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    Land of winds > The land > History | Issue 12 (Nov.-Dec. 2012)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Descendants of slaves

Descendants of slaves

According to historical chronicles, the presence of Africans in Alto Perú (Upper Peru, that is the original name of colonial Bolivia) dates back to 1532 (with the arrival of the first Spanish conquerors), but it was more than a decade later, in 1549 when they were massively brought into the region to be used as slave labour to work in the silver mines of "Cerro Rico" ("rich mountain" or "the mountain that spewed forth silver") discovered four years earlier in Potosí.

Many died due to maltreatment and inhumane conditions. On the other hand, coming from the region comprising present-day Congo and Angola, African slaves were unaccustomed to the high altitude and cold temperatures, and suffered terribly from fatigue and altitude sickness (suruqchi). The work in the tunnels, digging for the precious metal, was eventually left to the indigenous mitayos, and Africans were then sent to work for Spaniards and criollos (Spaniards born in the colonies) as domestic servants, and forced to push the mills in the Potosí Royal Mint (Casa de la Moneda) as "human mules". There, between 1574 and 1773, they also pressed silver extracted from the Cerro Rico into macuquinas (Latin American "hammered" silver coins used between the 16th and the 18th century). Overworked under awful working conditions, poorly fed and housed, and in regular contact with poisonous gases of mercury, they did not live longer than a few months.

When slaves were sent to warm regions of eastern Bolivia to work in plantations, Potosí saw its African population dramatically reduced to less than five hundred by 1807. Two years later, whether in urban or rural areas, they fought against the "realistas" (Spanish troops) during the wars for independence, perhaps believing in the promise of liberty and equality for all made by local revolutionary forces.

With the arrival of independence and the beginning of the republican period in 1825, "haciendas" (large estates) sprung up in the warm valleys or yungas, where climate was excellent for growing citrus and tropical fruits, coffee, coca-leaf and cassava. Africans continued to be exploited as slaves on the large haciendas and became known as pongos (men) and mitanis (women). Working and living conditions were awful for adults and children alike, and cruel punishments were commonplace. Many were whipped to death and lots attempted to escape.

Although brutal segregation and new methods of exploitation came to replace it, slavery had been officially abolished in 1851 under the presidency of Manuel Isidoro Belzu. By 1883, there were over 6,000 Afro-descendants in Bolivia. It was not until 1952, that they and many others won their liberty when the Nationalist Revolution put an end to forced unpaid work and servitude. Women and men became owners of their lives and Afro-Bolivians children were able to go to school for the first time.

Due to improving access to education, some Afro-Bolivians have been successful in different areas, but most are extremely poor farmers and share the same problems as other rural workers, and they still face discrimination and exclusion.

Despite having repeatedly demanded that they be included in the official population census, their demands were rejected until very recently. And just in 2007, after several complaints, the government recognized and named Afro-Bolivians as a legitimate minority ethnic group belonging to the Bolivian nation in the new Bolivian Political Constitution of the Plurinational, Communitarian State.

Article. "Los esclavos en la Audiencia de Charcas", in Kalipedia [es].
Article. "Bolivia: The African presence", by Juan Angola Maconde. In Boyce Davies, C. E. (ed.) Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences and Culture - Vol. 1.

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