“Hunting Men”: Migration, Racial Discrimination, and Military Conscription in the Río de la Plata

Posted by Keyanah Freeland, PhD Student Department of History

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As I noted in my last entry, the Biblioteca Nacional de Uruguay houses a collection of Afro-Uruguayan periodicals spanning the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth. For the past few weeks, I have been conducting research there, parsing through the periodicals of the late nineteenth century in order to track the social, cultural, political, and intellectual exchanges between Afro-Uruguayans and their Afro-Argentine counterparts living in Buenos Aires. While the periodicals continue to confirm my aforementioned insights around the relationship between the making of diaspora and intellectual production, they also have revealed new developments around the contentious relationship between the Uruguayan state, the Afro-Uruguayan communities living in Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and the rationale behind the significant numbers of Afro-Uruguayans emigrating across the Río de la Plata at the turn of the twentieth century.

In June and July of 1889, the Afro-Uruguayan periodical, El Periódico, published extensive accounts of the Centro Uruguayo’s various celebrations of Uruguay’s national independence, written and sent back to Montevideo by their own correspondents in Buenos Aires. Founded in 1884, the Centro Uruguayo functioned as a mutual aid society for Afro-Uruguayans who had immigrated to Buenos Aires. Despite the relatively short institutional history of this mutual aid society, the 1889 coverage of the center suggests a strong political and social presence in Buenos Aires. According to El Periódico’s published reports, the center’s festivities not only attracted Afro-Uruguayans and Afro-Argentines alike, but in a brilliant act of political theatre —or perhaps protest— members of the center even visited the current President of the Uruguayan Republic, General Máximo Tajes, as he visited Buenos Aires.

Followed by a group of about eighty of the center’s associates and a musical band, the center’s president arrived on the doorsteps of President Tajes’ accommodations, detailing in frank terms the ways in which Argentina had increasingly become a kind of refuge for Afro-Uruguayans escaping forced military conscription in Uruguay. Refusing to accept the state’s “predestined persecution” of men of African descent, black men fled Uruguay for the shores of Argentina, a country that apparently offered an escape from an “impossible life,” and the opportunity to pursue “peace and work.” And how exactly did President Tajes respond to these accusations of state-sanctioned violence and racial discrimination? He offered refuge to any non-criminal Afro-Uruguayans who escaped their military obligations and wished to return to Uruguay. He also placed a five hundred peso bill in the hand of the center’s president after his proclamation. An act of political theatre indeed.

Like most intriguing archival finds, this reported interaction between the Uruguayan President and the president of the Centro Uruguayo is most interesting because of the silences and absences embedded within its description, and because of the questions that it invokes for further research. One questions, for example, the reaction of President Tajes as he heard the distant drumming and marching, until finally the sounds of the marching band and its accompanying troupe of people were on his doorstep. Since the report does not mention whether or not this meeting was planned, this grand display of political theatre could have been a surprise tactic, planned and executed by the members of the Centro Uruguayo in order to force a response and explanation directly from the President. Moreover, while President Tajes grants some concessions, he stops short of explaining why men of color were overwhelmingly targeted for forced military conscription and if there are any plans to change this discriminatory practice. Given the somewhat superficial nature of Tajes’ response and the accompanying performative gesture of donating to the Centro Uruguayo— indeed, of placing money directly in the hands of the center’s president — my initial reading of this interacting was one of doubt and mistrust.

My critical stance towards President Tajes’ response was only confirmed as I read El Periódico’s follow-up analysis of this gesture in an article entitled “¿Volvemos a las andadas?,” published on July 7, 1889. The writers of this article similarly doubted the President’s words, and asked why newspapers throughout the country continued to published pieces geared towards “hunting men” (emphasis original) —black men, that is— to serve in the military. But the critiques did not end there. Indeed, as one reads scathing sentence after another, it becomes clear that these writers (and presumably their readers) had a very nuanced racialized understanding of how the Uruguayan state understood the social and political role of people of African descent. “That a family becomes abandoned and without bread, that is nothing; the priority is in the growth of the military, such that the battalion leaders can parade their troops through our streets, demonstrating that the Oriental Republic of Uruguay always has voluntary negros (emphasis mine) who wish to join the military.” The use of the signifier “negro” is especially relevant here, as it was not a term that the writers normally used to describe their social identities. They referred to themselves and their community as “la clase trabajadora” or “la clase obrera.” But to use the word “negro” in order to explain the disruption that forced military conscription caused within the familial arrangements of their community suggests a different understanding of their social identities as defined by the state. Negro meant nothing more than cannon fodder. Forced military conscription was nothing more than another form of forced labor.

As I continue to progress through the Afro-Uruguayan periodicals from this period, I now wish to find some glimpse of any clientalism at work between the Uruguayan state and its Afro-Uruguayan constituency. Although President Tajes’ response to the members of the Centro Uruguayo was superficial—and Afro-Uruguayans writing in Montevideo viewed it as such— he nevertheless received and addressed them, confirming that this community possessed some degree of social and political clout. How did they do so? Moreover, the stakes for the Afro-Uruguayans in this encounter are relatively clear: to garner some kind of explanation for racial discrimination within the practice of forced military conscription, and perhaps to even end it. But what were the stakes for the state? Would was gained by the President’s address to this community? What would have been lost had he simply ignored them?

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