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It is often asserted in the academic literature on Uruguay that the presence and role of Africans in the development of this nation are overlooked.citation needed However, Afro-Uruguayans greatly contributed to their country’s economy, society, and culture. First, they were the slaves, peons, and artisans whose toils allowed for Uruguay’s economic development between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Second, African Uruguayans were the soldiers whose blood and sacrifices forged an independent nation-state from a Spanish colony, and defended that independence from foreign invaders, first Great Britain and then Brazil, during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Third, black Uruguayans were the musicians, writers, and artists whose works enriched, enlightened, and entertained their fellow citizens from colonial times to the present. Moreover, even the very symbols of nationhood in the River Plate, namely, the tango and the gaucho (cowboy), were influenced by the genius of Africans and their New-World descendants.
For most of the colonial period, the port of Buenos Aires (see contribution on Afro-Argentines) served as the exclusive entry point for African slaves in the River Plate. Spanish mercantilism sought to limit the ready access of slaves and other goods entering the New World by strictly regulating trade. Slaves entering the port of Buenos Aires, after passing a health inspection, where then regularly shipped inland, to Córdoba and the northwestern provinces of Salta and Tucumán, across the Andes Mountains to Chile (see contribution on Afro-Chileans), and to the mines of Potosí in Alto Perú (now Bolivia). The dearth of native workers in the region (unlike in Mexico and Peru), the Spanish elite’s disdain for manual labor, the need for domestic servants as social-status symbols, and the constant demands for manpower in the mines of Potosí combined to stimulate the trans-Atlantic and internal slave trades in the River Plate during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Exact figures of African slave arrivals in Uruguay for the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are imprecise, largely because of the contraband slave trade.
Candombe's origins lie in the "Kings of Congo" ceremonial processions from the period of African slavery in South America. Candombe is related to other musical forms of African origin found in the Americas such as Cubanson and tumba and Brazilian maracatu and congadas. The form had evolved by the beginning of the 19th century and was immediately seen as a threat to the elites, who sought to ban the music and its dance in 1808. Candombe is what survives of the ancestral heritage of Bantu roots, brought by the blacks arriving at the Río de la Plata. This rhythm traveled to Uruguay from Africa with black slaves, and is still going strong in the streets, halls and carnivals of this small enchanting country.