Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The "Circum-Caribbean" and the Continuity of Cultures: The Donato Colony in Mexico, 1830-1860

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The "Circum-Caribbean" and the Continuity of Cultures: The Donato Colony in Mexico, 1830-1860

Article excerpt

Migration is the motor of social change and the leaven of culture. It is the wild card of politics and the handmaiden to history. Thomas Fiehrer (1)

Over a decade ago I attended a Family reunion in Louisiana, and while enjoying the festivities, I came across a genealogy of five inter-related families of the area. My curiosity was piqued by a reference to a family connection with Mexico. As a trained historian of the African Diaspora I found this tidbit irresistible.

The year was 1857, and the newcomers, from Louisiana, had settled in Tlacotalpan near Alvarado, Mexico, about 50 miles inland from the Caribbean port of Veracruz. Their history, like much of the history of the African Diaspora, is virtually unknown. When the new arrivals moved in, there were comments about their appearance, how much money they might have, what kind of work they did, their morals, their customs and their character. Initially, their presence was uneventful. The newcomers, most of whom were farmers, engineers, mechanics and other workers, wrote to family and friends left behind and celebrated the advantages of their new home. Later, however, a U.S-owned Mexican newspaper ran an editorial that stirred anxiety and fear. The editor was alarmed that more of these people might come and warned that "since the Negro is a creature of imitation and not invention. they will degenerate ... and [become] vicious.a nuisance and pest to society." (2) Spurred by this glimpse of family history, I decided to investigate this little-known aspect of history in the broader context of the African Diaspora.

Traditionally, the movement of peoples of African origin has tended to be framed almost solely in the context of the Trans-Atlantic enslavement. While many U.S. historians acknowledge that the presence of these Africans forever altered the political, economic, social and cultural nature of the Americas, what is often overlooked is the movement of these unwilling migrants after reaching the "New World."

This later involuntary migration helped build regional economies in what Thomas Fiehrer terms the "circum-Caribbean" socio-economic formation. Hence from the islands of Hispanola and Cuba, to Florida and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, from Texas to Veracruz, Mexico a "technical-racial diffusion took place in the 18th and 19th centuries." (3)

By recognizing this circum-Caribbean connection and its historical importance in the transference of commodities, as well as of people and culture, we can gain insight into another important aspect of the African migratory experience. The emergence of diverse class and cultural interrelationships between and among the descendants of these "New World Africans" has often been relegated to unimportance, or worse, ignored. In particular, it is often difficult for contemporary African Americans to acknowledge that people of African descent sometimes owned and enslaved other Africans. This paper will explore the activities and interactions of these individuals, while focusing particular attention on a group of free Blacks, often referred to as free people of color (FPOC), (or sometimes as gens de colour libre or even "Creoles of Color"). Depending on their circumstances they sometimes left their homes, at times voluntarily, other times involuntarily, and traveled throughout the circum-Caribbean--in search of security, property or simply a better life for themselves and their families. We will focus on the ambiguities surrounding this group and the multiple layers of contradiction and representations that arose as they moved in and out of these different--yet interconnected circum-Caribbean societies.

The "Americanization" of Blacks and Europeans in Louisiana

The end of the 18th century ushered in a period of dramatic change in Louisiana, which affected all territorial residence, in particular people of African ancestry. Beginning with the decline of Spanish mercantilism in the late 1780's and the simultaneous introduction of a hybrid type of sugar cane into Louisiana, thus, the area's economy experienced an unparalleled expansion. …

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