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Dominicans mark 500 years since 1st African slave uprising in the Americas

By Maria Montecelos

Santo Domingo, Dec 25 (EFE).- During Christmas 1521, the workers at a sugar plantation on what are now the outskirts of Santo Domingo mounted the New World’s first rebellion by African slaves.

Nueva Isabela was one of several estates belonging to the then-Spanish viceroy of the Indies, Diego Colon, eldest son of Christopher Columbus.

“The idea was to exterminate the Spaniards,” anthropologist Carlos Andujar told Efe of the violence that erupted on Dec. 26, 1521.

The rebels, Muslim Wolofs from West Africa, “sought to reproduce themselves as a movement” and set out “to conquer other plantations and assault the homes of the masters,” he said.

The first blacks in the island of Hispaniola, today shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, arrived in 1501 with colonial governor Nicolas de Ovando, who was granted permission to bring his slaves from Spain.

De Ovando and the other Spanish landowners insisted they needed Africans because of Queen Isabella’s decree of the year before banning the enslavement of the indigenous people, regarded by Madrid as subject of the crown.

For the first 20 years or so, the slaves brought to Hispaniola were Ladinos: Christian, Spanish-speaking people of African descent with a long-established presence on the Iberian peninsula.

But when sugar displaced gold-mining as the main economic activity, the colonizers turned to continental Africans, known as Bozales, and more than 2,000 arrived on the island in 1520.

The Bozales resisted from the start, “not only because of physical punishment, also because of the denial of cultural space, the forced labor and the lack of adequate food,” Andujar said, adding that in those early days, masters allowed the slaves “certain spaces of freedom,” such as music and religion.

Just 12 days after the Dec. 26 mutiny, however, the colonial authorities imposed a draconian slave code that mandated savage punishments for escape or defiance, including amputation of feet or hands and in the most serious cases, execution.

The harsh measures reflected the dependence of the masters on the slaves as the source of their wealth, as well as the constant danger of revolt at a time when African outnumbered Spaniards 3-1.

The Christmas uprising created “a libertarian consciousness in the African groups” and was the precursor of a series of insurrections in the 1530s, Andujar told Efe.

“Blacks did not adapt to colonization here, while they were subjugated by Spanish military power, they were in permanent rebellion,” the anthropologist said. EFE mmv/dr

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