“Candombe federal,” painting by Martín Boneo, 1836
Museo Histórico Nacional, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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?

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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?  

Heeding the words of one iconic Argentinian-born broadcaster, let the truth be our “G-O-A-L!

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. 

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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.

So Where Did They Go?

While Argentina was battling for independence from Spain between 1810 and 1816—a war, I should note, in which Afro-Argentinian slaves were conscripted into the liberation army of Gen. San Martín—the assembly of the United Provinces officially banned the importation of slaves. The year was 1813, but, as Elizando is quick to point out, “the slave trade continued until a pact with Britain in 1840 effectively ended it.”  

In a June 2013 article in the International Business Times titled “Blackout: How Argentina ‘Eliminated’ Africans From Its History and Conscience,” Palash Ghosh writes that there were slaves in that country until about 1853. It was about that time that the “blackout” began.

“While a number of Latin American countries pursued policies of racial Whitening,” Elizando writes, “Argentina stands out for its ‘success’ in this area.” Some blamed it on the 19th-century wars that country fought, in which the black population suffered heavy casualties after being put on the front lines. Others attributed it to assimilation through marriage. Still others pointed to the devastating and disproportionate effects of such epidemics as cholera and yellow fever on black people, as well as emigration out of the country to other South American locales. “This traditional view,” explains Robert Cottrol, of the George Washington University Law School, in the Latin American Research Review, “was captured in a statement by former Argentine President Carlos Menem who once declared: ‘In Argentina blacks do not exist, that is a Brazilian problem.’ ” 

Now, however, thanks to the trailblazing work of recent historians, among them Chace, Andrews, Marta Goldberg and others, we know there were more deliberate forces at play.  

Whitening—and Whitewashing—Argentina

Ghosh writes:

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.’

Consequently, Ghosh adds, “[b]y 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.” Instead, as Elizando explains, the focus was on “whitening” Argentina’s population through European immigration, especially from Italy and Spain.

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To justify it, Elizando continues, “[i]ntellectuals such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, Carlos Octavio Bunge, and José Ingenieros advanced theories of scientific racism.” She adds: “Creole elites had written for years about plans to attract European immigrants to temper the ‘degenerate’ qualities of Argentina’s diminishing black and decimated indigenous populations. By the second decade of the twentieth century, approximately one-third of the country’s population was foreign-born.” And today, in a population of 42 million, an astonishing 97 percent of Argentinians are (or at least claim to be) white! 

Over the decades, some of black Argentina was replenished through new immigrant waves from Cape Verde, or internally, Elizando writes, by “cabecitas negras (literally, little black heads)” migrating from the outskirts to the capital. But never again did the country’s overall population reflect its early history. Also disappearing over time, Elizando observes, was the demarcation “between pardos (mulattoes) and morenos (blacks).” In other words, a porous color line between whites and non-whites made it easier to claim and categorize more Argentinians as white than black over time.

“On a broader scale,” Ghosh concludes, “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.”

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This doesn’t mean, however, that black Argentinians left no mark on the culture. Far from it, in fact!

The Tango’s Black Roots

Referring to research by historian George Reid Andrews, Elizando informs us “that some forms of popular entertainment have featured Afro-Argentine themes; two such dramatic productions are the 1940 musical Candombe de San Baltasar and a 1947 play, Cuando había reyes (‘When There Were Kings’), which recounts the lives of a black community under [19th-century Argentine leader Juan Manuel de Rosas]. Some candombes have also survived and are performed in festivals by both black and white Argentines.” 

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In the candombe, which shares its origins with neighboring Uruguay, one can see the origins of the tango. Ghosh goes even further than Elizando, writing, “Ironically, Argentina’s most famous cultural gift to the world—the tango—came from the African influence,” as evidenced by early paintings in which art imitated life, depicting a tradition that innovated one of the world’s most celebrated dance forms.

The most stunning account of the tango’s black roots is found in art historian Robert Farris Thompson’s 2005 book, Tango: An Art History of Love, of which you can get a multisensory glimpse in his 2010 talk at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. It wasn’t just that legendary white tango performer Carlos Gardel had for his tutor and inspiration the black composer-poet Gabino Ezeiza, Thompson notes, but also that the tango itself has deep roots in the former African kingdom of Kongo. 

The Kikongo word for sun is ntangu, Thompson writes, and the movements of the ntangu through the sky inspired dance forms on Earth that were eventually Creolized with Spanish and Italian influences in Buenos Aires as tango, which means, literally, “ ‘moving in time to a beat.’ ” In this way, Thompson explains, “[t]he path of the sun [became] the path of the tango.”  

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Today, the Argentinian tango is one of the most beautiful dance forms in the world, indistinguishable from Buenos Aires itself, as any traveler there knows. Read Bob Thompson and I guarantee you'll never see or hear the tango the same way again. And through the tango, the slaves and freed black people of south Buenos Aires live on, as we are so vividly and “wittily” reminded in the 1995 painting that Thompson references in his talk, Robert Colescott’s El Tango, in which a King Kong figure says to a lady in red, “You’re tango?”

‘Africa Vive’

Still, wherever historical amnesia sets in, one inevitably comes across repressive opinions disguised as fact. For example, as Elizando relates, “[a]n article appearing in The Montreal Gazette in 1998 quote[d] a Buenos Aires museum director’s response to the possibility of an Afro-Argentine exhibit: ‘We have too many important events and personalities to show. We can’t waste space putting things that don’t have any relevance to our history.’ ” Consequently, Elizando adds, Argentina’s “self-image coexists with continued manifestations of racism. The same article explains that when the Argentine soccer team was to play either the Brazilian or Nigerian team in the Olympic finals, a sports newspaper ran the headline, ‘Bring on the Monkeys.’ ”

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My answer to that: Be careful what you wish for. Since the launch of the World Cup tournament in 1930, Brazil has won more titles than any other country—five!—a fact unchanged by this year's brutal loss to Germany. And on Sunday, Argentina lost the championship to Germany by a score of 1-0. But who knows, with the wonders of DNA research, maybe one day we will find out that there are black players wearing the blue and white after all.

In the meantime, I proudly stand with groups inside Argentina such as Africa Vive, which was organized in 1996, Elizando notes, “to raise awareness of Afro-Argentine history and culture.” Among the group’s successes was persuading the government in 2001 “to hold a ceremony to honor the country’s black military heroes. … Such developments give Afro-Argentine leaders hope that the national culture eventually will fully embrace, rather than try to erase, its African roots,” Elizando writes. 

One clear sign that we all are heading in the right direction: The blue FIFA banner the Argentinian team and other players stood behind at the World Cup in Brazil urging the world to #SayNoToRacism. To that I say, “G-O-A-L!”

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As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.