected by the Spanish colonial system.


Throughout this section we have seen that as culture changes, the people within cultures change as well. Whether it be through the development of cofradias, godparent alliance, intermarriage, the formation of militias, the renegotiation of what it means to be African or a member of a casta, or the use the official tenets of formal institutions like courts and churches, Africans and their descendants were able to change their circumstances and lifestyles by way of acculturation and accommodation. Even though the Spanish colonial system was developed in such a way as to severely limit the degree of autonomy experienced by peoples of African descent, they were able to adapt and survive in the midst of changing ideas surrounding who was worthy to receive freedom. These African pioneers and their descendants were not only changed by Spanish colonial society, but changed this society as well through their integral involvement in the development of the New World.