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

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Kathryn R. Dungy

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.

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Chapter One. A Contemporary View of the Island

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Chapter One “People of Different Shades”: An Examination of the Nineteenth-Century Population of Puerto Rico A Contemporary View of the Island On the way to Mexico in 1822, U.S. diplomat Joel Poinsett’s ship made a supply stop in Puerto Rico.1 Poinsett spent four days on the island making diplomatic visits and obtaining food supplies for the ship. On one foray into the countryside to collect fresh meat and vegetables, he observed that In the course of this ride, I met two whites only, but a great many people of different shades of colour … If they were surprised at our appearance, I was equally so to see such crowds of men, women and children …2 Who were these “great many people of different shades of colour,” and why were they so remarkable to this visitor? Poinsett and other North American and European visitors were continually confound- ed by this island where “the greater part of the free inhabitants are coloured persons,” where the “laws know no difference between the white … and the coloured person,”3 and where “whites, mulattoes, free people of colour, and slaves, are to be seen promiscuously mingled, without any distinction of place.”4 2 “people of different shades” Ten years after Poinsett’s visit, another account was written by George Flinter, a British national in the service of the Spanish government.5 Flinter was astounded that “there are more free coloureds here in Puerto Rico than there are on all the French and British islands combined,”6 and that...

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