The first African slaves in Venezuela were Ewe-Fon, brought in 1528 by the Welsers, German bankers granted a special concession to settle and exploit western Venezuela. Portuguese, French, and English slave ships continued to bring Africans of diverse origins, primarily Bantu from the Congo and Angola and Manding from the Gold Coast, until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The slave trade in Venezuela ended before Yoruba peoples began to be brought to the New World, distinguishing Venezuela's slave population from that of Cuba and Brazil. Slaves were treated as units of commerce, called pieza de india in reference to their physical size and potential for hard labor.
During the sixteenth century, slaves were brought to work in the copper mines in Coro and Buría (Yaracuy) and to Isla Margarita and Cumaná for pearl diving and fishing. Small-scale agricultural plantations were also established in Venezuela, especially in the regions surrounding Caracas. In the eighteenth century large shipments of slaves were brought to Barlovento to support the burgeoning cacao industry and to the sugar plantations in Zulia, around Lake Maracaibo. Venezuela's slave population comprised 1.3 percent of the total slave trade in the New World, compared with 38.1 percent for Brazil, 7.3 percent for Cuba, and 4.5 percent for the United States (Brandt 1978, 8).
The history of slave resistance in Venezuela, both in the form of insurrections and runaway communities, began quite early. The first documented rebellion was in 1532 in Coro, but the most famous uprising of the time took place in the Buría mines in 1552. The rebellion was led by El Negro Miguel (also known as Rey Miguel), who founded a cumbe, or cimarrón (escaped slave) settlement and raised an army of 1,500 slaves, Mulattos, Zambos, and indigenous peoples to attack colonial establishments. Communities of runaway slaves continued to grow throughout the seventeenth century, and by 1720 there were between 20,000 and 30,000 cimarrones in Venezuela, compared to 60,000 slaves still working on the plantations (Rout 1976, 111112). Barlovento was the site of intense cimarrón activity throughout the eighteenth century, with several cumbe settlements being established around Curiepe and Caucagua. The most famous of these was that of Ocoyta, founded around 1770 by the legendary Guillermo Rivas. After he led raids on various plantations both to liberate slaves and to punish overseers, a special army was raised to destroy Ocoyta and execute Rivas.
"Cumbe" derives from the Manding term for "separate or out-of-the-way place." Usually located above river banks or in remote mountainous areas, cumbes were typically well hidden and housed an average of 120 residents. Such settlements were also called rochelos and patucos. Cimarrones were often assisted by indigenous tribes living in the area (e.g., the Tomusa in Barlovento), and cumbe populations were composed not only of Blacks, but also of Indians and even of poor Whites. Cimarrón groups conducted raids on plantations, assisted in the escapes of other slaves, and participated in contraband trading. The only legally established town of free Blacks was that of Curiepe, established in Barlovento in 1721 under the leadership of Captain Juan del Rosario Blanco. The community was composed of former members of Caracas's Company of Free Blacks as well as huangos from the Antilles. The latter were escaped slaves who, like all Blacks fleeing non-Spanish-speaking islands, were granted freedom upon arrival in Venezuela if they accepted baptism.
Afro-Venezuelans played a decisive role in the struggle for independence. Initially, slaves fought for the Crown, believing that the landowning creole Republicans were their enemies. In particular, the notorious royalist battalion of General José Tomás Boves attracted many slave soldiers. Bolívar, realizing the strategic importance of Black soldiers in the fight for independence, declared the abolition of slavery in 1812 and again in 1816, after promising Haitian president Alexandre Pétion that he would secure freedom for slaves in return for Haitian military aid. A major landowner himself, Bolívar freed 1,000 of his own slaves, and in 1819 recruited 5,000 slaves into his army. José Antonio Paéz, a key figure in Venezuelan independence, led an army of Blacks from the llanos (plains). One of his most famous lieutenants, Pedro Camejo, has been immortalized in Venezuelan history as "El Negro Primero," because he was always the first to ride into battle. In the final battle of Carabobo, Camejo was mortally wounded but returned to General Paéz to utter one of the most famous statements in Venezuelan history: "General, vengo decirle, adiós, porque estoy muerto" (General, I have come to say goodbye, because I am dead). A statue of El Negro Primero stands in the Plaza Carabobo in Caracas—the only statue commemorating a Black in all Venezuela. Curiously, he is always depicted wearing a turban, the same iconography used for the mythical Negro Felipe (see "Religious Beliefs"). With the declaration of independence in 1810, all trafficking in slaves was outlawed. The decline in slavery continued throughout the War of Independence when, at its conclusion in 1821, the "Ley de vientre" was passed, stating that all children born, whether of slave or free parents, were automatically free. By 24 March 1854, the date of slavery's official abolition in Venezuela, less than 24,000 slaves remained.
Throughout the twentieth century, Blacks in Venezuela have faced subtle forms of racial discrimination despite a philosophy of racial democracy and an ideology of mestizaje that contends all groups have blended together to form a new, indistinguishable type, called the mestizo. Yet underlying this ideology is a policy of blanqueamiento, or "whitening," that has encouraged both the physical and cultural assimilation of Afro-Venezuelans into a Euro-dominated mainstream. An important semantic counterpart to the process of blanqueamiento is that found in the term negrear, which denotes concepts of "marginalization" or "trivialization." The emergence of Black intellectuals such as Juan Pablo Sojo and Manuel Rodrigues Cárdenas in the 1940s, and more recently of younger writers such as Jesús García, has helped counter the forces of blanqueamiento, or assimilation. A strong body of research in Afro-Venezuelan history and folklore has also been established by Venezuelan scholars, particularly Miguel Acosta Saignes (1967). Public festivals such as the Fiesta de San Juan have emerged as focal points in the reappropriation of Afro-Venezuelan culture, articulating current transformations in a living tradition of cimarronaje (resistance to the dominant culture, consciousness of being marginal).