Today Argentina is not known for having a large black population.
Being a country of Europeans is a deep part of Argentina’s national identity. The census stopped recording race in 1869. A bit more than 80 years later, when Josephine Baker visited, she was surprised at the absence of black people. So she asked Ramón Carilio, the dark-skinned minister of public health, where the black population lived. Carilio felt free to joke, “There are only two — you and I.”
When Era Bell Thompson visited Argentina in 1973 to report on the black population there, she recorded one Argentine’s ironic complaint about the United States: “Argentines are lumped in with all the rest of the Spanish-speaking peoples, even though we are white.” She had no problem finding black people, but she described them as “Not a viable, but a vanishing black people: relatively few in numbers, relatively free of racial discrimination and relatively content.”
Even now, some Argentines still joke — admittedly with some accuracy — that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish and wants to be British. This view of Argentines is not only in Argentina: in 2001, when María Lamadrid visited Panama in 2001, immigration officials refused to believe that a black woman could actually be Argentine.
But we know that colonial Argentina was heavily African! A census of Buenos Aires held in 1778 revealed a black population of 35%. (See Luis Wainer, La Ciudad de Buenos Aires en los Censos de 1778 y 1810.) As late as 1855, local B.A. surveys recorded race. George Andrews (page 41) estimated the total African population of Argentina in 1800 to be 69,000, roughly 22% of a total population around 310,000.
So what happened to all the black Argentines? In comments, Luciano suggests that Argentine governments may have engaged in genocide, conscripting blacks to disproportionately fight in the War of the Triple Alliance and live in disease-ridden neighborhoods.
The genetic ancestry data cited in the last post, however, shows only about a 4% presence of African genetic markers. That is a lot less than 22%! Does that provide evidence of some great genocide or expulsion in 19th-century Argentina?
The Argentine-born population of Argentina grew by about 2.0% per year between 1800 and the first national census in 1869. (The link goes to the census; the data on the Argentine population is on page 686.) That is only slightly lower than the 2.2% rate of natural increase in the United States between 1800 and 1870, as estimated by Michael Haines. (See Table 1.) We know that the rate of natural increase in Argentina was 1.3% per year in 1869-95 and 1.6% per year in 1895-1947, so 2.0% for 1800-69 is likely on the high end. (We have no direct observations of the 1800 population; the 310,000 is an educated guess.)
If you assume that the Afro-Argentine population should have grown at the same rate of natural increase as the overall population, then you would have expected about 1.1 million Afro-Argentines by 1947, roughly 7% of the total population of 15.9 million. Intermarriage would not change the expected prevalence of African genetic markers: it does not matter if 7% of the population is of purely African descent or if the entire population has 7% of their ancestors from Africa. In other words, the mass immigration from Europe and the Levant can explain 15 percentage points of our estimated 18 point drop in the proportion of African ancestry.
That still leaves a mystery, because 4% is lower than 7%. But it is a much smaller mystery. One possibility, of course, is that Afro-Argentines suffered differentially high mortality due to actions by the Argentine state.
But there are other possibilities that should first be eliminated before we conclude that President Domingo Sarmiento presided over a great crime. It may be that the 4% estimate of the proportion of African ancestry in the Argentine population is too low. More likely, our estimate of the 1800 population may be too low: if there were actually 450,000 people in the country in 1800, then the expected proportion of African ancestry would be 4% today.
There is a lot of room for more scholarship. But the mystery is smaller than the headline figures would indicate ... and there may well be no mystery at all.