Colombia’s ethnic discrimination reached the point that 31% of people who identified themselves as African descendants in 2005 no longer wish to identify themselves as such.
According to statistics agency DANE, some 2.9 million of Colombia’s population identified themselves as black in the 2018 census compared to 4.3 million during the previous one in 2005.
Colombia’s ethnic minorities have disproportionally been the victim of armed conflict and ethnic violence for more than 500 years, but the recent changes do not account for the more the 31% reduction in those who identify as themselves as Afrocolombian.
The 1.4 million drop is largely due to children under 15, who seem to have massively abandoned their African heritage.
In the same census, DANE estimated that the Afrocolombian minority has in fact slightly increased since 2005.
Centuries of slavery, persistent ethnic violence, and relentless discrimination appear to be the final straw for a significant portion of black youth.
The 500 years of constant humiliations, scientific and religious racism and the extreme violence may not have resulted in “whitening society,” but the reduction of black pride may strengthen the the sense of superiority of Colombia’s “super caste.”
The first African slaves arrived in Colombia in 1529, according to US historian US historian Frederick Bowser, but without consent of the Spanish authorities that didn’t grant slave licenses until 1533.
The Spanish government initially only granted licenses to conquistadors who needed fighters to conquer the country, public officials who needed to maintain order and church officials.
The rapid extinction of native Colombians left the royal household without a labor force to work in the gold mines and in agriculture.
Cartagena became the main port for human property after 1595 when the Dutch and the English got involved, and the Spanish crown allowed anyone to buy African “settlers.”
Until Madrid allowed the “free trade” of human beings in 1791, state authorities strictly regulated their import to prevent the arrival of worthless human merchandise, and be able to set a fixed price per “unit.”
The problem was that much of the merchandise was worthless on arrival as many slaves were either near death or suffering “eye defects, missing teeth, sores on the legs, phlegm,” not to mention scurvy, shingles, hernias, stomach ruptures or broken ribs. Some even showed uniquely human symptoms like “permanent melancholy.”
State authorities introduced a measuring system, the “Piece of the Indies,” that allowed fixed prices per “unit” using a method calling “palming.”
People would be branded one unit if they were between 18 and 35 and taller than seven palms. People shorter than seven palms were only two-thirds of a unit, so three of them were sold as two units. Toddlers and their mothers were only one unit.
Once the people were palmed and all units were branded, the slaves were off to the market.
Freedom for cannon fodder
The Spanish empire began collapsing in 1800. King Charles IV found himself at risk of going from being the emperor of a colonial superpower to becoming a colony of France after the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1807 and the 1809 call for independence by white elites in Ecuador and Bolivia.
Ecuadorean royalist Antonio Villavicencio asked the Spanish court to allow the children of slaves to born free to prevent “that the slaves will seek [freedom] themselves and even achieve it by violent and coercive means.”
Villavicencio’s idea would also create division between slaves and their revolutionary owners, but died when Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne in 1810 and Bolivar stages a coup in Caracas.
Colombia’s slaveholders began infighting in what is now known as the “Foolish Fatherland” period, that allowed some slaves to escape and find liberty in slave enclaves.
Bolivar’s revolution failed and the general went into exile in 1815, first to Jamaica and then Haiti whose population of largely former slaves had been independent since 1804 after defeating Napoleon.
The general promised to free slaves in 1816 if they helped him overthrow colonial rule. Some 200 slaves joined Bolivar’s 650 men and began the liberation campaign that would expel the Spanish in 1819.
The Liberator never fulfilled his promise and controversially ordered the execution of three black commanders who helped him free Colombia.
From slavery to assigned labor
Following the creation of the Republic of Great Colombia, Bolivar wrote the assembly that would compose the constitution that “I implore the confirmation of the absolute freedom of the slaves, as I would implore my life and the life of the Republic.”
A year later, however, the general wrote his second in command, General Francisco de Paula Santander, that he would rather see slaves “acquire their rights on the battlefield,” partly “for their dangerous numbers to be diminished.”
Will it not be useful for them to acquire their rights on the battlefield, and for their dangerous numbers to be diminished by powerful and legitimate means?
Outspoken abolitionists like Jose Felix de Restrepo were forced to compromise to “destroy slavery without destroying the owners” through the so-called “freedom of the womb” principle.
Great Colombia’s 1821 constitution maintained slavery, but banned the import of slaves and allowed the future children of slaves to obtain citizenship and be “free.”
The children of the slaves who are born from the day of the publication of this law in the provincial capitals will be free, and as such their names will be registered in the civic records of the municipalities and in the parish books.
Law 1 of 1821
These children, however, were still forced to carry out “useful trades and professions” assigned to them by their parents’ white owners.
In the event that because they have reached the age of eighteen the young people are relieved of the power of their mother’s masters, it will be the obligation of the latter to inform the board that will be discussed later about the conduct and behavior of aforementioned young people, so that the assignment of useful trades and professions promoted with the government.
The buying and selling of slaves was banned in 1925, which provided the family of Representative Joaquin Mosquera from the southwestern city of Popayan with a lucrative business opportunity, the illegal slave trade, and a bright political future.
From assigned labor to apprenticeship
The granting of citizenship to the children of slaves was frustrated by Colombia’s first civil war, the War of the Supremes, that began literally weeks before these children were allowed to request citizenship.
At the end of the war in 1842, the government of President Pedro Alcantara decided to suspend the granting of citizenship for another seven years and impose an interim period of “apprenticeship” by decree.
This apprenticeship would allow slave owners to “educate or instruct” their slaves’ children about citizenship and force “vagrants” who escaped to join the army.
Slave owners saw no benefit in investing in their human property and preferred selling their slaves illegally in Peru. Their power was dwindling though while unrest among slaves was growing.
Slave ownership in Colombia
Abolition triggers slaveholders rebellion
By 1950, authorities found that less than 600 children of slaves had effectively obtained freedom through the 1921 manumission program and tensions rose further.
Slaves began organizing public protests to demand their immediate release instead of gradual abolition, which received support from pro-democracy organizations who were inspired by a wave of revolutions in Europe.
Under pressure, President Jose Hilario Lopez proposed to abolish slavery as part of a number of reforms.
Congress agreed on May 21, 1851, that all slaves would be free on January 1 the next year.
To indemnify slave holders, they would receive bonds for slaves who weren’t born free that could be cashed in with interest until 1876.
The War of 1851 ended on September 10 when the National Army defeated the latest anti-abolitionists in Rionegro, Antioquia.
The abolition racket
Despite having lost the war, the slave owners were not defeated and convinced Congress to issue a second law, claiming the original abolition law did not compensate them for all their slaves.
The second abolition law was enacted on April 17, 1852, and made it clear that slave owners never registered slaves’ children and grandchildren who were born after 1821.
Congress agreed to also indemnify the slave owners for the countless people who had been enslaving illegally.
While thousands of former slaves were able to start a life in liberty, others had no option but to continue working for their former masters, but under new conditions.
Plantation owners, for example, would rent small plots of land to former slaves using a business model that would be called sharecropping after the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865.
The Mosquera family saw their illegal slave trade racket fall to pieces and also changed their business model.
Instead of selling gold mined by their slaves they began charging former slaves for mining on their property near the Pacific port city of Buenaventura.
The former slaves’ “misuse” of freedom
Famous geographer Agustin Codazzi traveled to Choco in 1953 and concluded that former slaves in the Pacific province were “misusing their recently acquired freedom” as they were living off agriculture and fishing “in absolute independence” of their former masters.
The individuals of the [“African race”] used to engage in the exploitation of mines; but today — making misuse of the newly acquired freedom — have mostly abandoned this job to live in absolute independence.
Geographer Agustin Codazzi
The geographer returned to the region in 1862, this time with his fellow-geographer Felipe Perez, who reported to the governor that the former slaves who had escaped exploitation “lacked love for work and an ambition for the comforts of civilized life.”
If this strong and robust race had a love of work and an ambition for the comforts of civilized life, they could enrich themselves quickly and exchange his miserable huts for comfortable and warm houses, the pieces of wood they use to sit for good and soft furniture; his ugly nakedness for elegant clothes, and his ignorance, or at least that of his children, for the first and most indispensable rudiments of teaching. But for this it would be necessary to work constantly on minerals, to extract the rich metal, to pile up gold (which is not lacking) in order to enjoy later a less wild and more pleasant life; and this is difficult in the present state of those populations, void of a healthy example.”
Codazzi concluded that the former slaves were of “a race that spends all his days in utter laziness” and were “of no use for the progress of the country.”
Curiously, the geographers’ opinion echoed those of fierce anti-abolitionists like Mosquera and Representative Geronimo Torres, who in 1922 claimed that slaves were “apathic, idle by nature” and “uneducated” who, “separated from the necessary vigilance of the masters to manage their conduct, would cause a fatal shock to this political body.”
Codazzi and Perez had already forgotten that Colombia’s first and only black president, Juan Jose Nieto, hadn’t even left office more than a year before their trip to Choco.
Nieto made history when he proclaimed himself president less than ten years after the abolishment of slavery, but was being removed from Colombia’s history books as carefully as the illegal slave trading practices of his successor, four-time President Tomas Cipriano Mosquera.
Scientific racism and clerical recism
Like French writer Josephe Artur de Gobineau in his 1855 book “An Essay on the Inequality of Races,” Codazzi and Perez were experimenting with “scientific racism,” a pseudo scientific endeavor to help European descendants convince themselves they were superior than African descendants.
One pseudo-scientific belief that was relatively widespread among the urban elites in the capital, and cities lie Medellin and Cali, was that geography, and particular their cities elevated location in the Andes mountain created an environment geographical conditions that were more favorable for superior whites than those who were living in the traditional slave territories along the pacific and Caribbean coasts.
Other prominent thinkers believed that the mere existence of people other than of pure European descent in Colombia posed an existential threat to white superiority as anyone would feel entitled to the same rights and privileges.
Surely La Casas and the advisers of Carlos Quinto did not imagine that by introducing the blood of the negros in Colombia, in the form of merchandise, they were preparing for a more or less near future not only the advent of a very courageous and completely Christian democracy, but also the solution of the great problem of the mixing, to a certain extent, of the different races To throw a new race to the bottom of Colombia, implied introduce a new force there — latent or passive force at the beginning, which is true — but that must explode one day, after verifying its infusion in the body of the society. A new race had to be a new element of blending, of mixtures; and to create a mixed society was to prepare one of blood, the starting point of democracy of ideas and law. Anywhere races cannot claim purity, none can aspire supremacy — all interests become intertwined, and the regime of equality becomes also the only possible one. To demonstrate the accuracy of this idea it is enough to remember that the creoles, the blacks and the mestizos were, since 1820, the most energetic and indomitable soldiers of the Colombian independence.
Author Jose Maria Samper
Colombia’s intellectual descend
While offensive to many now, these Colombian intellectuals were pretty much of the same wavelength as their contemporaries in other parts of the world where “racism science” slowly began making place for “eugenics,” another pseudo science that that proposed Charles Darwin’s evolution theories could be use to better mankind.
One of the most prominent proponents of the involvement of the Church and the reestablishment of feudal classes, that included racial segregation, was former slave owner, politician and author Sergio Arboleda, who proposed the revival of an aristocracy.
In the first line we find the nobiliary aristocracy, made up of European Spaniards and white Creoles, mixed in part with the indigenous nobility. This class, although less numerous, is the only one with the moral, physical and intellectual resources necessary to give society tone and direction, and, of course, the only one responsible for the fate of the country. Next comes what we can call the middle class, to which belong the non-noble whites, the mestizos, the Indians who have risen from their ordinary situation to a higher position in society, and, finally, the mulattos and free blacks. The third class is made up of black slaves, and the last and most numerous are the tributary Indians. As a link between them all is the secular and regular clergy, which, although belonging for the most part to the white race, is strongly tinged with the other two, and is respected, revered and cared for by all.
Sergo Arboleda (1861)
What was particularly in Colombia ahead of the so-called “Regeneration” was that reactionary, anti-democratic and racist thought was fueled by conservative Catholics who claimed democracy was against God’s will unlike white supremacy.
When we speak of the colonial epoch as three centuries of servitude, and with this we say what we know of it, we show crass ignorance and stupid contempt for history and for the men who preceded us in the manner of those who here and in Europe call the Middle Ages a period of barbarism and darkness. Those were times of Christian civilization, although imperfect, in which the germs of many benefits that we now enjoy were developed.
Miguel Antonio Caro
Religion, language, customs and traditions: none of this we have created; all this we have received having come to us from generation to generation, and from hand to hand, so to speak, from the time of the conquest and in the same way it will pass to our children and grandchildren as a precious deposit and rich heritage of civilized races.
Miguel Antonio Caro
Laureano Gomez, a.k.a. “The Monster.”
During the “Conservtive Hegemony” between 1884 and 1930, arguably the most destructive politician in Colombia’s history, Laureano Gomez, rose to prominence.
The conservative politicians quickly developed an admiration of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and surrounded him with racists.
Gomez became convinced of the necessity to “whiten society” to preserve and promote civilization and prevent the Reestablishment of democracy when the Liberal Party took power again in 1930.
The politician was strongly influenced by psychiatrist Miguel Jimenez, an outspoken white supremacist and supporter of Eugenics who had dedicated an entire book to “Colombia’s race problems.”
Jimenez also believed that the different skin colors in Colombia had much to do with the altitude where people lived.
In the subtropical zone of a new continent, three racial stocks have been juxtaposed: one aboriginal and two imported in recent times (four centuries in human evolution is a very short time). Of these three ethnic nuclei, the aboriginal one is in all probability a dependency of the great Mongolian family; the other two are, one of Aryan or European extraction and the other of African origin. Thus, the three great human varieties have come together on our soil: the yellow, the white and the black.
Miguel Jimenez (1920)
The fascist politician, however, had an outspoken concern as he believed that “the blacks” would condemn any civilization to chaos, and political and economic instability.
In the nations of the Americas where blacks predominate, disorder also reigns. Haiti is the classic example of turbulent and irresponsible democracy. In countries where the Negro has disappeared, as in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, it has been possible to establish an economic and political organization with solid bases of stability.
Other racist intellectuals shared Gomez’s concern that Afrocolombians would “darken” or “africanize” the Colombians who had been able to prevent to segregate themselves from people of color.
Physician Luis Lopez believed white Colombians would be able to maintain their skin color by selective breeding, strict immigration laws that would keep all colored people out.
Jimenez proposed to test Afrocolombian’s blood that would allow them to recognize possible weaknesses that could be exploited in order to gradually exterminate them.
The creation of a racist culture
Gomez and his racist buddies would continue conspiring about possibly ethnic cleaning scenarios until Enrique Olaya was elected president in 1930 and sent the fascist to Nazi Germany.
While in Europe, the Conservative politician became a major admirer of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco until he returned in 1936 to start newspaper “El Siglo,” which was inspired by the anti-democratic ideals of his party and the Spanish dictator.
After his close ally Mariano Ospina, another fascist, took office in 1946 the country was slowly descending in a civil war.
Gomez took office in 1952 and tried to pass a series of Fascist bills in 1952, but was deposed by the military in 1952.
The fascist leader received political asylum in Spain until he was allowed to return in 1960. Five years later, the infamous former president was dead.
His political legacy, “Laureanismo,” continued to inspire fascists who would later team up with President Alvaro Uribe and concert their fascist idol’s profoundly racist ideology in what is now called “Uribismo.”
White supremacy is not limited to Colombia’s far-right, but has become part of mainstream culture in which Afrocolombians are excluded to take part, according to political scientist Daniela Maturana.
Afro populations have fewer opportunities. And these situations mean that they have less dialogue with academia, with businessmen, with the State, and this leads you to become invisible to society. That is why these ghettos are created in the cities, as a measure to protect themselves, because they say: the State does not look at us, neither do the businessmen, we are only good for being domestic workers or construction workers. This problem must be addressed through education, economic development and access to fundamental rights.