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45 Imperial citizenship ina British world • Anne Spry Rush and Charles V. Reed

45 Imperial citizenship ina British world • Anne Spry Rush and Charles V. Reed

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Imperial citizenship in a British world

(but continued bonds with) the mother country – often at the expense of indigenous peoples

(Bridge and Fedorowich, 2003). At the same time middle-class British subjects of colour, who

are the main focus of this chapter, produced a discourse of British-imperial citizenship that positioned them against the increasingly racialized and exclusionary frameworks of belonging that

emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century.1

By advocating an inclusive, colour-blind conception of citizenship for all ‘civilized’ subjects

of the British Crown, African, Asian, and West Indian intellectuals and activists constituted their

own understandings of imperial citizenship. Their ideas were based on their encounters with

the British liberal-humanitarian tradition in missionary and English language schools, as well as

works of British history, political theory, and literature. Even as they recognized the violence and

discrimination that underlay the rhetoric of liberal empire, they looked for the realization of an

ideal British citizenship based on the legal equality shared by all British subjects as promised by

the constitution, their understanding of the British monarchy as a protector and fount of justice,

and their status as respectable, loyal subjects of the crown.

This chapter explores the struggles for citizenship that were fought by dark-skinned middleclass Africans and West Indians from the late nineteenth century, the relationship of their British

identities to the concept of imperial citizenship that white British subjects at home and abroad

developed in the first half of the twentieth century, and their impact on the national citizenships that developed in both Britain and the emerging postcolonial nations after World War II.

It contends that British citizenship was both an imperial and a national construct, created in

varying forms by British subjects of all kinds, both in the colonies and within Britain. Its focus

is on encounters at two significant moments in British imperial culture, in South Africa after the

South African War of 1899–1902 and in Britain from 1945 to the 1960s, when colonial subjects’

conceptions of imperial citizenship came face to face with the limits of British equality and the

liberal empire. Intellectuals and activists of colour embraced more radical and anti-colonial politics as a result of these complex encounters, but many also remained dedicated to fundamentally

British forms of citizenship into the late colonial and postcolonial eras.

British imperial identity2

Until 1948, citizenship was a concept rather than a legal status in both Britain and its empire.

Unlike the situation in most European nations, where the privileges and responsibilities typically associated with the legal rights of citizenship (whether imagined or achieved) were linked

directly to a nation-state, for Britons these rights and responsibilities were linked to territorial

birthright through their status as subjects of the monarch. While the British sovereign’s political power had declined in the years between the seventeenth-century English Civil War and

the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837, the monarchy remained an integral part of Britain’s

constitutional structure and a symbolic institution of great significance. Even as people in the

British Isles came to identify themselves as members of a British national community, they

remained – first and foremost – subjects of the crown (Heater 2006).

Native Britons were largely content with this political arrangement and invested their relationship to the British monarch with notions of rights, most particularly the right to liberty

and rule of law that they saw as embodied in the common law of England (Greene 1998).

As Colley (1992) has argued, by the beginning of the nineteenth century residents of the

British Isles had forged a national identity through a sense of their difference from their major

enemy at the time, the French. Nevertheless, even as they rejected the republicanism of the

American and French Revolutions, Britons came to embrace the universal human rights of the

Enlightenment while continuing to assert devotion to the monarch, the rule of law, and property


Anne Spry Rush and Charles V. Reed

rights (Gorman 2007). Their ideal of Britishness also incorporated an emerging middle-class

concept of respectability which placed heavy emphasis on formal education, Christian morality,

and domesticity and could be used to exclude social and racial others in both metropolitan and

colonial societies (Stoler 2000).

By the mid-twentieth century, the subject-sovereign relationship in Britain had thus come to

encompass civil (‘liberty of the person, freedom of speech, thought and faith, the right to own

property and to conclude valid contracts, and the right to justice’), political (the franchise), and

social (education, the welfare state) rights within a hierarchical structure constructed around the

notion of respectability with the monarch at its head (Marshall 1950). It was a brand of citizenship in all but name.

But inhabitants of the British Isles did not possess a monopoly on Britishness. As Jack Greene

(1998) has argued, American colonists fought for their independence on the basis of what even

they saw as a fundamentally British right to liberty. Furthermore, the diaspora of loyalist refugees

created in the aftermath of the American Revolution promoted the intersection of loyalism and

anti-republicanism with a radical dedication to ‘liberty and humanitarian ideals’ (Jasanoff 2011).

In the nineteenth century, colonial peoples around the world were influenced by the same mix

of traditional British values, social understandings, and liberal-humanitarian ideas as their native

British counterparts, ideas brought to the empire by missionaries, educators, and imperial officials (Hall 2002).

This was particularly true of aspiring middle-class subjects of colour, from India to the

Caribbean to Africa, who were often the products of British efforts to develop – in the words

of British colonial official Thomas Babington Macaulay – ‘a class who may be interpreters

between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour,

but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect’ (Macaulay 1835). From the playing

fields to classrooms, at church, and in community organizations, they became steeped in the

British social and cultural values of respectability and loyalty to the monarch along with respect

for the rule of law and the British parliamentary system (Bannerjee 2010; Moore and Johnson

2004; Reed 2013; Rush 2011). Encouraged by legislation and royal promises, most important

among them the 1833 Emancipation Act, which granted freedom to black slaves, and Queen

Victoria’s 1858 Royal Proclamation to India, which guaranteed the rights of subjects who were

not ethnically British, these subjects of colour embraced Britishness and claimed an imperial

British identity.

Rights of Britishness, rights of citizenship

Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, residents of the British Isles,

armed with their faith in the integrity of British values, increasingly demanded what they considered to be their rights – including the right to vote, to education, to decent working conditions, and to healthcare. Just as people in Britain fought for what they considered their rights as

British subjects, so too, by the late nineteenth century, did colonial Britons. After all, in extending

equal rights to Jews and Catholics in the early nineteenth century, Parliamentary legislation had

ensured that neither race nor religion played any overt legal role in the civil and political status

of any British subject. Although all British subjects’ rights were in practice still restricted on the

basis of property ownership, gender, race, and geographical location, colonial subjects invested in

the promise of a British imperial citizenship they saw as enshrined in the British constitution.

So as they moved towards full self-government in the early twentieth century, white colonials, from Canada to Australia, based their calls for political and social rights on their status

as British citizen-subjects (Bridge and Fedorowich 2003; Buckner and Francis 2005) as did


Imperial citizenship in a British world

middle-class colonials of colour, even in the face of disenfranchisement, dispossession, and

worse. Dark-skinned activists and intellectuals from Africa frequently petitioned the Colonial

Office and the British monarch for justice, always framing their concerns in an idiom of British

constitutionalism and fair play against what they saw as un-British practices of the imperial government and local settler regimes. Echoing the language of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes,

these black Britons demanded equal rights for all civilized subjects of the British sovereign

(Dubow 2009; Reed 2013; Trapido 1970). Regardless of what they considered their national

or ethnic status to be, these African intellectuals and activists articulated a political, social, and

cultural imperial identity rooted in loyalty to the British monarchy and the empire, a belief in

the British constitution and the ballot box, and a dedication to respectability and education.

Indeed, in southern Africa at the turn of the nineteenth century, a diverse array of colonial

subjects, including settlers of Dutch, German, and South Asian descent, as well as African peoples, frequently spoke, not in an idiom of ethnically or racially defined national identities, but

in one of open-ended and inclusive Britishness and imperial citizenship. Like moderate nationalists of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century India such as Dadabhai Naoroji, they sought

equality within an imperial framework rather than outside of it (Banerjee 2010). It should be

remembered that the dhoti-wearing Indian nationalist Mohandas Gandhi of the mid- twentieth

century began his activism during the 1890s as a sharply dressed Victorian lawyer who successfully advocated for the rights of Indian immigrants in Natal on the basis of their Britishness and

loyally served the empire as an ambulance driver during the South African War. The founding documents of both the Boer (white, ethnically Dutch) political party in Cape Colony, the

Afrikaner Bond (f. 1891), and the South African Native National Congress (f. 1912), predecessor to the modern African National Congress (ANC), professed their members’ loyalty to the

British monarch and the empire even as they moved towards full self-government (Dubow

2009; Nasson 1991; Ross 1999).

Such approaches paralleled suggestions among some turn-of-the-century white imperialist

activists and intellectuals in Britain that British imperial citizenship should be understood as

inherently inclusive. The idea of universal rights these men conceptualized, informed as it was

by Victorian understandings of humanitarian duty to peoples they considered underdeveloped,

was far from egalitarian and certainly did not advocate class or racial equality – indeed, their

main implicit (if not explicit) concern was white peoples of the settlement colonies (Gorman

2007). Nevertheless, as Paul Rich (1986) has pointed out, in comparison with other traditions

of citizenship in the era, even the idea of an inclusive citizenship for all people in an empire was

remarkable, and it was certainly encouraging to subjects of colour as they sought ways to better

their position in colonial societies and, eventually, in Britain itself (Kumar 2012).

These discourses of respectability, Britishness, and imperial citizenship were – paradoxically –

reaching their political and intellectual maturation at the same moment that the settler lobby

was coming to dominate imperial culture, and notions of insurmountable racial difference were

replacing more flexible and open-ended conceptions of difference (Lester 2012). Protests by

dark-skinned colonials in India (1857) and Jamaica (1865), although fuelled by legitimate social,

cultural, and economic concerns, had been framed by British officials as disloyal acts and interpreted by many native Britons and white settlers as an indication that the liberal-humanitarian

approach to empire had failed. Buttressed by the emergence of scientific racism, such worries

contributed to longings for a more exclusive imperial culture that moved many Britons, particularly white settlers in the colonies, towards ethnic nationalism and a concept of white Britishness.

In southern Africa after the South African War, this shift led the imperial government to support the consolidation of white South Africa at the expense of the sovereign’s African subjects.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, intellectuals and activists struggled to defend


Anne Spry Rush and Charles V. Reed

African rights as loyal British subjects, focusing on the (limited) non-racial franchise of the Cape

Colony. African representatives of colour travelled to Britain on multiple occasions to challenge

the formation of the Union of South Africa (1910), which they rightly feared would lead to their

disenfranchisement, and later to protest against the settler government’s Native Lands Act (1913),

which would allow the Union’s black people to own no more than 13 per cent of its land.

In London, envoys called for imperial justice, emphasizing the loyalty and service of African

people of colour to the empire during the war against the republican Boers. There was some

sympathy for them in Parliament, but in the end British officials, concerned that their demands

threatened British–Boer reconciliation, refused to intervene on their behalf (Reed 2013). The

government’s unwillingness to respond to indigenous Africans’ request for the legal protections

granted to them, as the king’s subjects, by the British constitution was deeply disappointing and

would have long-term consequences. Yet it did not negate Parliament’s recognition of them as

Britons who deserved at least a hearing, nor did it deflect middle-class black Africans from their

understanding of themselves as British political citizens.

Imperial citizens in a decolonizing world

If imperial culture of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century was characterized by

debate over the true nature of Britishness and who could claim British identity, there was little

doubt about the responsibilities associated with being a British subject during the era of global

conflict after 1914. Just as colonials of colour had supported the British war effort in the South

African War, they would do so in the two World Wars that followed. They did so as dutiful and

often enthusiastic British subjects, but also as peoples who expected to obtain recognition as full

citizens within and, increasingly, beyond the empire.

The British state recognized the devoted service of subjects in the British Isles in the World

Wars with moves to increase political and social rights for all, through such legislation as the

1928 Act that granted British women the right to vote after World War I and the institution of

the welfare state after 1945. Since the rhetoric and, at times, the actions of the home government

during the wars had reinforced the idea that ‘coloured’ colonials were also valued British subjects, such colonials expected Britain to also reward their contribution to the war efforts. When

rewards were not immediately forthcoming, colonial peoples demanded their political and social

rights as British subjects.

For West Indians of colour these demands largely took the form of attempts to combat their

long-standing neglect by the imperial power. School-board members pushed for equal access

to secondary schools with what they considered superior British-style curriculums, legislators

called for lowered property requirements so more people could qualify for the franchise, and

social activists called for resources to meet welfare needs. In the mid-1930s labour organizations led serious uprisings across the West Indies that eventually forced the British Parliament to

address the daily circumstances of colonial peoples in the Caribbean and elsewhere through the

1940 and 1944 Colonial Welfare and Development Acts. War also provided an opportunity for

colonial subjects (particularly in India) to campaign for greater political rights on the strength of

their demonstrated devotion to the empire’s needs (Banerjee 2010; Rush; 2011).

As World War II ended, questions of national identity and citizenship became paramount

for both colonial subjects and native Britons. In 1947 the British government kept a wartime

promise to grant India independence and over the next two decades Britain would also make

good on its promises of expanded self-government and independence for many other colonies. Colonial subjects thus turned their attentions to constructing national identities. Colonial

nationalism could be broadly inclusive, as expressed in the Jamaican motto ‘out of many, one


Imperial citizenship in a British world

people’ although this did not necessarily mean that such states created egalitarian social structures. It could also reject outright even the idea of inclusiveness, as in the case of South Africa’s

settler regime, which, having discontinued voting rights for black and ‘coloured’ South Africans

early in the century and enforced spatial segregation and control in the interwar era, in 1948

elected a white supremacist National Party that gave birth to the apartheid system. In the British

Isles, people also focused inwards, turning their attentions to extending the egalitarianism they

had been promised during World War II into the social realm of a nationally defined Britain

(Rose 2004).

Nevertheless, the concept of British imperial citizenship still existed and would, for a brief

dramatic period, take on the trappings of reality. In the same year as the National Party came

to power in South Africa, Parliament passed the 1948 British Nationality Act, creating British

citizenship, as such, for the first time. Under this act there were two ways a person was categorized as a British citizen: as a citizen of an independent Commonwealth country (at the

time Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Union of South Africa, India, Pakistan,

Southern Rhodesia, and Ceylon) or as a citizen of ‘the United Kingdom and Colonies’ (British

Nationality Bill 1948).3 The Act also explicitly stated that the two terms, British citizen and

British subject ‘shall have the same meaning’ and that the rights citizenship conveyed applied

equally to native Britons and colonial persons (British Nationality Bill 1948, Hansen 2000).

Parliament had finally moved to establish the legal status of British citizen – and made it crystal

clear that this status applied to subjects born in the empire and Commonwealth as well as to

native Britons.

But it was still unclear whether colonial subjects were considered citizens of the British nation

or the empire, or both. In discussions leading up to passage of the act, legislators agreed that no

distinction could be made between the peoples of the colonies and those of the British Isles

in terms of citizen status. Indeed, there seemed to be a strong feeling that the Commonwealth

should provide a political structure to nourish the cultural bonds with Britain that empire had

established. As one legislator, Lord Altrincham, put it, the act should bring the legal structure of

the Commonwealth in line with reality ‘and by “reality” I mean the way in which the King’s

lieges think and feel, both as nationals of their own country and as members of a world-wide

community’ (British Nationality Bill 1948).

Yet, in a world where citizenship implied national status based on one’s homeland, where did

colonial peoples legally fit? Unless they were residents of Britain, they were not British nationals, nor (with the exception of those in the Commonwealth) did they yet possess nationalities

of their own. The solution was to proclaim that British subjecthood (now termed citizenship)

adhered to residents of the United Kingdom and the colonies as well as the Commonwealth. The

suggestion was that British nationality was – and in fact always had been – achieved through

subjecthood, an idea that reflected the understanding of British imperial citizenship that had

been articulated by colonial subjects since the nineteenth century.

For the members of Parliament who passed the 1948 Act, the need to retain links with white

colonials in the Commonwealth was paramount. Yet, as the development of British identities

in India, southern Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of the empire suggest, the communal

‘reality’ Altrincham recognized as belonging to white colonial subjects had also been claimed by

many colonials of colour.

As to the question of why Parliament should have chosen this particular time to pass a law

that seemed simply to reconfirm the existing rights of British subjects, including the right to

enter and leave the British Isles at will, for British West Indians, at least, the answer was simple.

Caribbean Britons had long relied on migration to supplement the lack of opportunities in their

homelands, but at the time faced a tightening of immigration restrictions – often with clearly


Anne Spry Rush and Charles V. Reed

racist objectives – both in the United States and in non-British territories in the Caribbean.

They thus saw the 1948 Act as a helping hand reaching out to them from their mother country

(Putnam 2012). In the wake of the Act’s passage West Indians led the way to Britain, with a

former troopship, the Empire Windrush, bringing some of the earliest arrivals that same year.

West Indians were joined by Africans and, from the mid-1950s, South Asians, until by 1961

some 350,000 dark-skinned colonials had taken up residence in Britain.

While the intent of the 1948 Act had been to support a viable Commonwealth that, regardless of the ethnicity of its residents, encompassed all colonies as they gained independence,

legislators had not imagined that it would prompt an immediate influx of colonial people of

colour to Britain. If anything, they had expected to attract white colonial subjects to do the

many jobs available in the British Isles. The traditional demographics of the mother country had

long fostered among native Britons the assumption that a true Britain was white. It had thus not

occurred to legislators, or to native Britons more generally, that colonial subjects who were not

white might consider themselves potential British nationals (Paul 1997).

The passage of the 1948 Nationality Act ensured that, for a brief period in postwar Britain,

the ethnically defined national citizenship that stemmed from empire and was expounded most

vigorously by white colonials, such as those in South Africa, lost out to the idea of inclusive

imperial citizenship endorsed largely by colonials of African and Asian descent. Yet the new

arrivals’ legal status as British subjects – imperial and national – did not prevent them from facing

serious discrimination in Britain (Gilroy 1987). The unofficial ‘colour bar’ prevented them from

finding work commensurate with their qualifications, limited their access to housing and educational opportunities, and, in some cases, led to violence, most notably in a series of white attacks

on blacks living in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill in 1958 (Phillips and Phillips 1998).

Moreover, as the South African context has suggested, ideas of Britishness as an exclusive

identity based on ethnicity could all too easily develop into a legal reality of unequal citizenship rights. It is not, then, surprising that, faced with racial tensions in Britain, Parliament passed

immigration restrictions designed to curtail the entry of people whom many native Britons

saw not as fellow citizens but as dark strangers. The first limitation came in 1962 when the

Commonwealth Immigrants Act ended the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter Britain

at will (Spencer 1997). Although the British state continued to extend imperial subject/citizen

status to colonial subjects for the few years that most of them would be without their own

nationality, it would no longer provide for them what is usually considered the most basic right

of citizenship – access to the national home-place.

The provisions of the 1962 Act applied equally to white and black colonials, but legislators’

discussions made it clear that it was a racially motivated attempt to solve what, at the time, was

referred to as the ‘colour problem’ (Spencer 1997, Paul 1997). In 1968, the racial intentions of

legislators became clearer with the passage of a second Commonwealth Immigrants Act that

allowed only colonial subjects with grandparents who were British residents the right of entry

to the British Isles, thereby ensuring that most white colonial subjects had the right to live in

Britain, while excluding virtually all dark-skinned colonials. For the first time, Parliament had

passed a law that – without saying so explicitly – made the right to claim British citizenship contingent on ethnicity.The era of inclusive British imperial citizenship, and indeed British imperial

citizenship in any legal sense, was over.

Conclusion: the legacy of imperial citizenship

Yet this is not the end of the story. The imperial conception of citizenship would continue to

have complicated effects in the postcolonial era. In the same decade as the British Parliament


Imperial citizenship in a British world

restricted the rights of overseas subjects of colour to enter Britain and in direct response to the

‘imperial citizens’ who had already arrived, it also passed the Race Relations Acts of 1965 and

1968, outlawing discrimination on the ‘grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins’ in

the British Isles (Webster 2012). Although the race-relations discourse that accompanied these

Acts had a disturbingly paternalistic tinge (Waters 1987) this recognition of the rights of black

Britons can be seen as an extension of the racially inclusive concept of imperial British citizenship developed by colonials in the empire. As such, it allowed those colonials of colour who

resided in Britain – and their children – a legal basis for their insistence on their rights as national

Britons (Rich 1986).

In the 1980s and 1990s, even as further immigration legislation reinforced the shift of state

policy to prevent dark-skinned peoples from entering Britain, that second generation loudly

insisted on their rights as black Britons (Gilroy 1987). Despite frequent opposition, their voices

were heard, not least because of the confirmation of their status as British citizens provided

by the 1948 Act. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, although struggles continued,

social reality had shifted to incorporate the non-racial ideal of Britishness that those first arrivals

brought with them. Increasingly Britain not only was, but saw itself as, a multicultural nation

with fully fledged citizens of all ethnicities.

The legacy of imperial citizenship in the newly established postcolonial nations is harder to

track, not least because scholars and politicians have concentrated on national development without looking squarely at the colonial past. Yet preliminary research suggests that a focus on these

national societies in the light of at least some of their peoples’ past embrace of imperial identities

can be fruitful. As Dubow (2009) has shown, even after the Union of South Africa declared itself

a republic in 1961, the legacies of British imperial citizenship continued to shape the politics and

identities of certain subgroups in South African society. Nelson Mandela, the first democratically

elected president of South Africa, admitted in his biography to feeling a continuing attachment

to Britain, and his ANC government chose to rejoin the Commonwealth in 1994. Work that

explores the role of Britishness in Caribbean peoples’ understanding of themselves as citizens of

their new nations has begun to illuminate the backlash against respectability that has often been

framed as a simple struggle between ‘blacks’ and ‘browns’ and may even, as Deborah Thomas (2011)

has suggested, lead to insights into how to stem the violence that haunts so many of these societies.

The political and cultural legacy of British imperial citizenship continues to resonate in

ways that do not square with an uncomplicated association between citizenship and nationalism. This makes sense, for although citizenship based on national birthright or naturalization

emerged as the normative mode of political belonging of the twentieth century, there is nothing

inevitable about the political and cultural supremacy of a citizenship model based on the nation

(Hindess 2000). Indeed, some scholars have argued that, on the cusp of the twenty-first century,

the nation-state was being replaced by a ‘new configuration of sovereignty’ – an ‘Empire’, as

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri term it – in which multinational organizations and states

dominate the economy and global politics, and where ‘boundless networking’ creates new

forms of citizenship (Hardt and Negri 2000; Hayes et al. 2010). If this is indeed the case, investigation into the complex ideas about citizenship that peoples of modern empires produced and

identified with are at least as important as attention to the nation-state in understanding the past,

present, and future development of citizenship.


1 Imperial citizenship refers to the political and cultural idiom developed by colonial subjects to articulate

their understanding of their constitutional rights and position as legitimate claimants of British status.


Anne Spry Rush and Charles V. Reed

Though not legally codified by Britain’s government, it was a concept used by Britons of all types as they

worked to make sense of their status within the imperial/transnational framework of the empire.

2 In this chapter imperial identity does not refer strictly to identities produced at the metropolitan centre –

from the traditional definition of imperium from the Latin (the extension of power/authority) – but to a

British-imperial culture created by a people of the British Isles and by colonial subjects overseas.

3 The British Commonwealth (from 1949, the Commonwealth of Nations) was instituted in 1931 as a

voluntary association of autonomous states with their own legislatures and governments, united only by

the British monarch, who was defined as the monarch of each state individually. Upon independence

each former colony had the right to choose whether or not to join the Commonwealth.


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(ed.), Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 122–60.



Global gods and local rights

Venezuelan immigrants in Barcelona

Roger Canals

Since 1990, Barcelona and its surroundings have witnessed an influx of immigrants from Latin

America and the Caribbean. In this chapter, based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in

both America and Europe over the last ten years,1 I aim to analyse this diaspora from a citizenship perspective, focusing on the role of Afro-American cults in the migratory processes of

Venezuelans in Barcelona and in the claims they make for cultural, political, social, and legal

recognition. Using this specific case, this chapter shows how religious practices can achieve a

decidedly political role – both in the private and public spheres – during migratory processes.

But before analysing two specific rituals carried out in Barcelona, it is important to define what

Afro-American cults2 are and how these are associated with the notions of transnationalism,

diaspora, and global citizenship.

Afro-American cults today

The term ‘Afro-American religions’ refers to a group of rituals and beliefs which are found

in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the southern part of North America, and which are the

result of the convergence of at least three cultural sources: African religions, Christianity (mainly

Catholicism), and, in some cases, the sacred practices of indigenous cultures (Mintz and Price

1976). These religious practices began to emerge in America after the Spanish conquest, as a

consequence of the mass deportation of African slaves from West Africa to the New World.

Over time, African, indigenous, and European beliefs mingled. This led to the creation of original religious manifestations. It is also worth mentioning the role that esotericism and spiritism

have played, from the twentieth century, in the creation of many of these new Afro-American

religions. The Afro-American cults include Santería, Umbanda, Palo Mayombe, Candomblé,

Voodoo, and the cult of María Lionza, among others. Today, these religions are widely practiced

in both rural and urban settings by individuals of all social classes – although they are especially

popular among the lower classes – and physical appearances (whites, blacks and mestizos).3 These

religious practices have important repercussions in the economic, medical, and family spheres,

among others.

Given their complex and hybrid nature, these Afro-American cults have often been classified

by anthropologists and historians as ‘syncretic cults’, a concept originally created by Melville


Global gods and local rights in Barcelona

J. Herskovits (1895–1963). Nonetheless, the use of the notion of syncretism in its restrictive sense –

that is, to differentiate one type of cult from another – is problematic and has been widely criticized

(Yelvington 2006). The main criticism suggests that if we regard a cult as syncretic when it is

the product of the fusion and resignification of heterogeneous influences, then we must necessarily accept that all religions – and, effectively, all cultural manifestations – are also syncretic.

Therefore, there are no syncretic religions because there is simply no such thing as pure religion

(that is, religions which are not syncretic): every cultural fact is the result of a historical process

or, as Lévi-Strauss (1966) would say, the consequence of some type of ‘cultural bricolage’.

Of course, while all religions are syncretic, they are not syncretic in the same way. In this

sense, Afro-American religions have two key characteristics which help to show why they pique

the interest of academics today and how they are associated with the study of global citizenship.

First, the compound and dynamic nature of religion in these cults is particularly explicit and,

more importantly still, increasingly recognized by its own followers. Indeed, if we observe one

of these religion’s altars, we can very easily and clearly identify diverse elements of Catholic,

African, and indigenous origin. Moreover, and in contrast to other religions that have remained

more closed and stable over time, Afro-American religions are extraordinarily dynamic, constantly integrating new elements or modifying their practices to adapt to present demands.

Second, we should underline the intrinsically global nature of these religious practices (Lorand

Matory 2009). Afro-American cults, and Caribbean culture in general, emerge at the juncture of

three continents: America (indigenous culture), Africa (slaves), and Europe (Christianity). To a

certain degree, this makes them transnational cults in and of themselves and one of the first results

of the process of worldwide interconnection which we now call globalization (Scher 2010:

245). To this we must add the process of internationalization which these cults are experiencing,

which has led to their presence not only in America, but also in Europe and beyond. AfroAmerican culture appears, to a certain extent, to be an inherently cosmopolitan culture4 given

the plurality of heterogeneous influences which can be found in the rituals and participants’

capacity for constantly incorporating foreign elements (see Fog Olwin 2010).

It is, without a doubt, for all of these reasons that academia’s perspective on this type of religion has shifted notably, especially since the late 1980s. If these were once highly undervalued

and regarded as minor cults, associated with witchcraft and black magic, they are now increasingly

appreciated as paradigmatic examples of the plural and dynamic nature of the religious experience

in the early twentieth century (see Baer 1992) and, from a more general standpoint, as a kind of

metaphor for the postmodern condition, based on the deconstruction of the unequivocal concept

of subject and on the criticism of the ‘great narratives’ (Lyotard 1979) of the Enlightenment.5

It is not only academia that has changed its approach to Afro-American cultures. If we analyse

recent literature on the subject, all evidence indicates that, from around 1990, the perceptions

and interpretations of the followers of these religious practices underwent a radical transformation. Effectively – and in part as a result of the influence of recent studies by anthropologists,

historians, and other social scientists – a growing majority of these believers have become aware

of the fact that they practise increasingly popular religions which are appreciated precisely for

their syncretic and transnational nature. To a certain degree, they realize that they – and, making

a historic transposition, all those who have practised these cults in the past – have, without their

knowing, been global citizens ahead of their time without having enjoyed the political rights

which should be derived from this condition. It is also important to take into account that the

believers are highly aware of the fact that the terms ‘hybrid’, ‘mixed’, or ‘transnational’ are

becoming increasingly appreciated today and even highly valued. Take, for example, the importance given to fusion and blending in the art world or popular music, as well as in increasingly

popular political claims in favour of universal rights and against racial and cultural essentialism.


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