Aline Helg’s Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia 1770-1835 is a fascinating ethnographic study of late colonial and independence era Colombia. Helg’s work is well researched and provides some interesting insights into the interaction between class, race, and social structure in Colombia’s Caribbean, often overlooked aspects of this period of Colombia’s history. Read on for a complete book review of Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia by Aline Helg.

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Overview

Aline Helg’s Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia 1770-1835 examines socio-economic conditions and race relations in colonial New Granada (the colony that would become Colombia) during the Age of Revolutions. It is, first and foremost, an ambitious work that goes into a lot of detail about social structure and race in this period. It’s also a needed piece of work that addresses the significantly small body of literature on slavery and race in Colombia.

Helg’s central task is to attempt to explain why Caribbean Colombia, despite a large population of slaves and free blacks, never experienced a significant slave uprising, and after emancipation, did not experience a broad, racially based political movement emerge challenging the elite white minorty amongst the majority black and mixed race population. As Helg points out, the black and indigenous population far outweighed the white population during the colonial era and after independence in Colombia’s Caribbean.

Colombia’s white post-independence leadership, including Simón Bolívar, feared, almost obsessively, black political unification, movements, or uprisings in what they termed pardocracía (pardo was a catch all term for mixed race people). However, no such identity based political movement ever emerged to challenge the white elite. Helg seeks to explain why here.

Helg ultimately concludes rural areas were often outside true control of the colonial authorities and allowed for many runaway slaves, free blacks, and indigenous peoples to participate in a more passive form of resistance by living largely on their own terms in isolated communities. Meanwhile the scattered nature of these and other rural communities made communication, transportation, and coordination difficult, all serving as further impediments to any widespread uprisings.

Meanwhile, in more urban areas, notably Cartagena, complex social and economic patronage networks allowed at least a degree of upward social mobility for some free black artisans, the most outstanding example being independence militia leader Pedro Romero. Of course, this fits in with the larger, more fluid conception and myriad categories of race and identity itself in much of the Caribbean world, in contrast to the “one drop” rule that normally drives thinking about race in the United States.

After independence, this patronage system, the gradual abolition of slavery and establishment of nominal legal equality, and the obsessive fear of pardocracía and quick repression of any suspected black political movement by the white elite, maintained this situation.

The most outstanding example of this obsessive repression is the story of pardo independence hero José Prudencio Padilla. Bolívar himself both respected the admiral and feared him as a possible rival and leader of the black and mixed race population. Caught up in the political intrigue of the Gran Colombia era, Padilla was arrested after being accused of encouraging racial rebellion. He was later almost assuredly falsely implicated in an assassination plot against Bolívar and executed.

Padilla has become one of my favorite Cartagena historic figures, and much like in Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory (another interesting read about Colombia in this period), Helg’s discussion of Padilla and the conscious and deliberate de-caribbeanization effort undertaken by the Bogotá based white elite after independence is one of the areas where the book shines.

The discussion of the free black, indigenous, and pardo communities known as rochelas was also fascinating. Usually isolated and far from the colonial state and church authorities, they were able to form vibrant communities with their own sets of social norms outside of the control of the powers that were.

Helg also discusses the palenques (literally walled towns) of runaway slaves, the most famous of course being San Basilo. These rural communities provided a chance to live freely on the fringes and made flight a more attractive form of resistance than rebellion.

Meanwhile, organized campaigns of forced resettlement of many of these communities in the late colonial period reveal that the abuse of the rural non-elite in favor of the consolidation of land ownership by the elite is the seemingly never ending story of Colombia and was certainly not a dynamic invented during the post-independence or 20th century internal conflicts. It’s a revealing and enlightening, if sobering, section of the book.

Finally, the discussion of the ferry boat rowers on the Magdalena River stood out to me. Known as bogas, these men used long poles to row long boats up the Magdalena River, the only way to arrive from the interior to the coast. While facing incredibly hard physical labor and often looked down upon by their customers, these usually black or mixed race men held a certain amount of power over their passengers as well.

After all, they were the only form of transportation and had they decided, they could easily leave any one who upset them on the side of the river in the middle of nowhere. As Helg points out, they also opted for more passive forms of resistance than unified, violent rebellion, demanding liquor as part of their pay and sometimes stopping to party whether their passengers liked it or not.

The one critique I might offer of Helg’s book is that the sheer scope of it makes it difficult to follow a singular thread throughout. While her introduction points out the central theme of attempting to explain why there was not a broad based black majority movement, her work looks at many more aspects and dynamics of society at the time. This makes it more informative but perhaps a bit tedious read at times.

Still, it’s an enlightening read, not only on identity, race, and race relations in this period, but also on late colonial and early independence society more generally, including economic and population dynamics and the role of women in society. In short, there’s a wealth of material here, much of it not examined elsewhere, or only rudimentary so.

Who Should Read it and Why?

As noted above, the book has quite the large scope and there are moments when it reads a bit more like a series of essays than a unified book. It also is a no bones about it academic work. Helg is a good writer, but those less academically inclined may find the book a tougher read.

If that’s you and you are interested specifically about learning more about the independence era and some of its racial dynamics, I highly recommend Edgardo Pérez Morales’s No Limits to Their Sway about Cartagena’s independence era privateers, many of them of black and mixed race.

However, those with a particular interest in anthropology, race relations and identity, Caribbean studies, and/or wanting to learn more about the dynamics of the independence era in Colombia’s Caribbean region, will surely find this book very interesting. Helg’s research is impressive, and there’s tons of fascinating tidbits to be gathered in addition to the larger issues addressed in the book.

Final Verdict

Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia 1770-1835 is a very good and well researched work about an aspect that too often gets overlooked in studies and discussions of the independence era and Colombia’s history at large.

It’s also part of a growing body of scholarship that includes Bassi’s and Morales´s aforementioned works that firmly reconnects Colombia to the larger colonial Caribbean world and reemphasizes the also too often overlooked importance of the Caribbean to Colombia’s history.

In conclusion, I’d recommend this book to anyone looking to learn more deeply about this period and/or race relations in Colombia. For those more interested in a general or overview history of this period, I’d recommend choosing either A Brief History of Cartagena (review here), No Limits to their Sway (review here), or for a full country history, Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself.

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