Slavery and Prior Accumulation in Venezuela: A Conversation with Enrique Rivera

The brutal exploitation of life in colonial Venezuela was key in the making of capitalism, but the process also met fierce resistance from enslaved peoples.

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Enrique Rivera (Venezuelanalysis).
Enrique Rivera (Venezuelanalysis).
By Cira Pascual Marquina - Venezuelanalysis.com
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Enrique S. Rivera is a historian, journalist, and documentary film producer. He teaches at UCLA, and his recent book, The Untold History of Capitalism: Primitive Accumulation and the Anti-Slavery Revolution (2021), focuses on the 1795 anti-slavery rebellion in the west of what we now know as Venezuela, but it also examines the origins of capitalism and its links with slavery. In this interview, we ask Rivera about the process of primitive accumulation in the Caribbean nation and about the anti-slavery rebellion.

It is a well-known fact that slavery in the Americas is actually a foundation stone for capitalism. Taking the history of what we now know as Venezuela into account, how did slavery contribute to the process of “primitive accumulation”?

During the period of primitive, or prior, accumulation, industries and markets were intricately tied together. So much so that it’s not an exaggeration to say that you can connect slavery in Venezuela to practically every market exploited by European merchants from the 16th to the 19th century.

The major contribution of Venezuelan slavery, however, was that enslaved African workers in Venezuela, and their legally free descendants, built the country’s colonial economy and society. The labor that enslaved people were forced to provide expanded the production of a number of cash crops, with cocoa being the most important. They also aided planters as capital investments, which had the potential to increase in value over time and bring in more profits if they were resold. Venezuela’s cocoa industry flourished during the 18th century in lockstep with the importation of enslaved African peoples. This economic expansion stimulated migration from Europe, which led to more planters, and thus, more slaves. Venezuela went from a backwater in 1700 to one of Spain’s most dynamic colonies by the end of the century.

The importation of enslaved peoples into Venezuela also aided in the accumulation of capital for European elites, the expansion of markets for European commodities, and even resolved the debt problems of at least one European state. The slave trade was a profitable enterprise, bringing in good returns on investments for European merchants and financiers. The joint-stock company, a forebear of today’s stock market, was the most important mechanism utilized for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. It pooled together capital from states and independent investors, making this large-scale operation possible. These companies also forced open new markets in Africa and the Americas. In regard to Venezuela, the growth of the slave trade to the colony stimulated its purchasing power, which supported the growth of European industries. Finally, England’s South Sea Company (SSC) shipped tens of thousands of enslaved Africans to Venezuela. This is a long and complicated story, but the gist is that the SSC was created as a financial instrument to restructure England’s debt, which was spiraling as a result of being perpetually at war with its imperial rivals. As a result, all of England’s debt was restructured during the 18th century, giving it the ability to establish the subsequent supremacy it enjoyed in trade and industry. This came off the backs of 75,000 enslaved African workers, many of whom toiled in Venezuela.

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A representation of slavery in the Guayana zone. (Archive)
A representation of slavery in the Guayana zone. (Archive)

Your book The Untold History of Capitalism inserts anti-slavery revolutions into the complex history of capitalism. You particularly focus on one anti-slavery rebellion that took place in Coro (nowadays in Falcón state), in what was then the Capitanía de Venezuela, in 1795. Can you briefly describe the economic position of this colonial town?

Like most of Spanish America, Coro was economically underdeveloped when compared with Caracas or other large towns and cities on the continent. By the 1795 rebellion, economic activity centered around livestock and sugar production, in that order. Most land was held by peasants of African and/or Indigenous descent. They practiced subsistence agriculture and sold surpluses at small, nearby markets. They also skinned animals, mostly bovine creatures. These skins were also sold at local markets, although some of them wound up in nearby colonies and even made it to Europe. Hacendados employed day laborers and enslaved people to raise animals and sugar plantations did the same to produce sugarcane. Enslaved Black people equaled about 12% of the population so these plantations relied on day laborers of African and/or Indigenous descent to cultivate their products. In other words, the plantation workforce was equally divided among enslaved and legally free people in late 18th century Coro. Sugar was exported to nearby Curaçao where it was likely traded to European merchants. It was then processed and sold to European elites.

José Leonardo Chirino – who would lead an extraordinary anti-slavery rebellion – was not an enslaved person, but his children and partner were enslaved. Can you tell us a bit about his story?

Chirino was born legally free to an Indigenous Ajagua mother and an enslaved Black father who may have been African-born. He had three children and was married to María de los Dolores Chirino who also played an important role in the 1795 insurrection and its aftermath.

José Leonardo Chirino was the right-hand of José de Tellería, who was one of Coro’s leading oligarchs and the legal owner of María de Dolores and her three kids. Tellería owned dozens of enslaved people and a few sugar plantations. Tellería was a merchant too and he traded his sugar products throughout the circum-Caribbean. Chirino traveled with him frequently and had visited Curaçao and Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti).

Chirino led the 1795 rebellion and its contingent in Coro’s mountainchain, about 15 miles south of the city. He was captured a few months after the insurrection and executed in Caracas in December of 1796.

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A representation of José Leonardo Chirino. (Archive)
A representation of José Leonardo Chirino. (Archive)

How did the 1795 rebellion unfold and what was its outcome?

The rebellion was planned well in advance by José Leonardo Chirino and José Caridad González, a native of the Loango Coast of West Central Africa and the head of the Coro’s Loango militia. There is some controversy among historians over whether or not González was actually involved or if he was just scapegoated by local authorities. But there’s more evidence to suggest that he was involved than not, including within local memory in Coro’s sierra.

The plan was for Chirino to lead a contingent of rebels in the mountains and González would lead a contingent in the city by first disarming local white authorities and their pardo foot soldiers. González failed in his part of the mission and was imprisoned and then murdered before Chirino and hundreds of enslaved and legally free Black and/or Indigenous rebels made their way to the city.

After burning down sugar plantations and killing some local white elites, the sierra contingent marched onto Coro. They were met by Crown militias and their Indigenous Caquetío allies. There was a meeting held where the rebels demanded control of the city and the abolition of slavery and taxes. The rebels were overmatched, however, given González’s inability to disarm the authorities. Scores of rebels were killed in battle and scores more were executed afterward. But despite the 1795 rebellion’s defeat, it inspired revolutionary movements in Venezuela from the 1797 Gual y España conspiracy to today’s Bolivarian Revolution.

What lessons does the Chirino rebellion hold for revolutionaries in the present? 

The 1795 Coro rebellion offers several interrelated lessons for today’s revolutionary movements. The first is best illustrated by a statement Chirino made during the insurrection:

“The whites were in cahoots with the tax collector so that they did not have to pay, and so that all the weight of the contributions fell onto the arms of the poor…”

In this statement, Chirino points to the overlap between race and class in colonial Venezuela. “The whites” are juxtaposed to “the poor” who are nonwhite – African, Native American, mixed. This racialized division of labor was not just present in colonial Coro, but similar patterns existed throughout the Americas. There was also an international division of labor in the Atlantic complex, which privileged Europe over Africa and the Americas. This system was designed to serve the financial and political interests of European elites, but there was a certain amount of “trickle-down” to peasants in the metropolises. There are certainly exceptions to this general trend, but it is safe to say that there was a clear relationship between race and class during this period. This is important for today because capitalism inherited this racialized division of labor. The only way to eradicate, or at least ameliorate, racism and racist inequities is to abandon the dominion of capital over labor.

Linking race, class, and an international, racialized, division of labor is not new. Revolutionaries have known about it for generations. This is certainly the case with the Bolivarian Revolution and with 20th and 21st-century socialist movements in Latin America.

This objective reality regarding the correlation between race and class isn’t consistently placed at the forefront of theory and practice, however. Part of the reason is because of the relentless onslaught of US imperialism on revolutionary movements in the hemisphere – its determination to sow division, and the reluctance of some revolutionaries to discuss race in fear of inadvertently supporting this imperial mission. Acceptance of the reality regarding the correlation between race and class should not lead to division, however. On the contrary, it can serve as a guiding principle. After all, who is actually interested in achieving equality and independence for the peoples of this hemisphere? It certainly isn’t the United States or their liberal and neo-fascist flunkies in Latin America who, consciously or not, do their bidding.

The second lesson I’d like to discuss was indirectly pointed to by the 1795 insurrection; it’s a product of my research into the Atlantic political and economic complex that gave rise to the society the rebels sought to overturn. My research adds more evidence to the notion that Marx, and most Marxists since, were mistaken when they dated the emergence of capitalism to the 16th century. The capitalist mode of production did not become dominant in England until hundreds of years later – in the 19th century. This distinction is important for contemporary tactics and strategies.

We are anti-capitalists and for good reason. Capitalism is an exploitative political and economic system that has created the widest inequities in human history, and has brought our planet to the brink of destruction. It’s led to previously unimaginable weapons and wars, which have brought about countless amounts of human suffering. Like everything, however, capitalism does have varied traits. There are some progressive aspects to capitalism. It’s proved to be a more humane production method than African slavery in the Americas. Or to the conquest, which was a product of the feudal logic of economic and political expansion, dominant in Iberia at the time. Some revolutionary governments in the Global South have been able to utilize the capitalist mode of production as a tool in the struggle against US imperialism (a.k.a. unilateralism).

Capitalism, once the strength of European empires, has become its weakness. The tendency for rate of profit to fall has forced industry abroad, creating new poles of power and reducing the strength of U.S. imperialism – the chief opponent of global liberation movements. Utilizing capitalism as a tool to overthrow capitalism has been a promising development over the past fifty years. It’s often overlooked that this was also what Marx envisioned nearly two centuries ago.

The last lesson I’d like to comment on has to do with reparations for slavery. CARICOM [a group of nations in the Caribbean] has been at the forefront of the movement for reparations and has made enormous strides in the struggle to settle the score with the European empires that used enslaved African people as their foundation.

However, most enslaved Africans ended up in the Spanish American colonies and Brazil received the second most enslaved Africans. Yet, the former Iberian colonies have been slow to join the cause for reparations. I mentioned the case of England’s SSC, and how it relied on Venezuelan, and Spanish American, slaves to restructure England’s debt. England only exists today because of the 75,000 Africans that were shipped to Spanish America. We must demand that this debt is repaid. And our revolutionary states – from Cuba to Venezuela and beyond – should be at the forefront of this righteous struggle for reparations. England can start by returning the nearly $2 billion it’s stolen from Venezuela amidst the Guaidó fiasco. But that would be only the most minimal of beginnings for England. And Denmark, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and Spain should follow.