Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 87: What happened to Argentina’s black population?
In watching this year’s World Cup, did anyone find it peculiar that there were no black players on the Argentinian national team, when their archrivals, the Brazilians, have more than half a dozen (not to mention the greatest soccer player of all time among their alums, Pelé)? After all, both countries are in South America, one on top of the other, and both were colonized by European powers that relied heavily on African slaves to turn a profit: Portugal, in the case of Brazil, and Spain, in the case of Argentina. Yet walk down the streets of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro today, and you’ll see a racial gap even more pronounced than on the soccer field. Is it just coincidence, an accident of history perhaps, or is history itself at play?
Argentina’s Slave-Trading Past
According to Erika Edwards, author of the “Slavery in Argentina” entry in Oxford Bibliographies:
In 1587 the first slaves arrived in Buenos Aires from Brazil. From 1580 to 1640, the main commercial activity for Buenos Aires was the slave trade. More than 70 percent of the value of all imports arriving in Buenos were enslaved Africans. Slaves came primarily from Brazil via the Portuguese slave trade from Angola and other Western states in Africa. Once arriving in Buenos Aires, they could be sent as far as Lima, Peru; slaves were provided to Mendoza, Tucuman, Salta Jujuy, Chile, Paraguay, and what is today Bolivia and southern Peru. Córdoba functioned primarily as a redistribution center for this slave transfer until 1610.
It’s difficult to pin down the exact number of African slaves who passed through Argentina, since so much of the trade involved illegal smuggling (due to shifting laws against the importation of slaves and traders’ desire to avoid paying taxes). But to get a sense, I searched the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which suggests that 63,845 slaves disembarked at the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata between 1601 and 1866 (compared with the more than 3 million slaves in Brazil). La Plata, under Spanish dominion after 1776, was headquartered in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s present-day capital city, and touched parts of present-day Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. After earlier European settlers had tried—and failed—to subjugate the native population in the region, trading in African slaves, legally or illegally, proved too lucrative to pass up. At various points, the French, Portuguese and British were in on the action, with the latter two wielding the greatest influence. Even the Jesuit priests of Córdoba had a hard time saying no to slavery.
After 1789, many restrictions on trade for American subjects were lifted, Joy Elizando writes in her profile of the country for Africana, the Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition. “Slaves then came from Portuguese factories in Angola ([the people] were called Congos, Angolas, Benguelas, and Luandas) and from Mozambique. Between 1750 and 1810 approximately 45,000 slaves were imported by both legal and illegal means.” Their presence was key to Buenos Aires’ rise as an economic and political power, Elizando adds, citing the work of historians Sergio Villalobos, Russell Edward Chace and George Reid Andrews. Amazingly, as a result, Elizando writes, “[b]y the late 1700s nearly 50 percent of the population in the interior of the country was black, and between 30 and 40 percent of the population of Buenos Aires was black or mulatto.”
But you would never know that today. In fact, many Argentinians themselves don’t know that. Some even think their country managed to avoid the slave trade entirely, victims of a sort of cultural amnesia that finds the black presence in Argentina somehow inconvenient, something to be denied.