Slavery and Freedom in Latin America

February 2012

Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011); 204 pages; ISBN-13 978-0-8263-3904-1 (paper).

Christopher Schmidt-Nowara’s approach to slavery’s history in Latin America is commendable for various reasons. First, because it highlights and demonstrates that variability was the essential character of the institution in the region. Second, as noted in the title, it illuminates the Atlantic dimension of African slavery and gives a full representation of the factors that over time determined slavery politically and economically, beyond Latin America. It is of course a daunting task to attempt to cover the history of slavery and colonialism in Latin America, and the challenge is even greater when doing so with a careful eye on the slavery’s Atlantic connections. Schmidt-Nowara fulfills both with erudition and clarity.

With the advent of global history, Latin America’s slave societies appear in recent works that explore the expanse of slavery, such as Seymour Drescher’s Abolition.1 In Drescher’s account, the long-standing and widespread Anglo-centric narrative of abolition is challenged, but Latin America’s representation lacks a fuller body. As a historian of Latin America, Schmidt-Nowara places the region at the heart of the history of slavery and emancipation. What is more, the book illustrates why histories of slavery that privilege national boundaries are untenable. It also transcends modernization assumptions that set the north and south of the continent apart, when comparative analyses of slavery in the Americas evaluated slavery and race relations on a measuring scale. By defining slavery in Latin America as versatile, changing across space and time, Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World convincingly and effectively avoids any facile conclusion about slavery in Latin America being “gentler” than elsewhere.

In chapters 1 and 2, Schmidt-Nowara provides much-needed evidence of Iberian slavery’s centrality to the emergence of European empires. With inextricable ties to Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the Atlantic, slavery’s existence spanned almost five hundred years. Slavery at once marked Latin American colonial societies and adapted to the transformations that swept through the region between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the second part of the book, chapters 3 and 4, we read about the links between abolitionism and Spanish American independence, how slavery in Latin America became entwined with political and economic liberalism, and why the institution persisted in the Caribbean and Brazil in the nineteenth century.

This synthetic book is testimony of the wealth of slavery scholarship in the last few decades. It strategically integrates the African diaspora approach that has challenged Eurocentric narratives in the study of slavery and slaves. Every chapter balances the stories of colonial elites, slave owners, and planters with those of the enslaved Africans whose cultural worlds informed slave societies. In reading about the slave trade, slave legislation, Catholicism, plantations, and Atlantic sugar markets, we are constantly reminded of slaves’ struggles for autonomy and freedom. The existence of legal routes to freedom in the context of the Iberian empires explains, according to Schmidt-Nowara, “the limits and durability of Latin American slavery” (40). The specific legal culture of slavery in the Iberian empires guaranteed that the slave owner’s power was mediated, yet simultaneously the law enabled slavery’s accommodation of the degree of autonomy and freedom that slaves were able to conquer. Perhaps for that very reason the institution survived so long in places like Cuba and Brazil, where liberal reforms did not preclude the growth of the plantation economy in the nineteenth century.

By tirelessly providing substantiation of the strategies and perspectives of free and enslaved people in the long history of slavery in Latin America, Schmidt-Nowara also builds a narrative of freedom and abolition that is firmly grounded on Afro–Latin Americans’ politics and history. In that sense, the book creatively foregrounds the aspects of free and enslaved Africans’ struggle against slavery from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and illuminates the multiple but consistent politics of freedom that undoubtedly marked and preceded eighteenth- and nineteenth-century abolitionism. Reading though this book, we approach the Age of Revolutions with sufficient background knowledge to analyze the military, discursive, and institutional transformations in the era as contexts of opportunity for new solidarities to emerge in Afro–Latin Americans’ search for citizenship and inclusion. In this historiographically current account, enslaved Africans are central characters. Indeed, they are the subjects of political history and emancipation in the nineteenth century, either during the Spanish American independence wars or in the Caribbean and Brazil throughout the later part of the century.

Slavery, Freedom, and Abolition in Latin America and the Atlantic World is compulsory reading for all scholars of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean, but it will also be of interest to specialists in the history of slavery and abolition across the Atlantic world. This valuable contribution to the literature is elegantly written and beautifully adorned with numerous illustrations, both qualities that will surely attract students as well. Indeed, the text’s structure, divided in four chapters, with each accompanied by a carefully chosen biographic portrait, suggests it is written for a broad audience.


Marcela Echeverri is assistant professor of history, City University of New York at Staten Island, and Mellon Resident Fellow 2011–12 at the CUNY Center for the Humanities. She specializes in colonial Latin American history and the comparative study of revolutions in the Atlantic world, with a particular emphasis on race, ethnicity, slavery, and the law. Her most recent publications are “‘Enraged to the Limit of Despair’: Infanticide and Slave Judicial Strategies in Barbacoas, 1789–1798” (Slavery and Abolition, 2009) and “Popular Royalists, Empire, and Politics in Southwestern New Granada, 1809–1819” (Hispanic American Historical Review, 2011). Echeverri is currently completing a book manuscript, “In Favor of the King: Popular Royalists, Empire, and Revolution in Colombia, 1780–1820.”


Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).


Related Articles