Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico

Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico

Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico

Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico

Synopsis

The contributions of the black population to the history and economic development of Puerto Rico have long been distorted and underplayed, Luis A. Figueroa contends. Focusing on the southeastern coastal region of Guayama, one of Puerto Rico's three leading centers of sugarcane agriculture, Figueroa examines the transition from slavery and slave labor to freedom and free labor after the 1873 abolition of slavery in colonial Puerto Rico. He corrects misconceptions about how ex-slaves went about building their lives and livelihoods after emancipation and debunks standing myths about race relations in Puerto Rico. Historians have assumed that after emancipation in Puerto Rico, as in other parts of the Caribbean and the U. S. South, former slaves acquired some land of their own and became subsistence farmers. Figueroa finds that in Puerto Rico, however, this was not an option because both capital and land available for sale to the Afro-Puerto Rican population were scarce. Paying particular attention to class, gender, and race, his account of how these "libertos joined the labor market profoundly revises our understanding of the emancipation process and the evolution of the working class in Puerto Rico.

Excerpt

This book examines the trials and tribulations, the partial victories, and the defeats of a group of people who happened to share a common history, even if at times they did not realize this factor even want to. The setting is the southeastern coast and hinterland of Puerto Rico, centered on the sugar plantation municipio of Guayama, from about the middle of the nineteenth century to 1898. This study seeks to bring to the fore how Guayama's subaltern groups, mostly slaves and ex-slaves but also free peasants, journeymen, and artisans, sought to create a space of their own, a terrain of their own, in the face of the local sugar plantations' oppressive demands for labor and in an assortment of other economic activities. This work also seeks to understand the complexities of the planter and merchant class that dominated the region starting around 1800 and of the planters' and merchants' relationship not only with their subalterns but also with the colonial state that sequentially helped to build up the plantation economy, failed to prop it up when the going got tough, and ultimately gave way unwillingly to a new colonial power at the turn of the twentieth century.

Guayama's peoples came from almost everywhere—from as far away as Africa, Catalonia, Bordeaux, New Orleans, Guadeloupe, and Curaçao, for example. These immigrants joined a local population of creole large landholders, peasants, and laborers, among whom qualifying as “native” re-

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