The Conceptualization of Race in Colonial Puerto Rico, 1800–1850

by Kathryn R. Dungy (Author)
©2015 Monographs XVIII, 132 Pages


With the growing interest in the history of peoples of African descent in the Americas, narratives addressing regions outside of the United States are becoming increasingly popular. The Conceptualization of Race in Colonial Puerto Rico, 1800–1850 illuminates the role people of African descent played in the building of a Spanish Caribbean society during the social upheaval of the early nineteenth century. This examination of cultural tensions created by changing regional and national definitions and the fluidity of identity within these structures will appeal to those interested in colonial race issues, Africans in the Americas, and gender and race stratification. Kathryn R. Dungy uses gender, color, and class differences as lenses to understand a colonial society that was regulated by social relationships within Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the Americas. By examining slave and free status, color, gender, work, and immigration, she endeavors to stimulate current debate on issues of gender, color, nation, and empire, utilizing a unique population and culture in the Black Atlantic.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface: Fusing the Races
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Map of the Atlantic World
  • Chapter One: “People of Different Shades”: An Examination of the Nineteenth-Century Population of Puerto Rico
  • A Contemporary View of the Island
  • Brief History of the Island
  • Color Structure of the Early Nineteenth Century
  • The Puerto Rican Free Person of Color before 1800
  • Puerto Rican Free People of Color
  • Notes
  • Chapter Two: A Changing World: The Atlantic World through the Eyes of Free People of Color
  • Revolutions, Rebellions, and Wars
  • Caribbean Territorial Wars
  • Dissatisfaction in the Spanish Colonies
  • The Haitian Revolution
  • Climate in Early Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico
  • 1812 Constitution of Cádiz
  • Cédula de Gracias al Sacar
  • Bando Contra la Raza Africana
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter Three: Living in Color: Native and Immigrant Free People of Color in Their Communities
  • Immigrant and Native Free People of Color
  • A Glimpse at the Women
  • Labor and Land
  • Notes
  • Chapter Four: Til Death Do Us Part: Engagement, Elopement, Marriage, and Widowhood
  • Laws and Life in the Spanish World
  • Notes
  • Chapter Five: A Fusion of the Races: Free People of Color and the Growth of Puerto Rican Society
  • The Alers Siblings
  • Notes
  • Appendix
  • Maps
  • Caribbean Region
  • Puerto Rico
  • Tables
  • Populations of Free People of Color, Whites, and Slaves In the Caribbean at the End of the Eighteenth Century
  • Racial Proportions in Puerto Rico, 1779 to 1830
  • Free People of Color as a Percentage of the Total Population of the Country
  • Glossary
  • Further Reading
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index

Preface: Fusing the Races

I began my studies of slave societies and free people of color in the Caribbean in an effort to better understand my own family history. My paternal ancestors were, variously, Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, all of whom converged on Virginia shores in the late 1600s. My maternal ancestors, again a mixture of European, African and Native American peoples, forged a life of free status for themselves in the slave states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Both families share a history of mixed marriages, indentured servitude, migration, and generally working against the space that people of color were supposed to occupy, both during slavery and in its aftermath. I was looking for links to my seemingly unusual heritage of free people of color struggling against the historical tide. Was there a place where a free person of color could own property, land, and/or slaves, and not be an anomaly? Was there somewhere free people of color could live in an integrated community as social equals?

I never found a utopia. In fact, I found places where my relatives, had they ended up there, might actually have found a crueler trajectory in the social and cultural sphere. However, one location I found ← vii | viii → piqued my interest. Puerto Rico glimmered in the Caribbean Sea with an unusual history surrounding its free people of color. In fact, there was a point in the nineteenth century when the island’s population of free people of color actually outnumbered both the European and slave populations. What did this mean for civil rights? Economic possibilities? Social interactions? Curiosity grabbed me and I was hooked.

I began to consider the issue of people of African descent in the Americas, the connections between colonial Latin American historiography and the scholarship on the Atlantic World, finding both continuities as well as disjunctures between the two fields of study. The current research on free people of color in the colonial Atlantic World diaspora tends to focus on the United States, the British and French Caribbean, Cuba, and Brazil. Analysis of other regions such as Puerto Rico, Central America, and the Andes offers historical examples of community formation that incorporated legal strategies in secular and ecclesiastical institutions, as well as articulations of multiple African identities. Therefore, it is critically important to expand the framework of the Atlantic World diaspora that has come to shape so much of the recent scholarship on Africans in the Americas.

The rise of Atlantic World history yields a broad geographic scope that challenges concepts of regionality and nationality, focuses on the movement of people and commodities around the Atlantic basin, and brings greater attention to the centrality of the effects of slavery in the culture and the historiography. The field has generated a good deal of scholarship. One of the benefactors of this new attentiveness has been the Caribbean basin, with its myriad nationalities and cultures.

Scholars continue to have difficulty recognizing the links between islands, colonial powers, and nationalities beyond our familiar regionalization of the British Caribbean, the Spanish Caribbean, the French Caribbean, and so on. However, the Caribbean region is bound by a shared history, common characteristics, and complex cultural elements. The island societies were the center of the Atlantic economy of the European powers. This work attempts to expand the regionality and demonstrate how Puerto Rico is a microcosm of the Caribbean at large. ← viii | ix →

Our knowledge of free people of color, as well as the geographic origin and ethnicity of slaves introduced into peripheral areas of the Americas, such as the former Spanish colony of Puerto Rico, is limited. Information contained in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century census records and in baptismal, marriage, and death registers enables us to locate and identify free people of color in a number of island communities. Drawing upon data culled from archival registers, this study seeks to broaden our understanding of the free people of color in Puerto Rico between the years of 1790 and 1850.

The Conceptualization of Race in Colonial Puerto Rico shows a different perspective as it looks outside of the large municipality of San Juan (the seat of government and the largest city on the island) to view smaller communities on other parts of the island. The perspective on interactions between white and black, free and enslaved, is altered when viewed beyond the cramped quarters of the walled capital, out among the small towns and villages.

This work looks at the population of free people of color in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico by analyzing the ways in which free people of color made choices regarding work, marriage, and the prevailing legal system to construct an island community. This study provides a wider profile of the country’s class and social structure, while linking the broader historiography of Atlantic World and Latin American social history and various studies of Puerto Rican urban and rural centers.

The Conceptualization of Race in Colonial Puerto Rico is comprised of five chapters. Chapter one introduces the island and the people to the reader, explains terminology, and begins to focus the lens on the nineteenth century. It illuminates the unique demographics that set this island nation apart from other plantation economies in the Atlantic World.

Chapter two is an examination of the evolving population and politics of early nineteenth-century Puerto Rico within a wider Caribbean and Atlantic context. It considers how cultures in the Caribbean region evolved in different times and places and unfolded in disparate ways. These diverse societies varied in their demographic profiles, the products they exported, their political institutions and practices, and their ← ix | x → interactions with the metropole, among other characteristics. The complex interactions found in these disparate locales shaped the societies in which free people of color found themselves living. The chapter also illustrates how cultural influences flowed across Europe and Africa to the Caribbean colonies and affected their political, economic, and cultural growth.

Chapter three utilizes case studies to demonstrate how the construction of identity in Puerto Rico intersects with ongoing debates in African diasporic scholarship regarding the models of continuity and creolization in the Americas. There was considerable diversity in the geographic origins and professions of immigrant free people of color and their counterparts on the island. Few slaves were brought in to Puerto Rico from Africa or from elsewhere in the Americas, and the supply of these was erratic and limited. For the most part, outside of San Juan, there were no endogamous living patterns or professions for immigrant or native free people of color. Commonalities with their white counterparts facilitated integration and promoted social cohesion among the newly arrived free people of color, as well as those already present in the population. It also facilitated their integration into what was emerging as a unified Afro–Puerto Rican community, as well as into the Puerto Rican community at large.

Chapter four explores how free people of color claimed categories of inclusion based on legal and cultural concepts of marriage. By delineating how free people of color negotiated courtship, marriage, and widowhood, one can witness burgeoning group self-awareness. Parental opposition to marriage uncovered conflict over allegedly unequal partnerships within the seemingly endogamous community of free people of color. They utilized parental and state control of sexuality and marriage to safeguard social hierarchy both within their community and on the island at large, revealing heterogeneity previously unaccounted for in Puerto Rico.


XVIII, 132
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2012 (December)
African descent Identity Black culture Class difference Colonialism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XV, 132 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Kathryn R. Dungy (Author)

Kathryn R. Dungy is Assistant Professor of Caribbean and Latin American History at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont.


Title: The Conceptualization of Race in Colonial Puerto Rico, 1800–1850
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152 pages