’s fantastic book Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640
(University of North Carolina Press, 2016)
argues that the extensive participation of Luso-Africans, Latinized Africans, and free people of color made possible Spain’s colonization of the Caribbean. For Wheat, the history of the region is entangled with older and deeper histories of Atlantic Africa and the Iberian world. Particularly, Wheat focuses on events and precedents that took place in Upper Guinea and West Central Africa, two regions that experienced very different patterns of exchange, conquest, and enslavement. Such emphasis on connection and entanglement pushes our listeners to move away from narratives that have argued that Africans and their descendants were brought to the New World simply to “replace” the labor of extinguishing indigenous communities. Instead, Wheat asks us to focus on the specific roles that these forced migrants had in the colonization of important Caribbean ports such as Cartagena de Indias, Havana, Panama City, Santo Domingo and their semirural hinterlands. We thus learn about the existence of Nharas
and Morenas Horras
, black women that held social power and prestige. We also hear about black peasants, men and women that were the basis of agricultural production, and that occasionally found ways to move up the social ladder, even managing to become property owners. This is then a nuanced story that complicates seemingly straightforward concepts such as “settler” and “colonialist,” and that asks us to re-conceptualize this period as one of social mobility, in which racial hierarchies were less stark and somewhat more flexible. As Wheat tell us by the end of the interview, this deep past teaches us that identities can, and have been in the past, flexible and prone to transformation. This is of course an important lesson for the present for questions about identity are ever more pressing in contemporary political debates.
is a PhD student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. You can tweet her and suggest books at @LisetteVaron