Black Women in History: A Nineteenth Century Image of Black Beauty From Lima, Peru 

By Stan Solomillo

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This albumin print of a young Afro-Peruvian woman is in the Library of Congress and was taken in front of a painted landscape in a photo studio in Lima, Peru in 1868 by Courret Brothers, Photographers (Courret Hermanos Fotogs).  The woman’s name was unfortunately not identified but her occupation as an “Incense Burner” was provided.

Slavery was legalized in Peru in 1524, finally abolished in 1854, and there was a population in the latter year that numbered some 17,000 persons.  There had been far greater numbers.  An earlier census in 1791 enumerated 40,000 slaves along with 41,398 “mulattos and free blacks” and another census in 1821 recorded similar numbers.

Africans arrived along with the Spanish in Peru as early as 1529 and the indigenous Inca were enslaved as a result of Conquest in 1536.  The Inca population collapsed during the first 50 years of colonial rule.  Of the 6 million recorded in 1525 there was a mere 1.5 million remaining in 1571. As a result, African labor largely built the country during its first 300 years as a colony and slaves were brought to Peru in increasing numbers.  By 1640 there were some 20,000 Africans in Lima alone and they accounted for one-half of the city’s population.  (They were later supplanted by Chinese [1847-1874] and Japanese indentured laborers [1899-1923] in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).

African slaves were held not only by Hacendados (agriculturalists) but also by members of the middle class.  A free black population developed in Lima that was largely urbane and recent scholarship on letters of manumission indicates that many women (and men) purchased their own freedom.  Consequently, the woman in the photograph solitarily stands as a free woman of color.

Whether the clothes were her own or studio props can only be conjectured.  She is impeccably attired in what appears to be a silk dress with brocade and a lace shawl.  She holds in her hands an ornate handled plate with an incense burner that is formed in the shape of a bird.

Contemporary images of Peru do not typically include members of its Afro-Peruvian population, but there is a large amount of recent scholarship about their contributions to the history and development of that country as well as others in South America.  They are well worth reading (some of them are listed below) and provide ample opportunity to further explore your Latin American roots.


Blanchard, Peter.  Slavery and Abolition in Early Republican Peru.  Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1992.

Gomez, Michael.  Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Moslems in the Americas. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 2005.

Hunefeldt, Christine.  Paying the Price of Freedom: Family and Labor among Lima’s Slaves, 1800-1854. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

U.S. Library of Congress.  https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b26046/

“Negro incense burner in Peru” (1868).  From Recuerdos del Peru, vol.1, by Courret Hermanos Fotogs. The book is part of a two volume souvenir photo album containing “several views of Lima, Arequipa, Callao, Arica, La Paz, and portraits of muleteers, bullfighters, Andean Indian peoples, and a gaucho.”  Accessed 07 February 2015

_______.  https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2006679702/  Accessed 07 February 2015

https://lati-negros.tumblr.com/post/78029169256/fylatinamericanhistory-negro-incense-burner-in  Accessed 06 February 2015

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