Patriots, yet slaves


In a significant contribution to
the reassessment of the role of
Africans in Latin American history,
Peter Blanchard examines the part
played by slaves in the wars
of Independence


Under the Flags of Freedom:
Slave Soldiers and the Wars of Independence in Spanish
South America

Peter Blanchard
2008, University of Pittsburgh Press
242 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

THE BATTLE of Chacabuco, a striking oil painting from c.1863 by the Chilean artist José Tomás Vandorse, contains two intriguing details about the Independence wars in early 19th-century South America that are often overlooked.

The painting, which hangs in Chile’s Museo Histórico Nacional, depicts a battle fought outside Santiago in February 1817 that ended in a key victory over royalists by the invading patriot forces under the titan José de San Martín. The patriots can clearly be seen advancing from the left under the blue and white Argentine colours (see detail above).

What is so significant about this work of art is that, first, while the mounted officers are white, the patriot footsoldiers are – almost to a man – black; and that, second, on the battlefield there were, in fact, no more than 6,500 combatants, an encounter tiny by then contemporary European standards of warfare.

In his splendid account of the role of slaves of African origin in the Independence wars, Peter Blanchard draws attention to why these factors are so important. The painting not only highlights the contribution of black soldiers in liberating what are, today, arguably the most European of Latin American societies; but also, given the small number of overall combatants, how this was, proportionately, greater than their creole compatriots.

As Blanchard writes: “As a result, in many instances slave recruits determined the difference between military success and failure. Without their involvement, the patriot cause in particular would have been greatly weakened, and the fight for independence would have taken even longer than it did, probably with a different trajectory, and consequently with different results.” [p. 3]

How ironic then that, despite there being an accessible and – to judge by Blanchard’s excellent research – available record of this role, the contribution of slaves to the patriot forces have attracted only limited attention from historians, save for a few noble exceptions. As the concept of “Afro-Latin America” becomes more comprehensively reassessed with every day that passes, it is probably fair to speculate that this book will come to form an important part of the corpus of work at the very heart of that process. Under the Flags of Freedom is not only an eloquent attempt to redress the historical balance, but a masterpiece of determination (it took the author many years to complete this project). The result is a work of research that should be set as required reading for students of Latin American history without delay; and one, it is earnestly hoped, that will also not take too long to find its way into Spanish.

Promises of freedom

Blanchard explores the many reasons slaves participated – on both sides – in the Independence-era conflicts, not least the promise of freedom and the patriots’ need to satisfy, with conviction or otherwise, a then climate of enlightened belief. But there is no doubt that a prominent and very practical consideration was the shortage of experienced and disciplined fighters: slaves were not only able to respond to orders, but many African-born slaves had also had military experience in their homelands. While slavery as an institution did not disappear for a generation after liberation, it had been undermined. As the author points out, “In one of the ironies of Latin American history, the evil of warfare helped undermine the evil of slavery.” [p. 5]

Under the Flags of Freedom is also a good historical introduction to slavery as an institution in Spanish South America, and some of the phenomena associated with it.

The author explores the role of slave combatants throughout continent, and how the outbreak of warfare fundamentally altered their lives, often giving them opportunities to challenge both their owners and the system of slavery itself as they came under strain in the increasingly febrile atmosphere of conspiracy and rebellion.

In a fascinating chapter about the impact of the war on slave women, Blanchard recounts how female slaves became increasingly assertive throughout the war years and, in some cases, joined the struggle as active participants spies, nurses, camp followers cooks and even, occasionally, soldiers.

It would take a generation for slavery to be abolished in most of the South American countries that had fought wars of independence against Spain, despite all the signs when hostilities ended that the institution was under assault everywhere and the agitation and reluctance to return to the status quo ante of slaves everywhere.

Blanchard examines the complex reasons for this delay, and in particular the wealth and determination of those who wanted to see the institution survive. Slaveholders were, usually, powerbrokers; abolitionists and black activists themselves often lacked leadership and unity; and the demography of slavery had, in any case, been transformed. The writing was on the wall, and to many it may have seemed rational to wait for this pillar of colonialism to collapse of its own contradictions. However, the author also explores how slaves began lobbying for their freedom from the moment hostilities ended, sometimes fruitlessly.

In many cases former combatants were either left in legal limbo, or simply diverted from racial issues by the divisive politics of the era that fuelled further internecine strife between the region’s newly independent states driven by a nationalism that many slaves would have shared.

As Blanchard concludes: “In a way, then, the story of the slaves who served in the wars of Independence can be seen in the bones of those dead heroes of the battle of Chacabuco… The bones of the ex-slaves were mixed with those of fellow soldiers drawn from every racial group in Latin America. Together their remains gradually decayed into dust.” [p. 180]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books