Slavery’s andean legacy

I have a confession to make. My family has a family shield and motto, and what’s more I am proud of it. Yes, I know it rings of aristocratic privilege and makes me sound like I had fencing lessons at school, but the reason is it doesn’t really look like a normal family shield. There are no fighters on horseback, no haughty animals, not even a mystical unicorn. Instead it features a black slave with broken chains and the slogan "Do it with thy might."

The reason is that my five-greats grandfather, Thomas Fowell Buxton (mmm…glad the fowell got lost somewhere in time) was one of Wilberforce’s companions who helped fight to get Parliament to abolish slavery. In fact you can even find him with my five-greats aunt Elizabeth Fry on the current five pound note! So as Britain celebrates 200 years since the abolition of the trade in March 1807, I have had more than just a academic interest in following the debate. TFB as he has become known was more involved in the campaign beyond 1807, which led to the passing of a law in 1834 that didn’t just abolish the trade but slavery itself within the British empire.

Yet another reason why I like the shield is because it doesn’t show someone releasing the slave but suggests that the slave may be releasing himself. As many Black activists point out, slavery ended not primarily as a result of the hard work of a few white philanthropists like Wilberforce or TFB, but mainly because of slave resistance that culminated in serious rebellions across the Carribbean that made slavery increasingly difficult and costly.

The focus, 200 years on, should therefore not just be on the abolitionists, but those slaves that led resistance as well as the consequences of the slave trade for the African diaspora. There is a need to address the structural relationships of injustice and racism that were constructed through slavery. That story surprisingly can take you to a landlocked mountainous Andean nation called Bolivia.

"I am also a Bolivian. I want you to know me." The face that looked directly at me from the poster was of a young black man, his hat emblazoned with colours of the Bolivian flag, his backdrop the lush-green tropical forests of the Yungas near La Paz.  They are rarely talked or written about and no-one can even give you an accurate estimation of their population, but there are tens of thousands of Bolivians of African descent who have been based in this Andean nation for hundreds of years.

Their history of arrival in Bolivia is born out of unimaginable trauma. As one Afro-Bolivian publication puts it: "We were people who founded one of the first world civilisations, yet we arrived here with our feet and hands bound, submitted to slavery where our rights did not feature in the hearts or minds of those who came to loot our natural resources." African slaves from various parts of Africa but particularly the Bantu people were shipped to Bolivia from the 16th Century onwards to work in the rich silver mines of Potosi. Most died before they even got to Bolivia. Many more lost lives in the inhospitable altitude and climes and under severely oppressive work conditions in the mines. So many died that the slave-owners decided to transfer the remaining slaves to the haciendas (large feudal farms) in the sub-tropical region of the Yungas.

"When I think of how much our ancestors suffered, it is very painful," says 23-year old Eddy Vazsquez from Santaner in the Coroico region of the Yungas. Like all the other Afro-Bolivians I met, Eddy has no idea of where his ancestors came from in Africa, just a recognition of the incredible force of character that they must have had to have made Eddy’s life possible. "Their amazing struggle just to survive the experience makes me determined to ensure it never happens again. I have a moral duty with my life to pay for the suffering by continuing to fight for our rights," Eddy asserts.

Slavery was technically ended in 1825 as a result of a decree by Simon Bolivar, but it effectively remained until the agrarian reform of 1953. In the Yungas region, Afro-Bolivians gradually adapted and intermingled with the indigenous peoples. This is most obvious in the dress of Afro-Bolivian women who you can see in the Yungas dressed in the traditional dress of pollera (basket-like skirt), blouse, and bowler hats. Many Afro-Bolivians speak indigenous languages, have intermarried, and practice indigenous customs and values such as ayni (reciprocity).

But the Afro-Bolivian communities also managed to maintain some customs that are rooted in African traditions. Afro-Bolivians continued to dance Saya, an infectious dance typically done in embroidered white that surges out of a rhythm of drums and the scraping of a rutted wooden stick. At funerals, communities invoke spirits and nature as they dance in a tradition called mauchi. They continue to cook food typical of parts of Africa, such as Mondongo (beef, maize and chili) and Olanco (rice, sardines and plantains).

Yet at a national level, Afro-Bolivians remained anonymous and marginalised. Population censuses don’t even count them so the only reference they have of how many people they are is a small survey done in 1990 that suggested a population of 20,000 Afro-Bolivians. They are only occasionally mentioned in history books, and even then only as a historical footnote of colonialism, with silence about their role in fighting for Independence, their involvement in the Chaco war, their role in key social movements in the 20th Century.

It is an anonymity that continues to today. "Bolivians continue to ask me which country I am from," says Frankly Iriondo Martinez, a young Afro-Bolivian with short dreads. "They can’t believe I am Bolivian, even if my family may have been here 500 years."

But in 1988, a group of young Afro-Bolivians decided that they weren’t prepared to remain invisible any longer. They rooted their resistance in a proud affirmation of their culture. They decided to set up a group to dance Saya, which was slowly dying out, by finding an older person in the community to teach them. They soon took this dance to the cities to which they were migrating and formed an organisation, the Afro-Bolivian Saya Cultural Movement. "We wanted to show who we are, where we come from, our culture, our history," said Jorge Medina.

The effect was dramatic. Saya began taking off in the cities, lots of Bolivians were keen to learn the dance, it started appearing in carnivals and festivals. The Saya effect is something I have witnessed on several occasions where the arrival of a group of Afro-Bolivian dancers has electrified a Bolivian crowd. "Saya is contagious, it helped visibilise us like never before," says Jorge.

Saya proved to be a powerful symbol for the cultural revival, but as Jorge stressed, "we don’t want to just be known as dancers or as folklore but as a people with history and with rights and demands." As a result in 2003, the movement started to articulate more political and social demands, training Afro-Bolivian leaders, organising meetings to discuss communities’ priorities and engaging with other social movements.

In 2006 and 2007, this work has focused around the Constituent Assembly. As a result of many workshops, the Afro-Bolivian movement has developed a series of proposals for the new Constitution above all demanding that Afro-Bolivians be formally recognised in the new constitution and included in the census. It also calls for the education curriculum to cover the history of the Afro-Bolivian people and to promote an interculturality that includes Afro-Bolivians. It proposes State protection of uses and customs of the Afro-Bolivian people, the promotion of their traditional medicine, laws against racial discimination, and the effective enactment of land redistribution, full access to services, as well as active support for agriculture within Afro-Bolivian communities.

Sadly, their experience of the new indigenous-led MAS Government has not been positive. "We hoped that it would be different," says Frankly. "This was an indigenous President who talked of marginalised, forgotten peoples but he never mentions us. Evo only ever talks of the 36 indigenous groups, not other peoples who were also condemned to exploitation and marginalisation." They had just returned from the Constituent Assembly in Sucre and said they got a more positive response from the right-wing PODEMOS party than MAS.

"This is an indigenous government, but it isn’t a liberated government," explains Jorge. "They are equally exclusive of people with disabilities. It can’t be that just because we are small in number that we are excluded. We have also experienced five hundreds year of oppression and exclusion." Jorge attributes the failure to listen to their demands to both ignorance of their situation, but also active resistance. "We have allies in some of the indigenous movements like CONAMAQ, but there appear to be people like Morales and Linera whose vision of diversity only expands to certain groups," he says.

But Afro-Bolivians like Jorge, Frankly and Eddy are determined to continue fighting for recognition, changes of attitudes and a better quality of life for his compatriots. "We will continue to fight peacefully through lobbying, demonstrations, our communications to show that we are here, that we are present and an essential part of Bolivia," says Jorge.

As we mark 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade, they acknowledge that this struggle is a universal one for the African diaspora. "The question for Britain as they mark this anniversary is what is life like for people of African descent in Britain. What is being done to overcome racism and division there," says Eddy. "Internationally, we need more than a moral apology, we need an economic apology that resolves the impoverishment that resulted from slavery in Bolivia and in other countries. Words can’t resolve what slavery did. We need to repair the damage that was done."



  1. Francis Buxton April 9, 2007 at 1:56 am - Reply

    Wow! this Bicentenary celebration (Jane and I were present in Westminster Abbey for the national celebration before Easter) ripples around the world, and reveals continuing injustices, doesn’t it. All power to the Afro-Bolivians in their struggle. A minor correction which may be of interest: as far as I can tell, TFB is your 4 x great grandfather, Nick, not 5 x great as you say. Sir Thomas Fowell and his wife Hannah Gurney (sister to Elizabeth Fry) had 5 children, one of whom was also named Thomas Fowell. He and his wife Rachel Jane Gurney (a bit of inbreeding here) had 12 children, one of whom was John Henry. He and his wife Emma Pelly gave birth to your great grandfather Leonard. And so to your grandfather Edmund, your father Francis, and … you, Tom & Asha. So Sir TFB is your great great great great grandfather. Still quite great, even though not five times over!

  2. maria April 18, 2007 at 9:02 am - Reply

    I am from colombia, and am doing a project that consists of creating a website. I am doing about the problems of the environment and possible solutions. May I please use the photo of deforestation???
    Thank You,

  3. cindy March 12, 2008 at 8:17 am - Reply

    I am trying to find out why the bowler hat is tipped/slanted to one side.

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