How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History And Conscience

By Palash Ghosh | June 04 2013 5:48 AM

Tens of millions of black Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands from the 16th century to the 19th century to toil on the plantations and farms of the New World. This so-called “Middle Passage” accounted for one of the greatest forced migrations of people in human history, as well as one of the greatest tragedies the world has ever witnessed.

Millions of these helpless Africans washed ashore in Brazil — indeed, in the present-day, roughly one-half of the Brazilian population trace their lineage directly to Africa. African culture has imbued Brazil permanently and profoundly, in terms of music, dance, food and in many other tangible ways.

But what about Brazil’s neighbor, Argentina? Hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought there as well – yet, the black presence in Argentina has virtually vanished from the country’s records and consciousness.

According to historical accounts, Africans first arrived in Argentina in the late 16th century in the region now called the Rio de la Plata, which includes Buenos Aires, primarily to work in agriculture and as domestic servants. By the late 18th century and early 19th century, black Africans were numerous in parts of Argentina, accounting for up to half the population in some provinces, including Santiago del Estero, Catamarca, Salta and Córdoba.

Statue of  "The Slave", by Francisco Cafferata in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Statue of “The Slave”, by Francisco Cafferata in Buenos Aires, Argentina

In Buenos Aires, neighborhoods like Monserrat and San Telmo housed many black slaves, some of whom were engaged in craft-making for their masters. Indeed, blacks accounted for an estimated one-third of the city’s population, according to surveys taken in the early  1800s.

Slavery was officially abolished in 1813, but the practice remained in place until about 1853. Ironically, at about this time, the black population of Argentina began to plunge.

Historians generally attribute two major factors to this sudden “mass disappearance” of black Africans from the country – the deadly war against Paraguay from 1865-1870 (in which thousands of blacks fought on the frontlines for the Argentine military) as well as various other wars; and the onset of yellow fever in Buenos Aires in 1871.

The heavy casualties suffered by black Argentines in military combat created a huge gender gap among the African population – a circumstance that appears to have led black women to mate with whites, further diluting the black population. Many other black Argentines fled to neighboring Brazil and Uruguay, which were viewed as somewhat more hospitable to them.

Others claim something more nefarious at work.

It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army and by forcing blacks to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care).

Tellingly, Sarmiento wrote in his diary in 1848: “In the United States… 4 million are black, and within 20 years will be 8 [million]…. What is [to be] done with such blacks, hated by the white race? Slavery is a parasite that the vegetation of English colonization has left attached to leafy tree of freedom.”

By 1895, there were reportedly so few blacks left in Argentina that the government did not even bother registering African-descended people in the national census.

The CIA World Factbook currently notes that Argentina is 97 percent white (primarily comprising people descended from Spanish and Italian immigrants), thereby making it the “whitest” nation in Latin America.

But blacks did not really vanish from Argentina – despite attempts by the government to eliminate them (partially by encouraging large-scale immigration in the late 19th and 20th century from Europe and the Near East). Rather, they remain a hidden and forgotten part of Argentine society.

Hisham Aidi, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, wrote on Planete Afrique that in the 1950s, when the black American entertainer Josephine Baker arrived in Argentina, she asked the mixed-race minister of public health, Ramon Carilio: “Where are the Negroes?” In response, Carilio joked: “There are only two — you and I.”

As in virtually all Latin American societies where blacks mixed with whites and with local Indians, the question of race is extremely complex and contentious.

“People of mixed ancestry are often not considered ‘black’ in Argentina, historically, because having black ancestry was not considered proper,” said Alejandro Frigerio, an anthropologist at the Universidad Catolica de Buenos Aires, according to Planete Afrique.

“Today the term ‘negro’ is used loosely on anyone with slightly darker skin, but they can be descendants of indigenous Indians [or] Middle Eastern immigrants.”

AfricaVive, a black empowerment group founded in Buenos Aires in the late 1990s, claimed that there are 1 million Argentines of black African descent in the country (out of a total population of about 41 million). A report in the Washington Post even suggested that 10 percent of Buenos Aires’ population may have African blood (even if they are classified as “whites” by the census).

“People for years have accepted the idea that there are no black people in Argentina,” Miriam Gomes, a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, who is part black herself, told the Post.

“Even the schoolbooks here accepted this as a fact. But where did that leave me?”

She also explained that almost no one in Argentina with black blood in their veins will admit to it.

“Without a doubt, racial prejudice is great in this society, and people want to believe that they are white,” she said. “Here, if someone has one drop of white blood, they call themselves white.”

Gomes also told the San Francisco Chronicle that after many decades of white immigration into Argentina, people with African blood have been able to blend in and conceal their origins.

“Argentina’s history books have been partly responsible for misinformation regarding Africans in Argentine society,” she said. “Argentines say there are no blacks here. If you’re looking for traditional African people with very black skin, you won’t find it. African people in Argentina are of mixed heritage.”

Ironically, Argentina’s most famous cultural gift to the world – the tango – came from the African influence.

“The first paintings of people dancing the tango are of people of African descent,” Gomes added.

On a broader scale, the “elimination” of blacks from the country’s history and consciousness reflected the long-cherished desire of successive Argentine governments to imagine the country as an “all-white” extension of Western Europe in Latin America.

“There is a silence about the participation of Afro-Argentines in the history and building of Argentina, a silence about the enslavement and poverty,” said Paula Brufman, an Argentine law student and researcher, according to Planete Afrique.

“The denial and disdain for the Afro community shows the racism of an elite that sees Africans as undeveloped and uncivilized.”

3 thoughts on “How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History And Conscience

  • August 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    I shared your article, “How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History And Conscience” on Facebook. I had en exchange with a friend in Argentina. It was not contentious in any way but I’d like to share Id like to share it with you. I don’t know Argentine history worth squat and could use some help.

    My friends first reply:
    Interesting but not entirely factual. A point of fact, incidentally, is that Uruguay is the whitest nation in the Americas

    Second, Sarmiento was a screaming liberal, considered the father of modern education here, and even spent time in Chicago shaping our school system. In fact there is a bronze sculpture of him in Lincoln Park. He was eventually elected president and enacted countless social reforms to benefit the poor.

    Lots of indigent blacks did get killed in the triple alliance war in Paraguay. The statement about the sexual imbalance due to casualties is not Argentine, but Paraguayan, which even today has a smaller population due to so many men being killed. ( which happened to them again in the 1930’s).

    The actual repeal of slavery took place in Argentina in 1827, not 1813. The majority of the freed slaves emigrated to Brazil where the population of blacks was already huge and their society well established. Some stayed behind and worked on farms and plantations before eventually leaving.

    This is not to say that Argentina was incapable of genocide. Far from it, the efficiently killed off the indigenous tribes at the same time we were clearing our “west”,
    And ironically they were using Remington repeating rifles to do it.

    This article is not factual. Interesting, but slanted. Also the governments of Argentina would not have felt a need to play a secretive, cloak-and-dagger gaame to expunge the remaining blacks. It wouldn’t have been nefarious or underhanded. The would simply have mounted up and hunted them down. Openly and without regard to anybody’s opinion.

    To Which I replied:
    What you say might well be absolutely correct but on the other hand it might not. Just like it is here in the US and most every where else in the world, history is recorded and seen from the eyes of the oppressor not the oppressed. This is particularly true where Africans are involved. The article I posted was written by and from the eyes of one of the oppressed whose perspective to me seems to hold more validity.

    Remember that while you traveled extensively in Argentina for many years you have only been immersed in the culture of less then a year. Those of us who have lived our entire lives in the US are just now discovering the true history of race and slavery and many still refuse to acknowledge it. Oppression of Africans was no less prevalent in South America the in the US

    I’m just saying that and alternative history might well be the correct one. It is every where else in the world.

    And Finally He said:
    Valid observations, but the life and commentary of Sarmiento, as an educator, and later as president are documented by historians of education. Nevertheless, the truth is elusive at best and their is probably boody hands on both sides. The author, though, has his dates wrong, at the very least, and he hints at collusion and nefarious behavior without committing to their validity. Point of fact, though, is that there was very little commercial crop business in those days, and most of the economy was in horses and meat production. As a result, most of the black slaves, fewer than in the other South American countries, were sold into the country by Brazil, under Portuguese slave traders. Second only to the despicable Dutch who stole them out of their native lands in Africa.

    Would you give me your thought here?

    Thanks CD

    • October 31, 2014 at 2:15 pm

      Carl – thanks for your contribution. I find it interesting to see another’s view. Perhaps somewhere in between is The truth?

  • February 24, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    Thanks to all for so much vital information. I’ve never heard or read any of this material.

    Earline Bentley


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