Decolonizing Latin America as Social Geography: Comments on Charles Mann’s 1491.

[Image: Presencia de América Latina (Presence of Latin America, 1964–65) is a 300 square meters (3,200 sq ft) mural at the hall of the Arts House of the University of Concepción, Chile. It is also known as Latin America’s Integration (Wikimedia Commons)]

The origins of Latin America and the Caribbean as a place involve layers of designations of space and place, forming a lexicon which constructs our mental understanding of the geographies incorporated into “Latin America” and “the Caribbean”. Both of these categories, like other socially constructed geographies such as “Europe” (a product of the emergence of what is now Europe as a center of the capitalist world-system), defy rigidly scientific understandings of geography. Europe is, geologically speaking, a peninsula of Asia, and while Latin America roughly corresponds with South America, Latin American cultural designations extend into North America via Mexico (and even into the United States according to many Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Chicanx nationalist theorists).

Latin America, or more accurately Latinoamerica, is a Spanish European term, later instrumentalized by French imperialism, to justify its presence based on the “Latinaity” of the region, while “Caribbean” is derived from Carib, an indigenous people of the region, but also has a colonial root. During the days of early Spanish rule, racist mythologies made “Carib” and “Cannibal” synonymous in colonial records and cultural memory, and thus the Spanish by designating the region as the “Caribbean”, also designated the entirety of the populations of that region as cannibals (Hulme, 1992).

1732 Map of the “West Indes”, what we now call the Caribbean (Herman Moll).

It is because of these colonial interventions into the social geographies of what we call Latin America and the Caribbean that theorists like Mignolo (2005) call for a rejection of the category of Latin America as a colonialist regional conception forged by Creole elites in collaboration with the Europeans. Mignolo extends this argument saying that the imagining of a “homogenous” Latin America works to “render invisible” indigenous populations of African descent and the Chincanx/Latinx population of the US.

Yet, at least for now, Latin America is still with us as a social-geographic category. But despite of (or maybe because of) its persistence as a category which subsumes so many others, its meaning is constantly contested. Indeed, how could it not be? As Sanabria writes:

“Dozens of countries and territories with half a billion citizens; hundreds of languages spoken; millions of people concentrated in huge megacities, many others living in rural communities; every imaginable ecological niche spread over eight million square miles of land and sea; diverse historical trajectories, some pointing to Africa, some to Europe, and others firmly rooted in the New World; a long history of movement (diasporas) within and across national boundaries; hundreds or thousands of groups with their own self-ascribed, ethnic identity; a multiplicity of overlapping racial types and classifications, far from stable and rooted in biology; widely diverse notions of sexuality and gender relations; dozens of religious traditions and hundreds of diverse rituals, both secular and religious; widely dissimilar ways of construing health and classifying and treating illness; hundreds of different foods and cuisines; dozens of musical and dance traditions; a wide array of secular and religious popular celebrations with African, European, and New World influences—this is Latin America and the Caribbean…yet, what makes this a space or area of study and research? On the basis of which criteria or ideological positions do scholars delimit what is and what is not “Latin America” and the “Caribbean”?” (Sanabria, 2005, p. 17).

In recent years, numerous forces have tapped the diversity that is the conceptual world of Latin America described by Sanabria in order to advance their own visions and agendas. From the US creation of Latin American Studies to advance imperialist interests, to diaspora identity politics discourses, to the emergence of Bolivarianismo as the definitive ideology of the new Latin American left, what is and what will be Latin America is a crucial question for many vested interests.

One of the key battlefields of this contest is history, and pre-Columbian history takes on a special significance in particular. Competing narratives of the pre-colonial and colonial eras inform the legitimacy of various political and cultural worldviews. Thus, the renewed interest in accurate histories of these periods provokes controversy. Mann’s work 1491: The Americas Before Columbus is one such history. An excerpt of his work in The Atlantic (2002) with the same title as his book centers on two of his more interesting contributions,  – amalgamations of decades of other  research, fieldwork, and debate, – that (1) pre-colonial indigenous populations were numerous, numbering at least in the tens of millions, and (2) indigenous civilizations molded and crafted the ecology of the continent in monumental and lasting ways.

These contributions are significant, though not necessarily unique. Mann cites numerous other theorists and engages in many intimate interactions with them, before proposing is own synthesis. Sanabria (2005), who’s Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, is intended as a survey text of the discipline, posits many of the same positions as Mann, though in less detail, imply that Mann’s claim that these positions are slowly gaining clout in the mainstream seems to be at least somewhat correct.

Firstly, understanding precolonial populations as vast and numerous helps us conceptualize what exactly colonialism was in a new way. The scale of human suffering and cultural destruction is of holocaust proportions. However, it is my position that Mann’s presentation of the numbers problem is undertheorized. While noting casually the combination of colonial actions and accidental introduction of diseases, Mann fails to analyze how these two forces worked in conjunction to accomplish genocides of indigenous peoples. For example, Mann might note how atrocious working conditions for Aztec slaves in Spanish mines, or the French forceful selling of unsanitized sugar to the Huron, worked to exacerbate plague and epidemic directly in service of colonial economics. In this sense, Mann makes a valuable contribution to a certain extent to our understandings of what happened in colonialism but why it happened is remarkably absent, and worth investigating. Put another way, what anthropologists call power systems and what Marxists call material conditions, is not addressed by Mann.

Mann’s second contribution is theorized more deeply. The idea that the American continents have been meddled with, often in drastic ways, by human activity for centuries before colonial contact is a controversial one. Mann particularly points out that contemporary environmentalists’ understanding of areas like the Amazon rainforest as untamed and untouched wilderness defies the archaeological evidence; Mann goes so far as to present fieldwork suggesting that the Amazon is itself a creation of human actions, an engineered rainforest created by Inca and Aztec mass-scale landscape planning.

I postulate that this contemporary environmentalist conception, the idea of untamed and untouched preserves, is firmly rooted in terra nullius colonial ideology, a suggestion Mann hints at but does not explicitly come out and say. We can see this reified from North (PETA interventions against Inuit seal hunting) to South (Conservationist support for land grabs in the form of humanitarian purchases of preserves in Brazil). Conservational ideology legitimizes itself by projecting the idea of untouched nature preserves (never mind that by designating a space a “preserve” is, itself an act of human intervention), onto indigenous peoples.

This is especially important to critique in the context of Latin America, where the negotiation of space and place is ongoing, and often dramatic in how it is resolved. We should understand the indigenous impact upon how we understand Latin American space and place as neither reflexively environmentalist, nor trapped in the mythic pre-Colombian process, but as holistic, ongoing, and shaped by the contours of history, culture, and political economy.


HULME, P. (1992). Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean 1492-1797. London, UK: Routledge.

MANN, C. (2002). “1491”. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

MIGNOLO, W. (2005). The Idea of Latin America. New York, NY: Wiley.

SANABRIA, H. (2005). The Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean. London, UK: Routledge.


Aunque mi amo me mate, a la mina no voy

“Even if my master kills me, I shall not go to the mine.” So go the lyrics of a popular song in the Pacific lowlands. They serve as a reminder of black resistance during slavery times in this region. By withdrawing their bodies – essential tools of capital accumulation  in the alluvial gold mines – from the production process, the enslaved hit out at the source of their oppression. Relatively little is known – and even less documented – of these embodied experiences of resistance in the gold mines. Why is that so?

Resistance formed part of the slavery system from the beginning. As Norman Whitten and Arlene Torres (1998) put it, “Wherever slavery existed, self-liberation began.” In fact, the Pacific lowlands can be regarded as a territory of resistance, dating back to the early stages of colonization which was confronted with bitter and long-lasting indigenous resistance. Alonso Valencia (1991) regards the Spanish attempt at conquest as a failure, considering that for nearly two hundred years the indigenous populations were never conquered. The first conflicts took place in Uraba on the northwestern Caribbean Coast in 1510, and Valencai registers major resistance as late as 1687 without the Spanish Crown able to establish central, colonial control over the pacific lowlands. The lowlands consequently became known as “war frontier” (frontera de guerra), with indigenous resistance proving a major obstacle to the exploitation of the region’s gold resources. West (1957) observes, “Although Spanish mining acitivty in the Choco began on the upper Tamana in the 1570s, Indian hostility prevented intensive placering and the importation of many Negroes for more than a century.”

Indigenous groups in the southern part of the Pacific lowlands became known as indios de guerra, or “warring Indians”, for the ferocity with which they attacked the conquistadores so that Spanish settlements were mostly restricted to the Andean axis of Quito (in today’s Ecuador), Popayan, and Cali. Rebellions in the gold mines too were quite common. Mateo MIna (1975, AKA Michael Taussig) documents one such in Zaragoza, Antioquia, in 1598, which involved four thousand enslaved laborers. in another incident, on January 15, 1684, Citaries indios massacred miners and Spanish missionaries in the town of Negua (in today’s Choco Department). This incident spread like a fire and gripped the whole region, as towns and churches were destroyed (FUNCOP 1996). The Choco rebellion forced Spanish miners and enslaved laborers to retreat into the highlands, thus preventing the exploitation of gold placers for four years (West 1957). According to Valencia (1991) it is only from 1690 onward that we can talk of authentic conquest, and even then resistance remained a daily practice for both indigenous and Afro-descendant populations.

Resistance took on a variety of forms, including escapes, rebellions, killings, and suicides (Friedemann, 1998). Abortion and infanticide were frequent forms of female resistance, as enslaved mothers denied the slave owner control over their children, who would have been appropriated as labor (Spicker 1996). However, many acts of resistance either are not documented or are misrepresented in history. The reasons for such omissions are quite obvious. According to Sabas Casaman (1997), an Afro-descendant elderly political leader in the North Caucra region, “Colombia’s history has not been written…for a very simple reason. Because history is always written by the winners; the losers, we have no part in it, as long as we have this condition of losers.” Remembering a verse passed on in the oral tradition, Casaman reflects on the impossibility of meaningful speech in the context of oppression. Here he refers to the slave owner Julio Arboleda, who was renowned for his cruelty toward the enslaved (briefly discussed in the interlude):

Aqui aunque mas se habla

no habla sino quien pueda

el dueno de la propiedad

senor Don Julio Arboleda 

(Here, no matter what you say,

only speaks who can,

the owner of this property,

Mr. Julio Arboleda)

Historical documents of black resistance, if they exist at all, are often plagued with a racist vocabulary. Black rebellions are not represented as liberating processes by historical subjects, but as criminal acts that betray the enslaved people’s lack of gratitude toward their masters, who saw themselves as having brought Christian redemption to ignorant pagans. According to Arocha (1999), these are “documents in which the Spanish never cease to be heroes while the blacks are rarely anything but cowards and traitors.”

This unequal power relationship is also the heart of the extraordinary Afrocentric novel Chango el Gran Putas, written by the Afro-Colombian novelist, ethnographer, and intellectual Manuel Zapata Olivella (2010). In this unrivalled literary masterpiece – still to be fully acknowledged in literary history as such for its sheer mesmerizing narrative power and sweeping vision – in a section dedicated to the rebellion of the enslaved on Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century, the author addresses the relation between dominant history and international oblivion: “For the Wolf’s forgetful scribes the history of the Republic of Haiti will always be the fanatic and hate-crazed blacks’ massacre of their white brothers, never the slave owners’ genocide against a defenseless people” (the “Wolf” being a metaphor for the white man in Zapata’s account).

It is important to document the myriad historical experiences of rebellion for a number of reasons. First, such documentation challenges dominant versions of history by ascribing agency to the libres that is often missing in the accounts of the “Wolf’s forgetful scribes.” Second, and most important is today’s organizing processes of the social movement of black communities in Colombia, such a focus on agency allows for empowering connections to be made to historical resistances form today’s perspective. The pacific lowlands, once considered a territory of indigenous resistance against the colonizers of the Spanish Crown and of black resistance against slavery, is now seen by PCN [Process of Negro Communities] activists as a territory of Afro-Colombian resistance against dominant development models fueled by the logic of displacement-inducing modernity.

Oslender, U. (2016). The Geographies of Social Movements: Afro-Colombian Mobilization and the Aquatic SpaceNew York: Duke University Press, pp. 100-103.

*Canadian copyright allows the reproduction of one chapter or 20% of a book without having to obtain permission from the author. 




Political Economy of Eurocentrism: The Post-WW2 “Development Project” As Colonialism

Our understanding of global interactions – economic, political, social, and cultural – are still deeply shaped by the often misunderstood period of economic restructuring between 1945 and 1970. Many questions that plague our modern world – why the US continues to expand militarily, why Haiti is in such dire straits, etc. – can be partially explained by the developments of this period. This piece endeavors to begin an outline and investigation of these developments.

The period from 1945 to 1970 is sometimes called the era of the Bretton-Woods system, but more recently has been referred to as the “Development Project”.  This is the terminology used in McMichael’s work Development and Social Change, where the development of a world economy is described as progressing in three distinct stages; European Colonization, the Development Project, and Globalization. The phrase “Development Project” is apt as it refers to the global focus on the industrialization of newly-independent colonies; industrialization is often understood as development. To this day various international agencies classify countries as “developed” and “developing” (McMichael, 2016).

While each of these stages represent distinct historical developments in global politics and economy, several continuities persist. Indeed, the post-World War “development project” would not have existed without European (and later American and Canadian) imperialism becoming the primary actor in the maintenance of the modern world-system. Likewise, neither would Globalization have become the defining paradigm without the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system as the guarantor of the “Development Project” while still building upon its major institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

The wording of “world-system” is important here. A world-system is a political and economic framework which imposes itself as totalizing and universal. Capitalism, and what we call capitalist development, is the first such complete world-system in human history. Its origins lie in colonialism, which both allowed the spread of European capitalism to the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and the exploitation of these continents to further the consolidation of capitalism and capitalist profit-making (O’Brien and Williams “Forging a World Economy”, 2007; McMichael, 2016).

Thus, understanding that the economic eras of capitalism proceed from each other, it can be inferred that the inequalities entrenched under colonization persisted throughout the development model period. In fact, the development model period can be understood as a new era of social and economic imperialism, colonization being the first. Development model period imperialism represented a shift, rather than a transformation, of the colonial project.

Therefore, while the Development Project succeeded in preserving the capitalist world-system, it was a failed to provide adequate restitution and improvement for the peoples of the ‘developing’ world.

Pax Imperialism and the Dollar Dictatorship

Cuba. First demonstration in support of the Revolu
The Cuban 26 July Movement storming Havana, the victorious moment of the Cuban Revolution.

The imperialist countries’ shift from colonization to ‘development’ can be understood as a reaction to three distinct processes threatening the capitalist-world system, (1) the wave of decolonization and nationalism sweeping the Europe’s colonies, (2) the weakening of the European powers by the world wars, and (3) the subsequent emergence of a socialist state (the Soviet Union) as a world power.  In response to these developments, the United States replaced Great Britain as the “center” of this new orientation in the capitalist world-system and financial domination replaced traditional colonialism as the method by which “Center” countries dominated colonized “peripheral” countries.

As much as the Development Project transformed the capitalist world-system away from the colonial model, it also continued colonial policy in two key ways. First, the currency of the leading imperialist power functioned as the stabilizer and equivalent for all exchanges within the world-system. During the Victorian era, the British Pound-Sterling was the universal equivalent in almost all exchanges (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica” 2007). Under the Bretton-Woods System, the U.S. dollar was made equivalent to gold and thus functioned in the same way as the Pound (Cohen, 2001).

It should be noted that at the time of independence for most former colonies, Europe had extracted vast amounts of wealth which it was not subsequently obliged to repay their now-independent colonies (McMichael, 2016).

So while the Development Project transformed the newly-independent states of the colonized world with an influx of industrial hardware and organization, industrial projects took place unilaterally, under the dictates of U.S. economic security and geopolitical interests. The control of the United States in this arrangement cannot be understated. In effect, Pax Americana replaced Pax Britanica, the period of almost absolute British dominance. This control of the Development Project was so complete that through the Bretton-Woods system, the U.S. congress could use fiscal policy, inflating or deflating the dollar, to influence the outcomes of trades the United States otherwise played no part in (Cohen, 2001; McMichael, 2016). Like how British supremacy created competition between European imperialisms leading up to World War I (O’Brien and Williams “Pax Britanica”, 2007),  the United States’ dominance also led to dissent from Japan and Europe who lamented the rigidity of the dollar-pegged system (Cohen, 2001).

Cold War Containment

Sign describing the Bretton Woods System

Another factor in these contradictions was location. Both Japan and the European powers bordered socialist states; China and the Eastern Bloc countries respectively. In a strategic compromise, U.S. policymakers allowed developmental models to improve other imperialist states’ position, to the point of destabilizing of the internal U.S. economy (Cohen, 2001). Hence why West Germany was the main beneficiary of the Marshal plan as part of staving off the “Soviet wave” the U.S feared would sweep Europe. The major successes of the Development Project – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong – were also strategically located in East Asia (McMichael, 2016) to contain the socialist revolutions in places like China and Vietnam, while opening a proverbial ‘eastern front’ against the USSR.

While the Development Project was framed as an effort based on the nation-state, self-sufficiency in the area of agriculture was completely denied to emerging nation-states. Troubled by the enthusiastic and rapid communization of agriculture in China, development agencies sought to reduce the power of peasants to self-organize in India and countries with large agriculture potential through specialization in crops produced for European and North American consumption (McMichael, 2016). While U.S farmers were encouraged to grow staples like wheat and grains, India was roped into growing commodities for western consumption, making India and other countries in similar arrangements dependent on western markets for basic sustenance. India was also the poster-child of the “green revolution” in agribusiness, which created a market for excess chemical weapons the United States was  looking to reprocess (they became fertilizers). This made India responsible for the immense costs of externalities created by U.S. war activity, including ecological destruction and massive rural decline (McMichael, 2016).

Both these examples from India are demonstrative of wider processes of economic and ecological “Unequal Exchange” which perpetuated the colonial reorganization of the world. It may be easy to explain the unevenness of the world economy and the dependency of the ‘developing’ world on the ‘developed’ as simply the vestiges of colonialism. However, this would ignore the active role which the United States played in perpetuating these uneven arrangements through the Bretton-Woods system, with the consent of the other imperialist countries (and when Bretton-Woods failed to foster favourable arrangements, NATO was always on standby). Thus the problems of the development project were precisely because the objectives of the most powerful actors were the preservation of the capitalist, imperialist world-system.

The Next Phase

Understanding the deeply imperialist elements of the Development Project is essential to understanding what comes next, Globalization. Just as Britain spread ‘civilization’ across the world, facilitating the global colonial supply chain, so too did the United States spread ‘development’ through the IMF and World Bank, leading to our now deeply Americanized period of Globalization; the similarities are stark (O’Brien and Williams, “Pax Britanica”, 2007). If we are to address the contradictions of globalization, we must understand the Development Project’s impacts in shaping the globalized world into one of dependency and renewed imperialism.



Cohen, B. “Bretton-Woods System” Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy. Ed. RJ Barry Jones. Routledge, 2001.

McMichael, P. Development and Social Change (6th ed.). Sage Publishing, 2016.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “Forging a World Economy, 1400-1800.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 43-76. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.

O’Brien, R. and Marc Williams. “The Industrial Revolution, Pax Britanica, and Imperialism.” Global Political Economy (2nd ed.). p. 77-105. Palgrave/Macmillan, 2007.