Central America: Variations on a Theme, Part Two

In Honduras mining was the most important industry, occurring originally near the Guatemalan border and in the interior. However by the 1540s, mining had shifted eastward toward the Rio Guayape Valley. Between 1540 and 1640 there were more Africans than Europeans, and in 1545 alone there were 2,000 Africans working the gold and silver mines. With continual slave rebellions from 1548 to the 1570s and near depletion of known sources of precious metals in the 1560s, the demand for Africans decreased. By that time other uses of slaves were developing, Africans were even placed in the militia as shock troops to crush slave rebellions in various parts of the Empire.

This history refutes the argument that people of African descent arrived from the Caribbean later, and were concentrated exclusively on the Atlantic Coast. Afro-Caribbeans as a defined group (garifuna) did not arrive in Central America (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) until the late 18th century with the rise of the British and the decline of the Spanish Empires.

The garifuna (black Caribs) originally came to Central America in 1797 from St. Vincent. They were expelled for fighting the English, exiled to Roatan province and concentrated in Trujillo, La Ceibe and Triunfo de la Cruz. In Honduras they are identified as a separate indigenous group. On the Atlantic side there are also the Black creoles of Bay Islands who are English-speaking and Protestant.

El Salvador has a history similar to that of Honduras. After an intense mining period, indigo became the major export from the 1570s to the middle of the 18th Century. In 1551 there were only 400 Spanish males in this area. Within twenty-seven years (1578) these men with a small group of Spanish women who had been sold by Alvardo to the colonists managed to reduce the Native population to 10,000 by sickness, plague and disease. Africans worked the Spanish plantations where sugar, cocoa and indigo were cultivated. Coffee was not a significant crop until the 19th century. Although labor-intense, indigo had a short season and reduced the number of Africans needed. By 1635, San Vicente was the center for the indigo trade and became an area from which slaves were sent to nearby plantations. Sizeable African communities at one time included Zacatecoluca (south of San Salvador), Chinameco (west of San Miguel), Ahuachapán and Sonsonate (west of San Salvador).

Based on Spanish law that native children were not to be enslaved, many Africans married Natives so that their children would be free. With no more Africans imported after a series of rebellions culminating in 1625 when importation of Blacks was banned, the population simply continued to mix within the defined area. It is estimated that approximately 10,000 Africans were brought to this nation over the years. In the 1930s the country banned Black immigration; the law was repealed in the 1980s. El Salvador is considered the most racially mixed country in the Western Hemisphere. In 1821, fifty percent of the population was declared “mixed” and today ninety percent. So mixed is the population that author P.J. O’Rouke quipped that Salvadorians could be described as “mestizo lite” because they tend to be less indigenous-looking than most Mexicans or Guatemalans.

Belize has a population that considers itself thirty percent descended from Africans. Their ethnic mix is African, Mayan and European. They have both a distinct creole and garifuna segment concentrated from Cayo to Belize District, and Stan Creek on the Caribbean coast. Belize City is the West African cultural center of the nation.

Like Argentina, Costa Rica, would like to tie its identity to Europe; only three percent of the population call themselves Afro-Costa Ricans. Coffee plantations challenge this small percentage. By projection in 1995, a more accurate breakdown was sixty percent European, thirty percent Native and ten percent African. In Guanacaste Province the population is a mix of Amerindians, African and Spanish with a heavy concentration of Afro-Costa Ricans in Limon Province.

Guatemala has the most organized groups of citizens of African descent. As in Honduras, two percent of the population identify themselves as Black. The areas where Afro-Guatemalans are most concentrated are Livingston, Puerto Barrios and Morales. This identity is directly related to the Afro-Caribs and mulattos, but does not take into account the presence and mixture of Africans originally from the Spanish Empire.

Nicaragua, because it was a British protectorate in its recent history before independence, has a population that identifies more with Jamaica and other English colonies. Without hesitation, it declares itself at least nine percent Black. This nation has the highest percentage of people who admit to being Black and proudly claim Carib, Angolan, Congolese and Arawak as parts of their heritage. They are concentrated in Orinoco, La Fe and Marshall Point.

Panama because of its history is better suited in some ways to be folded into Colombia when relating its Spanish colonial history. Today it is a combination of Afro-Colonial Spanish and Antillanos of the Caribbean. There are regions on the Caribbean side which are Black English-speaking, and separate Native districts like the Cuna Islands, and the land-based districts which resemble more closely the rest of mestizo and mestizaje Central America. Fourteen percent of the residents are thought to be descended from Africans. Originally Panama was most characterized by its role in Spanish transport and shipping. Today it is indelibly defined by the Canal.


Text: Slavery and Abolition by Lowell Gudmundson

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