Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the modernization of the Uruguayan military became inextricably linked to the larger process of liberal state formation. Such a process included national consolidation, specifically the crystallization of borders through the displacement of indigenous populations, the incessant factionalisms between and within the Blancos and Colorados, Uruguay’s two dominant political parties, and international warfare. This constant state of warfare required bodies, but also prompted a new “modern” military science: new strategies of combat, technological advances in artillery, and institutional centralization. However, within the aftermath of an economic crisis that destabilized the region throughout the late 1870s and into the early 1880s, the state was in no position to direct such funds to the military. How then to fill and maintain the state’s barracks?
The Uruguayan state found its source of labor through the practice of forced military conscription. During the 1880s and 1890s, writers of Montevideo’s “black press” heavily criticized this policy, contending that men of African descent, specifically, were targeted, “hunted,” and used as cannon fodder for the state’s various internal and external armed conflicts. With published writings from Montevideo’s “black press,” as well as police and military records, this presentation analyzes the impacts of this policy, from the gendered migratory patterns that sent Uruguayan men of African descent fleeing to the neighboring shores of Buenos Aires to the “black press’s” emerging articulations of “blackness.” In fact, during this period, Uruguayan writers of African descent only used the word “negro” when discussing this particular issue, wielding that word as a critique of the state’s liberal ideology in the face of its relatively explicit form of racial discrimination. In this way, “negro” offered a way for these writers to capture how the Uruguayan state articulated the racialized social identity of blackness. The collective racialized identity of “negro” thus became a contested terrain between the state’s withholding of the protections of citizenship and writers of African descent making plain the abuses and hypocrisy of such a practice.
Keyanah Nurse is a historian of the African Diaspora with a specialization in modern Latin America. Her research interests include liberalism, state formation, race, gender and sexuality, and black intellectual traditions. A recent doctoral graduate of NYU’s History Department, Dr. Nurse’s dissertation “Black Liberalism: The Formation of Race and Nation in the Río de la Plata, 1870-1900” analyzed how writers of African descent in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay articulated their own visions of liberal modernity during the final decades of the nineteenth century, just as political and intellectual elites mobilized liberalism to deny African or indigenous communities any place within their respective modern nation-states. Rife with contradictions, this “black liberalism” highlighted the possibilities and limitations of liberalism’s presumed notion of universal equality in the face of the historical and contemporary reality of racialized difference.